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Peter Cuthbertson: Time to rebut post-Brexit myths

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Everyone has a right to be disappointed if an election doesn’t go their way. But let’s not allow some dangerous myths to fester, unrebutted. Among them:

 

Michael Gove said we’ve “had enough of experts”

There’s a reason that most critics don’t quote Gove’s sentence in full. What he actually said was: “I think 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.”

Gove was right. Expertise should never be an unanswerable argument. It’s a wonderful thing for its potentialconsequences – it can often lead a person to make solid arguments and provide good evidence for a point of view. Even better if it is combined with good judgement.

But there are also experts who conspicuously sneered at anyone who saw Iraq, the euro or the sub-prime mortgage markets as disasters waiting to happen. Their expertise was ultimately worthless when it counted – and people should always keep an open mind about the possibility of experts making these mistakes.

There’s another point to be made on experts. Overwhelmingly, people become recognised experts in a field because it’s their source of income.

The lawyer or council leader complaining about funding cuts or the doctor objecting to a new contract may be reflecting nothing more than their own expertise. Or they may be led to their conclusions by financial self-interest (however unconsciously). For most people, both factors will play some part.

None of us can read their minds. So the only way to know the difference is to reject arguments from authority and examine experts’ arguments on their own merits. Gove was right to do just this.

 

All Brexiteers should have one agreed plan

For a while this was seen as a killer argument. Then on 15th June the Vote Leave campaign released a detailed action plan. Now the argument has resurfaced that because Conservative leadership contenders, among others, are expressing different views, this reflects a failure in the Brexit case.

In fact, the idea that all prominent Leave supporters agree one common set of post-Brexit policies wasalways an impossible demand. The Leave campaign incorporated Conservative, Labour and Ukip representatives – even the occasional Liberal Democrat. There is no reason to expect Michael Gove, Kate Hoey, Nigel Farage and George Galloway to agree to the equivalent of a party manifesto. It would be equally unreasonable to demand David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron to agree to a common set of policies, had Britain chosen to Remain.

What both sides agreed on among themselves was the right answer to the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. Beyond that, they had different visions of how the country should be run, and rightly so.

 

The young voted overwhelmingly to remain

Even if true, this would be of limited importance unless anyone wants to disenfranchise the middle aged and elderly. Louise Mensch has admirably covered the appalling ageism some have shown.

But in fact, a large majority of under 25s abstained.

Cuthbertson Turnout Graphic

So low was turnout among the under 25s that the over 65s were actually a lot more likely to have voted Remain (one in three) than the under 25s (one in four).

Certainly few under 25s voted Leave, but to present an abstention as a positive vote for a certain side or candidate (Remain in this case) is arbitrary and ultimately renders elections meaningless.

 

Leave voters regret it

‘Bregret’ is a rather catchy phrase, and you can find the odd amusing YouTube clip of uninformed people saying they regret how they voted. But is there a great mass of people feeling this way?

Opinium found only 7 per cent of Leave voters actually regretted their vote. This compares to 3 per cent of Remain voters. Seven per cent isn’t that much higher than the normal margin of error in opinion polls.

If everyone voted accordingly, Remain would gain a net 700,000 votes – and still lose decisively by 600,000 votes.

The same low numbers apply to the Washington Post’s suggestion that Leave voters didn’t know what they were doing. Their headline was: “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it”.

In fact, fewer than a thousand people did this – in a country of 65 million.

 

People’s concerns about immigration don’t really count if their area hasn’t experienced high levels of immigration

To thunderous applause and cheering on the BBC’s Any Questions, Kenneth Clarke recently attributed the vote to fears about immigration in areas “where you couldn’t find an immigrant anywhere in the place”.

Even just theoretically this point is baseless. When did it become an established principle of democratic politics that someone’s concerns can’t extend more than a few miles beyond their house? What a selfish country it would be if this was actually true.

Perhaps the view is really that if only these voters knew what immigration is really like they’d change their minds. But just because you live in one place hardly makes you entirely ignorant of other parts of your own country. Indeed, residents of Darlington or Torbay tend to be a lot more familiar with London and other big cities than the other way around.

Could it be that, far from not knowing any better, some voters looked in an informed way at areas of the UK that have experienced the greatest mass immigration – and voted “No, thank you”? If you disagree with those voters, fine – make the argument. But don’t dismiss theirs based on their local immigration statistics.

The view also reveals a dangerous complacency. If concerns about immigration are resolved by even more of it, it implies that we can easily clear the chasm if only we put our foot more firmly on the accelerator. Politicians risk a lot of entirely preventable racial tension, and an unimaginably unpleasant political backlash, if it turns outthat voters don’t change their minds about immigration once immigrants arrive in sufficiently high numbers. This links to a final myth…

 

We can tackle concern about immigration without tackling immigration

I spoke to a number of convinced Remainers throughout this year. What convinced me above all else to vote Leave was their lack of answers on immigration. I stood in a marginal Parliamentary seat last year, I told them. I heard more reasonable, non-racist concerns about immigration than I heard about all other issues put together. If Britain stayed in the EU, how could politicians address these concerns?

I heard a variety of responses, but one view they seemed to share was that when it came down to it, voters didn’t really mean it.

Some seemed to think anti-immigration views are extremely brittle. One of them told me that voters worried about control of our borders should realise that when he flew into Heathrow the other day there were in fact signs saying “Border Control”. As a Leave Tory MP said to me afterwards, I’d love to see him try that line on the doorstep.

Many believed that minds would genuinely be changed if only we had a ‘public debate’ about immigration, as if all it would take is a few more politicians’ speeches praising diversity as the source of all strength. (Do they realise how insulting that sounds in less diverse areas of the country? Are these areas all backwaters? Was the whole UK always one historically until the Windrush? Is Japan one now?)

Others were more realistic. One Labour MP said she’d had a similar experience to mine when campaigning in her constituency, but hoped that it was merely a proxy for concerns about public spending. She talked about the need to invest in areas most affected by immigration. Many more have talked about how greater spending on local public services and housing is the answer.

The problem here is not only that concerns about immigration go beyond resources and economics. Indeed, the level of concern in areas not experiencing high immigration strongly suggests this.

It’s also that when asked about housing, or the NHS, or schools, voters nearly always say that immigration concerns them more. You don’t have to rely on anecdotes from the doorstep. Look at Ipsos Mori’s issues index, which goes back decades. Immigration is far from voters’ only concern, but for over a decade, immigration has been the most commonly mentioned. Occasionally, it’s in second place – sometimes even third place. Usually it’s top.

The only time immigration has fallen down the rankings is when it’s been at comparatively low levels.

Politicians can’t change voters’ minds about immigration. But they can respect their views and change immigration levels. An electoral landslide probably now awaits the politicians who do this.

(Image: Garry Knight)

Peter Cuthbertson is a public affairs consultant. In his spare time, he runs the Centre for Crime Prevention, a non-profit aimed at reducing offending and reoffending. In 2015, he was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for his home town of Darlington, achieving one of the best results in the country against a sitting Labour MP.

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Peter Cuthbertson
Peter Cuthbertson is a public affairs consultant. In his spare time, he runs the Centre for Crime Prevention, a non-profit aimed at reducing offending and reoffending. In 2015, he was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for his home town of Darlington.

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