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‘It’s the Stupidity, Stupid’: Brexit and Populism

As the London stock market falls behind Paris for the first time, Matthew Gwyther looks at the real inner causes of Britain’s decline

Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Unleashing Britain’s Potential speech following the UK’s exit from the European Union. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

‘It’s the Stupidity, Stupid’BREXIT & POPULISM

As the London stock market falls behind Paris for the first time, Matthew Gwyther looks at the real inner causes of Britain’s decline

We cannot say we weren’t warned by our friends. In a rare note of support for UK PLC from the New York Times a while back, their lead commentator Thomas Friedman wrote: “The United Kingdom Has Gone Mad. The problem with holding out for a perfect Brexit plan is that you can’t fix stupid.”

Friedman and his more sensible countryfolk know stupid when they see it – their wayward rivals voted Donald Trump into the Whitehouse who nearly brought the republic down on January 6 2021.  

As we hear repeatedly that our economy has been frazzled by the fallout from 2016 and, just to take one example, the stock market in London has now fallen behind Paris in size for the first time ever,  I find myself thinking more and more about that word “stupid.” 

The final thrash of that madness was Truss and Kwarteng’s abortive Growth, Growth, Growth push three months ago that saw the pair of them consigned to the dustbin of history before they’d even got their parking permits.

Make no mistake about how serious September’s foul-up was. The mini budget’s effects shouldn’t have seriously wounded a G7 government bond market. But it did. We’ve been reappraised by the global markets who were willing, up until then, to give us the benefit of the doubt post-Brexit. Truss’s legacy will be adding the concept of the “moron premium” to our fiscal rectitude.

Rishi Sunak’s Party Fears There is Less to HimThan Meets the Eye

Adam Bienkov

Now we’re left with Rishi Sunak, a supposedly more competent ex-Goldmans banker in a Prada suit, to sort out the mess. And yet he remains a Brexit true believer. Someone who peddled the myth that the one act of breaking free from the EU was going to return us to the sunlit uplands of warm beer, powdered egg, leather on willow and our rightful place on a globe where great swathes were coloured Brit imperial pink.

Just get it done and everything will be sorted as we “unleash our potential” and “unchain” Britannia.  All will be well and all manner of things will be well. 

Sometimes it’s actually very hard to plumb the depths of stupidity that got us here.  If you look at charts of what were the most important issues on the minds of the average Briton in the elections pre-2015 the EU hardly features. (Bill Cash and John Redwood with their decades-long unscratchable itches are not average Brits, for which we must be thankful. They’d been muttering and plotting away, bats in their belfries, since the 80s.)

Strip away the guff about trade, sovereignty, fish quotas, curved bananas and blue passports and all that’s left, all that’s ever left, is our problem with Others or bloody foreigners. Our malaise is their fault. Our bad times for those sitting on the Red Wall must be the fault of foreigners. Populism must have a hate object – something at which to direct the spumes of bile. 

It’s true – populism is thick. Supremely unintelligent, it doesn’t connect the correct dots. Brexit populism is especially so – it’s self-indulgent, childish, and decadent. A surfeit of angry,  toddler-like emotion lashing out over reason.  Like the bizarre, schmaltzy wave of unearned emotion that submerged us following Diana’s death times ten. 

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The Tyranny of the Majority

In a study commissioned by Britain’s Online Privacy Foundation and analysed by scientists at Missouri University, researchers gave 11,225 volunteers psychological tests before the EU referendum and asked how they intended to vote. Results suggest that leavers tended to be less numerate, more impulsive and more prone to accept the unsupported claims of authoritarian figures.

“Compared with Remain voters, Leave voters displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy and appeared more reliant on impulsive thinking,” said the researchers.

When questioned about these results by The Times Nigel Farage said the research was, “divisive and arrogant. Remain voters may have higher IQs but I’m not sure many could boil an egg or set up a business. The authoritarianism line is strange, as leave voters want to be free, while remain voters back an undemocratic, authoritarian regime.” It’s not just IQs, Nigel. Elon Musk has one of 155. 

The grave shortcomings of populism are precisely why we dare not have a UK referendum on the death penalty, prison sentence lengths for Islamic taxi-driving sex offenders or whether fuel tax should be reduced to zero. You cannot trust the mob, especially when its blood is up. The gilets jaunes in France first started burning tyres and flinging rocks at the riot police when the price of diesel went up. Robespierre knew all too well how much the average Frenchman loves cracking a few skulls to get things off his chest. 

The Powerful LureOf the Soft Fascism Within

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Plato is an unfashionable thinker – far too authoritarian for most 21st-century minds. But for him the key problem was epistemological: most people – “the many” – had no knowledge of truth and no clear thinking about justice in their minds. Democracy did for even intelligent citizens by leading them to dumb down their policies in order to pander to ignorant crowds.

When they got together “in assemblies, courts, theatres, army camps, or any other common meeting of a multitude,” the Athenian demos, Plato reports, would “blame some of the things said or done, and praise others, both in excess, shouting and clapping; and besides, the rocks and the very place surrounding them echo and redouble the uproar of praise and blame.”

After the grim excesses of the French revolution Edmund Burke declared: “Of this, I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.”

(Remember the balance of the EU referendum vote: 52% to leave, 48% voted to remain. A swing of 2% the other way – just one in every 50 voters – would have produced the opposite result.)

Closer to our own era, in 1942, Joseph Schumpeter, a man who knew life-changing upheaval (he was born in Moravia and raised in Vienna before moving to the US in 1932 to teach at Harvard) accurately summed up the strange results of blending a liberal democratic faith in public opinion with marketing methods refined by behavioural scientists.

“What we are confronted with in the analysis of political processes,” he wrote, “is largely not a genuine but a manufactured will.” Something Cambridge Analytica understood well. 

Brexit is almost certainly forever. The Labour Party lacks the spine to question its foolishness and the general population believes there are more pressing issues with which we all have to deal.  It’s not a phase we’ll go through and get out of our system. It was a disastrous choice and we’re stuck with its lead in our saddle because 52% of our number got hot under the collar and mistakenly thought they’d found the cause of all our woes.  The true cause is within ourselves not outside our borders. 

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