Are the Remain commentariat ignorant or insincere? Or both?

Are the Remain commentariat ignorant or insincere? Or both?

Not long ago there was a vogue for the work of the American experimental psychologist, Professor Jonathan Haidt. The professor writes about the psychology of moral and political beliefs. Part of his thesis is that left-wing and right-wing sentiments are not symmetrical.

He says if you get a group of right-leaning folk to write down in factual terms what they think their left-leaning opponents believe, you will find they can on the whole give a passable exposition of them; they can describe views which they do not share, and identify points of difference. They can respect their opponents’ rationality, even while reaching different conclusions.

However, if you ask a group of left-inclined folk to write down what they think their opponents believe, they cannot do this in factual terms, falling instead into derision and scorn. The professor claims this as more than a mere impression; he says it is an experimental finding.

Can we accept the professor’s asymmetry? That must be judged by others better qualified than myself. But he stirs striking echoes of a similar asymmetry in the Brexit debate.

People who want to leave the EU seem on the whole to have a passable understanding of why the UK applied to join it in the 1960s and 1970s, and why some still want us to stay in it today. They recognise their opponents’ arguments as rational, even if fallible. On the other hand folks who want to stay in the EU seem unable to engage in debate on the same level.

The Remain commentariat (media, interested professionals, politicians, multinational businesses and other vested interests) when faced with arguments for leaving, do not seek to meet or rebut them, but instead take refuge in personal disdain and abuse. When they are not deriding “swivel-eyed headbangers” or even (to quote a former Prime Minister) “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, they are denouncing the majority of voters as “extremists”. Their strategy is apparently to avoid any possibility of serious argument getting on its feet and the strategy reaches a sort of culmination in the claim that when the majority voted to Leave, that fact alone demonstrates that they did not understand the issues, for which reason alone their votes ought to be discounted. That strategy makes reasoned debate impossible because one side rules out reason a priori.

Two examples will illustrate this:-

Firstly, Leavers always understood their opponents’ hope that the EU would give Britain the benefit of a “wide home market”. Leavers countered that this argument belonged to the 1960s, when everyone’s home market was isolated by a high tariff wall and the choice was whether to live within a wide home market or a narrow one. Today that case for membership has largely vanished because those tariff walls have themselves largely vanished, creating a world which is itself akin to a “worldwide home market”. Today the most vigorous economic growth has been shown by the countries which have liberalised and are trading worldwide.

In different circumstances, this could have led on to a reasoned two-way debate, with some serious points to be made on both sides. Will global trade liberalisation last? Is it now destined to go into reverse? Will Trump last long enough to see the regional tariff blocs of yesteryear rebuilt? If so, which one(s) would Britain join? Will that re-create a case for EU membership? But that debate has not occurred: the Remain commentariat has never grasped the significance of the vanishing tariffs: rather than meet that new situation with new arguments, they have preferred to abuse their opponents, even to the extent of deriding their internationalist arguments as if they were a form of isolationism.

Secondly, Leavers have acknowledged another element of their opponents’ case: many of them supported the Single European Act in the 1980s, creating the Single Market; they agree that product standards are best defined internationally. But they counter that the EU is required by international law to administer the Single Market without discrimination and to extend its benefits to Third Countries as well as to Member States. They observe that while the Single Market was meant to accelerate the growth of intra-European trade, it seems in the event to have, if anything, held it back: Britain’s trade has grown much faster outside the Single Market than within it.

In different circumstances this could again have led on to a reasoned two-way debate, with points for consideration on both sides. Why has the Single Market failed in its mission to spur intra-European trade? Are its advantages nullified by regulatory overkill, or in some other way? Why has the trade of Third Countries seemed to gain more from it than that of European Member States? Can intra-European trade revive? Again that debate did not occur. The Remain commentariat could not bring themselves even to acknowledge the Single Market’s failure, still less turn their minds to account for its causes. And as ever, their substitute for argument is insult and abuse.

Both illustrations demonstrate the Remain commentariat’s ignorance of the most fundamental facts at issue: ignorance of the long and deep worldwide dismantling of tariffs; ignorance of the Single Market’s failure to spur intra-European trade. This is not ordinary ignorance, because of course these wise people, had they wished, could have informed themselves from public sources. It is much more of a psychological phenomenon, as Professor Haidt warned us. The Remain commentariat’s ignorance of their opponents’ case seems wilful. They cannot answer it because they will not acknowledge it. They seem unable to bring themselves to recognise the facts of today’s world, seeming to trust in derision where argument fails. So in the end, the greatest ignorance is ironically found in those most eager to accuse their opponents of it.

Following the General Election, with a Withdrawal Agreement imminent and Brexit itself in sight, one wonders where the Remain commentariat will now turn. Was their abuse ever sincere? Were their fears ever genuine? If so, will they now exert themselves, after Brexit, to keep British policy facing in an outward direction globally? Will they be lining up in support of free trade everywhere and against all forms of isolationism? What is the best policy on product standards, in a country that seeks to trade in every corner of the world?

Sadly, we know the Remain commentariat can only continue to evade such issues. They will never try – they will never even want – to see Britain make a success of Brexit. And this brings out the depth of their insincerity. Or as Professor Haidt might put it, the asymmetry of the argument.