Few will have forgotten the hysteria Michael Gove, then justice secretary, provoked when he declared: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
It was the summer of 2016, the United Kingdom was debating the pros and cons of leaving the European Union, and a culture war that had long been brewing started to reveal its full shape and size: the elite vs the people; experts vs the working man; Brexiteers vs Remainers.
In the eyes of Remainers, Gove’s apparent contempt for expertise displayed exactly what sat at the rotten core of Brexit: a disregard for evidence and facts; the prevalence of irrationality; a lack of respect for academic rigour. And even though Remainers went on to lose the referendum, they claimed they did so with the moral and intellectual authority on their side.
Meanwhile, many Brexiteers nodded along with Gove, finding it distasteful that a group of self-appointed experts had hijacked the conversation, claiming exclusive insight into the question of Britain’s EU membership, and telling everyone else what to think and say. Plenty of people also found it patronising that these so-called experts – whether it was a pious academic, or a civil servant in horn-rimmed glasses – seemed to believe their arguments were endowed with a divine authority.
What Gove was really trying to say – he has since clarified – is that experts are liable to get things wrong too sometimes.
That his comments were wildly hyperbolised and weaponised by both sides is revelatory of something deeper. There is huge political currency right now in dismissing expertise, and in lambasting the so-called elite, confecting a divide between the glasses-wearing number-crunching losers in London and your average Joe on the high streets across Britain.
The heartening resurgence of faith in our experts – though heralded by global crisis – is worth celebrating
Gove’s comments, at the time, at least, appeared to be a classic populist gesture straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook. How dare these people in their ivory towers look down us? And tell us we’re wrong? They don’t know what it’s like to be us!
This erosion of faith in expertise – and with it the establishment of the crass “people vs experts” dichotomy – was not set in motion by Brexit. But as the referendum neared ever closer the extent of the phenomenon was thrown into sharp relief, aided by the media’s ecosystem.
Those who had never read the Good Friday agreement would happily spout their views on the operation of the Irish Border on breakfast radio; those who had never encountered a trade negotiation in their life expressed their hastily thrown together views on the World Trade Organisation on TV; and those who could not explain the structures on which the European Union functioned were happy to dismiss the whole thing as anti-democratic. Experts were falling out of vogue.
It is perhaps unsurprising that it took a global crisis – of truly unprecedented proportions – to redress this troubling phenomenon. But as coronavirus takes its hold on the world, we have mercifully been spared the media landscape we faced under Brexit.
There will always be a few: Elon Musk declaring the “coronavirus panic” to be dumb; the few vocal anti-vaxxers stopping at nothing to warn you of the evils of modern vaccines; the wellness industry peddling its latest homeopathic-immuno-boosting-crystal-healing fad.
But for the most part, when it comes to questions of science and medicine people seem far more submissive to expertise; far less inclined to claim the authority to wax lyrical on their latest theories; and far quicker to exalt the doctors, scientists and researchers on the frontline.
Amid the global anxiety it is good and right that we are seeking refuge in expertise; that we are listening to Tony Holohan and the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty instead of random punters; and it is predictable that we are turning to doctors and scientists and medical officers to explain to us what is happening, providing us with a source of comfort and to an extent allaying the very human anxieties we are sharing about death and sickness.
And there is simply less space for bluster and windbagging in the media when confronted with the immediacy of a pandemic: people are dying, people are under quarantine, and the economy is suffering. We need to listen to the experts and we don’t have time to tolerate the latest crackpot theory from the telegenic buccaneering ideologues endemic to the British media.
It is a small relief in an otherwise troubling time. And while it remains to be seen whether it will have any lasting impact, the heartening resurgence of faith in our experts – though heralded by global crisis – is worth celebrating. When we return to normalcy perhaps too will our conviction in our experts wane, leaving space yet again for the punters and the blaggers. But for now, at least, we have realised them to be indispensable.