Brexit and the Death of Reason

They call it “Optimism Bias” or, more technically, “Unrealistic Cognitive Bias” and it is the tendency for human beings to believe in a positive outcome for themselves and their relatives and friends in times of crisis. Before I looked it up I always thought of it as the “edge of the volcano” syndrome; the phenomenon where people choose to disregard a vague existential threat in favour of the comfort of their immediate surroundings. This is perhaps why so many Jewish intellectuals left it so long before deciding to flee Europe in the 1930s, why so many Syrian professionals and academics put up with the Assad regime until it was too late. It is certainly an appropriate description of the disease which has gripped my country over the last few weeks as popular support for a “No Deal” Brexit grows like bacteria in a Petri dish.

Why “No Deal” for heaven’s sake? An economic, political and sociological disaster that looms in the face of mounting evidence of the country’s complete unpreparedness. We have no food security, a totally inadequate infrastructure, no trade deals, no solution to the Irish border question and no political unity; not to mention a “just in time” manufacturing culture and a vastly scaled-down military. Crashing out of the EU just won’t work, it can’t work and yet it is not just the Russian bots that are causing such a collective swing towards catastrophe. What else can be going on?

I have followed as much of the mainstream news outlets and commentaries (patronisingly intellectual, usually with a Remainer bias) as I could stomach and offset this with self-enforced exposure to the tabloid rhetoric (emotive, anti-expert and staunchly Brexiteer). Nor have I flinched from plumbing the sordid depths of the Internet troll habitat (post-truth, hate-fuelled, xenophobic, misogynist, I don’t need to go on). I think I have identified some of the fantasies that are sustaining a dose of the worst case of “optimism bias” since the augers of Pompeii looked up at the smoking mountain and pronounced that everything would be alright provided someone sacrificed a couple of goats.

At the top of the list, of course, is the Statesman Special: the sovereignty fabulist who’s dream is to rise up out of the chaos and lead the country back into the halcyon days of blue passports, warm beer, cold showers and cricket on the village green. This vision of a Britain (or, more likely, an England) that never really existed fuels support for Boris Johnson and his crew despite the fact that they are well known to have insulated themselves against a post-Brexit Armageddon with personal fortunes, international business ventures and substantial off-shore holdings. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment company even offers a Brexit-survival package; Mr Churchill must be turning in his grave.

Next I would like to give the stage to Mr and Mrs Dunning-Kruger*, I don’t know how many people there are in this category but I suspect that they made up a substantial portion of the “leave” voters and are growing in numbers all the time. {Probably a good reason to give up hoping for a reversal of sentiment in the event of a second vote}. This is the fantasy of the Evil Empire of Brussels which has never ceased trying to impose absurd regulations about such traditionally British food additives as listeria, tuberculosis or CJD. There is a great deal of room for improvement in the EU and it has not always served us well but when financiers, manufacturers, academics, doctors, and senior people in two such diverse occupations as the police and the arts are all telling you that crashing out is a bad idea, your distrust of experts has become pathological. Tragically, it is now manifesting itself in the accusation that these advisors are all just attempting to undermine the results of the referendum.

We have two versions of the survivalist daydream: the first being the Dunkirk Spirit fantasy of plucky Brits, getting by in a crisis, of neighbours coming to one another’s aid, of keeping chickens and growing vegetables in the backyard. “Keep buggering on” and there will be “blue skies over the White Cliffs of Dover” but, actually committed to the page, this would be risible if it wasn’t such an insult to all the people who suffered and died in World War 2. To have a wartime fantasy you need a wartime enemy and where do these fabulists think you they are going to find one? Just a glance at some of the repulsive, hate-filled rhetoric that passes as on-line debate will give us a clue. Death threats and overt racism against neighbours are becoming mainstream. So much for “Their Finest Hour”.

And while we are on the subject of East Kent: last week I travelled the A256 from the Isle of Thanet to Dover. This is the main artery which joins one of the busiest sea-lanes in the world to Manston Airport, a large, muddy field where we are promised we will be able to park thousands of lorries while we “sort out the paperwork” before they head off to the Channel Ports. As if I didn’t already know that much of it is a single carriage highway in a poor state of repair, I took the opportunity of a social call to see it again with my own eyes. I blinked back the tears as I took the accompanying photograph**. Back up the coast from Dover, the port of Ramsgate has given a contract to run ferries across the English Channel to a company without any boats. Locals could have told them that the harbour needed dredging before it can be put back into operation and I doubt that the opportunist’s memories are long enough to recall that it was EU money that refurbished that very same harbour some twenty years ago.

The second type of survivalist is the Netflix Nihilist: pumped on a diet of post-apocalyptic mini-series where an intrepid band of A-listers defeat the hordes of hungry “others” by means of a blood-soaked weapons-fest, these are mostly of the extremist political persuasion. But the fact that they are mostly American should not blind us to just what Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League or his counterparts on the extreme left have got in mind for anyone who gets in their way “come the revolution”. It’s a very ugly “thinning of the herd” fantasy and you don’t even need to go on the dark web to find it. If you happen to like sci-fi (and I do) then every time you get on-line to try to get news about your latest escapist indulgence you will see just how popular such dystopian delusions have become.

Now we turn to The Rescue fantasy: the Europeans are just bluffing and will come round at the last minute, we can call on our English-speaking allies in Ireland, Canada and Australia and we still have the good old Commonwealth. India will come to our aid. When they all see how beset our poor little islands have become they will magic away their current trade networks and put aside their own economic interests to make it all alright after all. No chance. Most of these countries are indeed our allies, and many of their commentators are deeply saddened by what we are doing to ourselves but their leaders all have their own interest to represent and I’m afraid that the best the citizens of a “No Deal” post-Brexit Britain can hope for is a friendly welcome to our most gifted and highly qualified refugees. That’s refugees from Britain, if anyone is paying attention. The India/African nations subset of this fantasy is particularly distressing in the way it blithely overlooks the effects of several hundred years of rapacious colonialism. it’s rather similar to the way in which many abusers believe that their victim is still beholden to them.

The next one I have recently heard described as the “mouse riding on the shoulder the American eagle” scenario: the USA just can’t wait to be our friend, once we are rid of those tiresome European neighbours we can venture boldly into a whole host of new dealings with our oldest and bestest friends. Really? Without doubt there are those in the United States who are waiting with baited breath for the rich pickings that an economic collapse will bring: the asset-strippers and the carpet baggers are poised for a rush of take-overs to say nothing of a military machine which has its eyes firmly on the opportunity to turn a subservient UK back into one of its strategic bases. No, I’m afraid this metaphor collapses faster than any of the others, so I shall spare my readers any more allusions to carnivorous predators and simply observe that we were probably better off with President Obama’s ineffectual commiserations than we will be with a Trumpian take-over.

“What does she know of all this?” I hear my readers ask. Well, I’ve lived a long time, read an awful lot of books and travelled in more remote regions of the world than most of my interlocutors have even heard of. Not for nothing did I visit and try to comprehend the beleaguered cities of Detroit, Bhopal and Sarajevo in the space of a single year. An American academic once looked at my website and said dismissively “well, you’re an anthropologist” as if my travel writing was of little interest to her. Actually, I remember being told many years ago, as a young recruit, that it was the fate of most police officers who truly cared about people to become an anthropologist eventually, so perhaps it’s not such a bad epithet after all. I do care, very much, and in the quiet of the night I have no fantasy to fall back upon. And I am afraid.

* Dunning-Kruger: a tendency to overestimate one’s own intellectual capacity, especially in areas where one has little or no understanding.

** This is a picture of a nearby country road, NOT the slush-covered A256

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