Opinion Articles

Historians are citizens, but their expertise is even more important

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Michael Gove’s now-infamous declaration during the 2016 European Union referendum campaign – that the British people ‘have had enough of experts’ – has entered folklore as a founding text of our supposedly post-truth politics. What he actually said was slightly different: that ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’. But the thrust was the same: disembodied bureaucrats in distant technical organisations – whether it be the EU, the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF – have become arrogant, detached from day-to-day life, enclosed in an impenetrable language of expertise. That call to defy governing elites – in many ways a cultural revolt, rather than an economic protest – carried the day in a way that shocked many university academics.

How should academics, and in particular historians, respond to this formidable challenge? The great majority of academics undoubtedly voted Remain, and assuredly reject the Govian approach to expertise itself. But if they want to answer back – as they should – the one thing they must not do is allow such narrowly political feelings to get in the way of reflexive, reflective, quiet and humble analysis. They should refuse to double down and expect the debate to come towards them. It is absolutely no good saying that Leave voters, Trump supporters, or members of the United Kingdom Independent Party have made the wrong choices. Far too much of the debate in political science and contemporary history still revolves around two interconnected ideas. The first, that voters have somehow been fooled or hoodwinked by nativist and illiberal forces, and might therefore reverse their opinions when the ‘true’ nature of their choices become apparent; and the second, that ‘we’ as expert observers must redouble our efforts to decode ‘their’ revolt against the system as many voters in the West have come to see it. If only we could convince and understand, academics think, maybe everything will be different.

Neither approach will wash. To take the Brexit referendum, the majority of Leave voters always knew that their decision might make the country rather worse off economically. They took that decision with their eyes wide open, trading some wealth for some sovereignty. Historians will be writing about that bus and that £350 million a week claim for decades to come. They weren’t decisive. Polling evidence now is quite clear: even if Brexit causes those voters to be personally worse off, or triggers a recession, most Leavers will still stand by their choice. Although there has been a faint trend towards Bregret since 2016, it is slow, shallow and unlikely to lead to a national reappraisal in the near future.

The second problem with much analysis is born of good intentions, but just as much of a trap. It is to try to ‘decode’ the views of Leavers (or, by analogy, Trump voters) in a way that gets at their ‘real’ anger and frustration. Left-wing writers, for instance, often write about Brexit as if it was a national revolt against falling wages and austerity – as to some extent it was – without also noting that Runnymede and Spelthorne in Surrey (possessing no-one’s idea of failing, crisis-ridden local economies) voted 54% and 60% respectively for Leave. It’s as simple as this: Leave could not have won by appealing just to ‘left behind’ voters in Hull, Staffordshire and Sunderland. It would have been buried in a landslide. Omitting wealthier Leavers from the story is an odd choice, for one thing because their views are normally extremely influential, and for another because exactly the same commentators often point out just how destructive, challenging and exacting the growing tide of globalisation really is. It should not surprise them that efforts to hide from social and cultural change appealed to many richer older voters, not just poorer ones.

Patronising attempts to second guess, or even to ‘explain’ and ‘interpret’ voters’ choices – rather than allow their own voices to drown out those of the interpreters – caused a more specific failure, one to which the present author will admit succumbing. This was an over-emphasis on blue-collar Britain. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, we all scurried to ‘find’ older, lesser educated, socially conservative white men over sixty who seemed to have caused those phenomena in (for instance) Lincolnshire or America’s Upper Midwest. But that blinded us to the sheer numerical scale and geographical scope of a powerful bloc of voters whose importance should have been just as obvious: an emergent ‘other’ Britain that is urban, cosmopolitan, multi-racial, young and liberal, which was overwhelmingly in favour of Remain, and which resents the Conservative Party’s attempts to portray quite a narrow referendum victory as justification for a ‘hard’ Brexit that ignores their views. Just as Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote in the United States, the 2017 General Election to some extent became a case study in the revenge of this ‘new’ Britain, denying Prime Minister Theresa May an overall majority and (more importantly) likely to dominate the polls in the decades to come.

Historians have a great deal to offer here. They are well equipped to stress both the economic and political causes of events: their eyes are open widely, both temporally and geographically, but still able to zoom in on any particular place or person that lights up the whole. They think, write and even (whisper the word) feel in humanist modes, perceiving, more deeply than perhaps they themselves would claim, the multifarious nature of all causation in human societies.

As such, historians can assist the experts’ case. We should redouble our efforts to behave as we teach our undergraduates to act: that is, surrounding ourselves with the voices of others, not to divine what we think they should have said or did say, but to listen to what they thought they were saying. This would allow the tools of specialist discourse that we academics use – by turns statistical, scientific, linguistic, and theoretical, and inevitably highly specialist – to become more like readable parts of respectful ongoing debate than inexplicable, opaque assertions.

We don’t have all the answers. And our specific observations and proposals are very likely to be much less important than our observed behaviour and ethos: most actual policymakers, as A.J.P. Taylor once famously observed, learn only ‘from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones’. However sharp our analysis or pointed our judgements, it is unlikely that policymakers will behave vastly differently in the years to come. But they – and voters, too – might respond to academic and historical professions that accept, wait and listen rather than as their first instincts always asserting, acting and speaking.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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