Political fairy tales 

When we are children we crave simplicity. We don’t want long and involved explanations, we want goodies and baddies, princesses and witches, children and wolves. We want fairy tales that tell us that however desperate and complicated things look, everything will turn out all right in the end. We can have the happy ending if we just believe

And that’s OK. Young children obviously don’t have the cognitive ability to deal with ambiguity, multiple variables and uncertainty. They need simple, common-sense stories that help them navigate a confusing world. 

But it’s not OK when we carry that craving for simplicity into adulthood. The world is not simple. Life is not simple, and to pretend it is not only prevents us from fulfilling our potential, but also risks us making costly and damaging mistakes that harm us and those around us. 

There are two areas that I think are a cause for concern in modern ‘western’ society – personal infantalism, and wilful political ignorance. I’ll explain why… 

What I am calling personal infantalism is embodied by the seemingly increasing trend for people to prop up their fragile psyches with reassuring and facile platitudes. Social media is awash with such things – an image of a beautiful tropical beach with a slogan that suggests all you need is [love/self-belief/true friends etc]. We seemingly have an overwhelming need to convince ourselves that everything will be all right if we just let go of our worries, banish the negative people from our lives and live in the moment. 

I’m tempted to quote Socrates’ ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, but I recognise that comforting self-deception is sometimes justified. We all go through difficult times when we need reassurance simply in order to keep going. But the problem comes when we try to turn this into a way of life. What to some people reads like positive, inspirational advice that will lead to a happier and more tolerant world, to me reads like meaningless ignorance that encourages people to ‘see the good in everyone’ rather than getting off their backside and doing something tangible to improve the world. 

It’s maybe not so important when we do this kind of thing in our everyday lives. It’s not like it is a picture of a minion with a positive quote that is stopping me help build schools in Africa. But it is a big problem when we carry this craving for simplicity into the political arena. 

What has struck me about the recent general election campaign in the UK is the complete lack of acknowledgement from the main political parties of the real challenges of delivering policy in a complicated globalised world. Instead we have been fed simplistic solutions that will, apparently, make everything all right again. There has been no nuanced argument, just – trust in me and I’ll make it better. 

And the reason politicians do this, is because this is what we want. Voters never choose complicated uncertain policies, they choose the seemingly easy and simple path. Just look at the things that always get the masses nodding along in approval… 

All naughty children need is a smack, send the immigrants home, bring back grammar schools, bring back hanging etc etc. What the tell-it-like-is-is simple-common-sense brigade always fail to notice is that these kind of solutions never worked in the past and don’t work where they are still practiced now. Countries with the death penalty still have some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, insular countries still have economic and social issues. There is, unfortunately no magic bullet. There is no problem that can be solved by returning to the 1950s – globalised capitalism has made the world a much more complicated inter-connected place where simplistic solutions simply don’t work. 

However much we long for childish simplicity, the only way forward is to realise that the world is a complicated and confusing place and progress can only be made through well thought out, nuanced, evidence-based policies built on a strong basis of international consensus and co-operation. Anyone selling anything else is taking us for a ride. 

The blame merry-go-round 

The horrific terror attack on innocent concert-goers in Manchester on Sunday evening left me feeling physically sick. I can’t even begin to imagine what those young people and their families went through. I largely stayed off social media yesterday, partly because I couldn’t find any words that seemed anywhere near adequate to express my gut-wrenching sadness at the senselessness of it all, but also because I didn’t want to see the all too predictable pronouncements of the racist hoardes on Twitter. 

In the aftermath of any such violent attack, we all have a tendency to expound our theories about why it happened, who was to blame, and what should be done about it. Such rapid judgements, even from the most well-informed commentators, are highly speculative. But that doesn’t seem to stop a huge number of people confidently asserting that they know where the blame lies, and that they have a simple and radical solution that will solve the problem. In the case of this attack and other recent terrorist atrocities across Europe, the finger is confidently pointed, by some, at ‘Muslims’. 

It is not my intention here to add to the mass of speculation, but rather to make a comment about the dangers of supposing collective moral responsibility for such events. 

Even if we accept that there can be something like collective agency (the capacity for groups to act with a shared intention), it seems a massive leap to suppose that all individual members of that group share moral responsibility for the group’s action. We would not blame an individual bank clerk for the financial crisis nor all farmers for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. We commonly accept that some people bear individual responsibility to varying degrees, but that blaming an entire group simply punishes the innocent along with the guilty. 

Most of us recognise that it is absurd to blame millions of innocent people for the actions of a minority, but for those that don’t, perhaps it would be helpful to think about the implications of so readily assigning moral responsibility and blame to a collective. 

The first point to make is that, if you believe the entire group is blameworthy, you necessarily allow that the entire group is liable to be punished. That tends to be the way it works – punishment follows blame. The punishment of children, the elderly and the infirm sounds surprisingly like something most terrorist groups would advocate. 

The second point is that it is collective blame that got us to where we are now. It is the narrative that ‘the west’ is morally responsible for ills suffered by Muslims that allows terrorist groups to legitimise striking civilian targets. Assigning collective blame for real or supposed ills is what allowed Hitler to target ‘the Jews’, the British to hate ‘the Germans’, Islamic State to target ‘infidels’ and us to blame ‘Muslims’. 

By supposing collective responsibility and blame we fail to apportion the correct amount of individual responsibility and instead spread that blame across the innocent. We implicate the blameless in the actions of others and are then surprised when they do the same to us. If we are to avoid the blame merry-go-round we need to locate moral responsibility where it belongs. To do otherwise is a disservice to the victims of terrorism. 

The rational response to Linda

In my recent blog I mentioned that psychological experiments had suggested that humans routinely make fundamental errors in the application of logic and probability theory when faced with relatively simple questions. One such experiment is the ‘Linda test’, first devised and performed by Kahneman and Tversky in 1974, which showed that the majority of test subjects choose the wrong answer when asked to consider the following question:

“Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations”.

Which is more probable:

  1. Linda is a bank teller
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement

    A considerable majority of respondents choose option B – it seems somehow more likely that Linda would be a bank teller and a feminist rather than just a bank teller.

    However, as Kahneman and Tversky point out, this is an illogical conclusion – it can never be possible that a conjunction of events has a higher probability than either one occurring alone. If B is true – that Linda is a bank teller and a feminist, then it follows that A – Linda is a bank teller – is also true and must, on the grounds of simple probability, be more probably than B. For example, it can’t be more probable that I am a man from the UK than it is probable that I am a man.

    The error we are making here is known as a conjunction fallacy – because the conjunction of two qualities intuitively sounds more likely, we assume that this is the most probable answer. According to Kahneman and Tversky we are using a representativeness heuristic rather than logic and probability theory to make our decision. We are essentially using a ‘quick and dirty’ method of reasoning that picks an answer that seems more representative of Linda but which does not follow the mathematical rules of probability theory and so is theoretically less reliable for forming a true belief.

    The implication of the Linda test is that, if we agree that rationality consists in the application of logic, we must concede that the majority of humans are simply not rational. Indeed, subsequent psychological experiments have shown that test subjects continue to make these kind of errors even when they have had their error explained to them. This would suggest that not only are we not rational, but we are incapable of being rational.

    Of course, several elements of this argument are open to challenge. I won’t attempt to go into great detail on this, but we could feasibly challenge the assumption that rationality consists in the application of logic. Numerous psychologists have suggested that there may be other routes to making accurate reasoned decisions. Others have suggested that we use different methods of reasoning depending on the circumstances – for a simple everyday decision like whether to wear black or brown shoes we use the quick and dirty method (because the consequences are insignificant), but when we’re calculating the trajectory of a billion dollar space craft we’d better use proper mathematical logic. The problem with this is that there is a huge grey area between those two examples, and humans may well use the inappropriate method of reasoning for the circumstances.

    But, in my opinion, by focussing on such methods of reasoning, we often overlook the most rational response to the Linda problem – we should simply refuse to play. If we look at the description of Linda and the two options available we should instantly recognise that there is nothing to justify picking either A or B as the most probable option. Yes, probability theory dictates that B is more probable than A, but it could be equally likely that neither option is true. There is nothing inherent in the information provided that would give us any confidence that Linda is either a bank teller or a feminist or both. In my reckoning, the greatest fallacy in our reasoning is our decision to make a choice based on insufficient information.

    If the test included a further option of ‘don’t know’, then it is likely many respondents would answer this way, and they would be right to do so – it is no more probable that Linda is a bank teller than it is that she is a used car dealer. We are simply pushed into making an arbitrary choice based on limited data. Now, of course, the aim of the test is not to determine the most rational response – it is simply designed to test whether subjects can apply probability theory correctly. But subsequent psychologists and philosophers have used the choice of option B as an indicator of human irrationality. My argument is that a greater example of such irrationality is the fact that subjects picked an option at all. For me, the only rational response is to refuse to answer, to say ‘I can’t possibly make a choice based on the information before me’, the fact that people picked either A or B is the greatest worry here.

    Why? Well, in real world situations our willingness to make decisions based on insufficient information could be catastrophic. Just as picking the wrong method of reasoning can be problematic, so attempting to reason with dodgy data can be equally, if not more, dangerous. In certain situations we might have no choice – we might be compelled to act in one way or another in order to avoid some other undesirable consequence. For example, if someone is choking to death and two onlookers suggest different ways of removing the obstruction, it would be illogical to decide to do nothing on the basis that we are unsure of how reliable their proposed method is. Doing nothing will certainly result in the subject’s death, so either option has got to be worth a try.

    But, we often act on the basis of scant or unreliable information when we don’t need to, and even when the consequences are serious. We, as human beings, seem to have some kind of innate compulsion to act – something must be done! We appear to be so massively over-confident that our quick and dirty reasoning will work out all right in the end that we rarely consider the option of doing nothing. As mentioned in my previous blog, this rush to make a decision has serious implications for the functioning of an effective democracy. Democratic decisions can be literally matters of life and death, so we really ought to be sure that we are on solid ground before we put our little cross on the ballot paper. I recently heard of someone saying that they knew it was important to vote in the EU referendum but they didn’t understand the issues at hand so they just picked an option virtually at random. Surely the correct response to any question for which you don’t have sufficient information is ‘I don’t know’. To decide to play the game anyway and to give it your best shot would seem reckless.

    So what is the answer? Surely it is not right to tell people they really ought not to vote? In the run up to every election we hear cries of ‘it’s your democratic duty’ and ‘people died so you could have the vote’, so it would seem to be swimming against the tide to suggest the opposite. But to suggest that everyone should vote irrespective of whether they understand what they are voting for seems ridiculous, potentially dangerous and frankly undemocratic.

    My point is very simple – if one is going to lend credibility to a particular outcome, one ought to do so on the basis of sufficient information. If you are asked whether Linda is a bank teller or a bank teller and a feminist say ‘hang on, you’re going to have to give me more to go on than that’. And the same applies to our democratic decisions. We must not jump into making ill-informed choices simply out of a desire to fulfil our democratic duty. 


    The text of the Linda test taken from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201611/linda-the-bank-teller-case-revisited

    The value of democracy 

    My first experience of real democracy was casting my vote in the 1994 European Parliament elections in the UK. I was 18 years old. I had grown up in the Thatcher era, where the idea of not having an opinion on politics seemed unthinkable, so I was determined and excited to be able to exercise my democratic right.  My friend and I walked to the polling station and cast our votes for the Labour Party candidate.

    Although I would, just months later, be heading off to university to study politics, I confess that my knowledge of the issues in the election campaign was sketchy at best. I’m not sure I even knew the name of the candidate before I walked into the polling booth, and I’m pretty certain I never checked to see whether he won or not. But it felt like I had fulfilled some kind of duty, I had taken part in something that I thought was undeniably of great value – I had my first taste of democracy.

    But my view of democracy has changed recently. I am no longer sure that it has the intrinsic value I so readily assigned to it in my youth. I, of course, am not suggesting that democracy has no value or is undesirable, rather that it has no intrinsic value – it is not valuable in, and of, itself.

    To say something has intrinsic value is to suggest that its very nature is valuable irrespective of any other considerations. We might, for example, say that life has intrinsic value – indeed many may say it is sacred. Hedonists might argue that only pleasure has intrinsic value and that anything else only has value if it is instrumental in achieving pleasure.

    And it is this instrumental value that I would assign to democracy. I believe the practice of democracy is only valuable in the sense that it usually brings about more favourable consequences than alternative forms of political decision making. It would seem absurd to suggest that democracy held some intrinsic value if it routinely brought about terrible outcomes. Say, for example, that 51% of an electorate voted to exterminate the other 49% for fun. We would see no value in democracy in those circumstances. If an alternative system existed that would result in a more favourable outcome it would seem  illogical to still choose democracy even though it would result in mass slaughter. For something to be intrinsically valuable we should be able to say that we would always favour it, no matter what. So, democracy can clearly only be instrumentally valuable.

    So, the instrumental value of democracy resides in its tendency to produce sensible and fair outcomes. Allowing ‘the people’ to make the decisions supposedly ensures that potentially corrupt elites are held to account. And turning this into a form of representative democracy, where the will of the people is filtered through the knowledge and experience of an elected representative, supposedly protects us from mob rule – the tyranny of the majority.

    It seems clear that for democracy to be instrumentally valuable it must fulfil these twin responsibilities of keeping both the rulers and the ruled in check. So, how do we ensure that democracy fulfils these functions and retains its value? In my opinion the answer is participation and the application of reason. Democracy only works when the franchise is broad and where electoral turn out is high. Otherwise the legitimacy of the result will always be in question. But, more than that, the participation must be well-informed. To cast a vote with only a poor grasp of the facts, as I did as an 18 year old, is reckless and risks democracy failing to fulfil the goals that give it value. We must ensure we cast our vote rationally.

    However, empirical evidence from decades of psychological experiments shows that we, as a species, are incredibly bad at reasoning in a rational way. We routinely make fundamental errors in the way we apply logic and probability theory, errors that, if repeated in the real world, would have significant negative consequences. A huge number of us simply don’t seem to have the cognitive ability to make sound and rational decisions and we don’t even realise it – we’re all convinced that we’re thoroughly rational.

    Sure, we get through our day-to-day lives by employing a kind of ‘quick and dirty’ reasoning that allows us to get by – we don’t need to sit down and logically examine whether it’s a better to choose tea or coffee with breakfast. But we make a massive error if we try to apply such reasoning in situations where the stakes are high. Electing the wrong leader can literally be a matter of life and death, and it seems wholly inappropriate to make these kind of decisions in a way we know is potentially highly unreliable for truth. If democracy is to bring about favourable outcomes, it needs us to not only cast a vote, but also to ensure we understand the facts and apply logic to our decision making process.

    So, when we cast our vote in the forthcoming general election it is incumbent upon us to put aside personalities, preconceptions, trivial concerns and our arbitrary party allegiances and to instead examine and critically appraise the facts by applying logic. Failing to do so renders democracy valueless.

    Good or Bad Nationalism?

    Over the last year western democracies have witnessed a surprising rise in the success of the populist narrative. It would be wrong to call this wave of populism unprecedented, because we are all familiar with the vicious brand of populism that took hold in the 1930s, but it is certainly true to say that this current iteration has caught mainstream politicians, the media, and many ordinary people off guard. A year ago the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, and a Trump presidency would have seemed almost laughable, but today they are realities that are now discussed in terms of what further populist revolutions they might spawn. Geert Wilders did not manage to pull off a similar populist coup in the Netherlands, but the upcoming elections in France and Germany could see gains for the far right nationalist parties.
    It is probably important to make a distinction at this point between populism and nationalism. The two terms are often used interchangeably as they have a significant overlap in their messages and methods – both seek to capitalise on simplistic views and to offer simplistic solutions – but the key difference with nationalism is its determination to place the integrity and supremacy of the nation-state at the top of the political agenda. Nationalism is the politics of us and them – those who are members of our nation and those who are not. Couple this message with the prejudice of populism and it is easy to see how nationalism can quickly become divisive, discriminatory and violent. But can nationalism ever be a force for good?

    Nation-states are the status quo, they are how we all experience the world, and we are conditioned from an early age to cherish the piece of territory within whose imaginary borders we accidentally happen to have been born. Research often shows that we consider where we are born as one of the key indicators of our identity. Being born just a few miles on the wrong side of a line on a map can guarantee permanent outsider status. But, theoretically, there is no reason why we can’t love our country without the need to put it on a pedestal. Feeling part of a nation does not need to entail a belief that anyone outside that nation is somehow inferior. Many would agree that such a tolerant approach is desirable, but unfortunately, when push comes to shove we often seem preconditioned to put those within our country before those without, even if our compatriots share none of our personal values. For example, their is a sizeable minority who would happily withdraw all foreign aid, even if it means leaving foreign children to starve, so that we can ‘help our own first’ . We consider our wealth and prosperity as something that needs protecting against those who would take it away from us.

    This is the nub of the problem with nationalism. It really only works as a corrective or restorative system, one that seeks to ensure that all nations are able to enjoy equal self-determination and sovereignty. When it is used simply to raise one nation’s status to the top of the pack it becomes cruel and distasteful. Let’s look at some examples that distinguish between what might crudely be termed good nationalism and bad nationalism.

    It is only within the last century that much of the developing world has been able to break out of the grip of colonialism. Much of Africa, Asia and South America achieved independence from colonial rule through what might be called nationalist movements. In Algeria, French rule was often systematically brutal with dissenters being arrested without judicial oversight, tortured, disappeared or summarily executed. Although the French government considered Algeria to be part of France (rather than just a colony)  it was clear that ethnic Algerians were not meant to enjoy the same citizenship rights as their white counterparts from the motherland. From such inequality rose the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) , a nationalist movement whose aim was to re-establish the Algerian state and secure equality and sovereignty for its citizens. The FLN’s methods were also brutal,  and often indiscriminate,  but the moral weight of their cause was strong – it is hard to see how the racist subjugation of the indigenous population by its French overlords could ever be justified in the modern day. Re-establishing a nation in order to free its population from oppression sounds like an example of good nationalism.

    Contrast this with the recent nationalist rhetoric of the Trump election campaign and presidency. Again, the aim is supposedly to restore justice and give the population back something that they believe has been taken from them – to ‘make America great again’ . But the key difference here is that America never stopped being great, its people have not been subjugated and its autonomy has not been stolen. The USA is still the richest, most powerful nation on earth where even its least advantaged citizens enjoy a better quality of life than much of the developing world. This is evidenced by the continual stream of migrant workers desperate to escape the grinding poverty of their home countries in order to fulfil even the most menial jobs the US economy has to offer. America is not a poor down-trodden nation that needs corrective action to bring it back to a par with the rest of the world – it is the equivalent of a rich man complaining that one of his servants has stolen a dime from his loose change jar and demanding that the whole household is horse-whipped until it is returned.

    Trump’s brand of nationalism is purely protective – it literally aims to prevent outsiders from sharing in American wealth. It is not restorative or corrective, it does not right any wrong, it simply and cruelly reasserts America’s right to sit at the top of the pile. This is the inhuman nationalism that arbitrarily determines people’s life-chances based on whether they were born on one side of the wall or the other. I personally see brexit in the same light – an attempt to regain some former greatness, but doing so not by hard work and our own efforts but rather by sharply drawing a distinction between us and them and jealously guarding the riches that those outsiders have helped us to amass. I concede that this view is arguable, but it is clear to me that brexit fits more easily into the angry rich man who doesn’t want to share category than the oppressed man who simply wants to be treated as an equal.

    The picture I have drawn is polarised. There are, of course, numerous examples that fall between these two poles. Scottish and Welsh nationalism are cases in point (I intentionally avoid including Irish republicanism here because I couldn’t do it justice). None of these nationalist movements can realistically claim they seek to free a subjugated people (at least not in the terms discussed in the case of Algeria), yet it is certainly true that these nations have endured historic oppression and continue to be ruled by a government based in, and largely composed of representatives from, another country. How do Plaid Cymru and the SNP fit into my differentiation between good and bad nationalism? I’m not sure I have the answer to that, but it brings me to my final point… 

    Nationalism is dangerous. Once unleashed it is hard to control, contain or reverse. Almost all instances of historical nationalism, whether good or bad, have resulted in some form of violence, whether it is the FLN bombing French bars in Algiers, the Serbian army massacring ethnic Albanians in Kosovo or simply the spike in violent hate crime precipitated by brexit. Once the genie is out of the bottle it is notoriously difficult to get it back in, and often requires blood letting before people come to their senses. The good nationalism of Gandhi soon became the bad nationalism of a nuclear-armed India versus a nuclear-armed Pakistan. So the real question is not whether a particular form of nationalism is good or bad, but rather where it leads, whom it empowers and what the human cost will be before its job is done.

    No mandate for Single Market exit


    When we all voted in the EU referendum on 23rd June 2016 there was a simple question on the ballot paper – Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? There were no specifics on the when and how we might enact Brexit. There were no intermediate options that might allow the electorate to specify what elements of EU membership were valuable to us and what we wanted to ditch. Had there been a third option of, say, ‘leave the EU but stay part of the single market’ I suspect we may be in different territory today. But, we are where we are, and Theresa May’s government now has to decide exactly what they have been mandated to do.

    We will put aside the arguments about whether such a slim majority gives them a genuine mandate to do anything, and instead focus on the main argument currently facing the PM – does she have a mandate to take us out of the single market in order to control immigration into the UK?

    May has repeated refused to ‘give a running commentary’ on her Brexit plans, but all the recent noises suggest that she is resigned to a hard Brexit – one where we completely leave the single market – both its benefits and its restrictions. I’m sure she still holds out a little hope that we may be able to negotiate some kind of favourable deal that allows us to control immigration and still have relatively unfettered access (the ‘cake and eat it’ scenario), but pretty much everyone realises that is highly improbable for all sorts of reasons.

    Indeed, the majority of pro-leave MPs and commentators are starting to move to a position of ‘of course we’re leaving the single market – that’s what we voted for’ position. Their clear purpose is to suggest that leaving the single market was implicit in the instruction to leave the EU and that the British public was fully aware of this.

    Of course, this won’t wash with Remain voters, or, presumably, the people who voted Leave for reasons other than immigration control. We all know that the Leave campaign rhetoric was very much focussed on the ‘cake and eat it’ option. We were told that we could have a Norway or Switzerland style arrangement where we were outside the EU but still part of the EEA. Indeed, the official Vote Leave campaign had membership of the European ‘free trade zone’ as a key plank of its policy.

    When Remain campaigners pointed out that this position was unrealistic, they were accused of scare-mongering and told that the EU27 would be falling over themselves to do a favourable deal so that they could continue selling us prosecco, brie and BMWs. Yet, there are no signs of any cracks in the EU’s resolve to uphold the primacy of the four freedoms.

    Irrespective of whether such a deal is possible (it isn’t), my point is that it is entirely disingenuous for the PM to cherry pick which referendum promises are of value to the British public without actually asking them. To put immigration control at the top of the agenda is to ignore a huge swathe of the British public who have other priorities in terms of what we get out of Brexit. We were told quite clearly that leaving the EU would not cause us economic harm (that was all just ‘Project Fear’!), so I would contend that maintaining economic stability is at least an equal priority.

    The retort from pro-leave voices is that any such assumptions are now void – we voted to leave the EU and we can’t stay in by the back door. However, that argument is completely unsound. If promises and assumptions about economic prosperity and funding for public services are now irrelevant then, by extension, so must promises and assumptions about immigration control. All sorts of promises were made by both the Remain and Leave campaigns upon which people based their vote. But the simple fact is we voted to leave the EU – we did not get a further option to name our priorities. Therefore, Theresa May’s choice to prioritise immigration is at best arbitrary, and at worst a betrayal of all the voters who believed that this was about freedom, democracy and prosperity.

    There is no mandate for leaving the single market. The PM’s decision to focus on immigration is not based on an instruction through the ballot box. It is based on the familiar rabid rantings from the right-wing press, on the never-ending noise from the Tory back-benches, and on a weakness of will that makes it easier to capitulate to a popular misconception than to set the record straight on immigration.

    We are on the verge of making a decision to crash out of the largest trading bloc on the planet based on little more than an assumption about what the British people want, even though polling shows that the majority of people are unwilling to accept personal economic hardship in order to reduce immigration. Throwing away our full and unfettered access to the single market will, by any credible analysis, be a serious economic own goal which will hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest (many of whom voted Leave in the expectation that the opposite would be true). It may be the case that our economy will readjust, adapt and recover, but this will take years, decades maybe, and most economists still predict that we will be permanently worse off. There will be a lot of pain in the intervening time, and there is clearly no mandate for voluntary economic hardship.

    It is not too late to change direction. However, such a change will rely on moderate Leave voters making their voices heard. We can leave the EU if we must, but there is no reason why we have to leave the single market. Freedom, democracy and sovereignty are not damaged by accepting free movement and paying into the EU budget. It would be our sovereign decision to do so. It is time for us all to remind the Prime Minister that immigration control was but one of the issues debated during the referendum campaign, and that the ballot paper did not ask us to put any one of the myriad of promises at the top of the agenda. Economic prosperity, free trade with Europe and support for public services were also promised, and it is time for Theresa May to deliver what is in the best interests of the country as a whole, not just those to whom she owes her premiership.

    Taking aim in 2017

    I reproduce below an extract from Thomas Nagel’s article War and Massacre, first published in the journal Philosophy & Public Affairs in 1972, that I think quite nicely sums up why recent election campaign tactics have failed and why voters are seemingly becoming increasingly disaffected with the perceived spin and obfuscation associated with ‘the establishment’.

    Nagel’s article, as the title suggests, is primarily about morality in war and the unpleasant side effects of relying on consequentialist reasoning, but he uses a rather prescient analogy about election campaigns that could have almost been written with Clinton Vs Trump in mind.

    Suppose that you are a candidate for public office, convinced that the election of your opponent would be a disaster, that he is an unscrupulous demagogue who will serve a narrow range of interests and seriously infringe the rights of those who disagree with him; and suppose you are convinced you cannot defeat him by conventional means. Now imagine that various unconventional means present themselves as possibilities: you possess information about his sex life which would scandalize the electorate if made public; or you learnt that his wife is an alcoholic or that in his youth he was associated for a brief period with a proscribed political party, and you believe that this information could be used to blackmail him into withdrawing his candidacy; or you can have a team of your supporters flatten the tires of a crucial subset of his supporters on election day; or you are in a position to stuff the ballot boxes; or, more simply, you can have him assassinated. What is wrong with these methods, given that they will achieve an overwhelmingly desirable result? 

    There are, of course, many things wrong with them: some are against the law; some infringe the procedures of an electoral process to which you are presumably committed by taking part in it; very importantly, some may backfire, and it is in the interest of all political candidates to adhere to an unspoken agreement not to allow certain personal matters to intrude into a campaign. But that is not all. We have in addition the feeling that these measures, these methods of attack are irrelevant to the issue between you and your opponent, that in taking them up you would not be directing yourself to that which makes him an object of your opposition. You would be directing your attack not at the true target of your hostility, but at peripheral targets that happen to be vulnerable.

    There are two key observations I’d like to make about Nagel’s argument. The first is that he was writing over 40 years ago and, as such, the way political campaigns were conducted and reported was somewhat different. The means that Nagel describes as ‘unconventional’ seem largely par for the course these days. It is the norm for political campaigns to be dominated by issues of personality over policy.

    The second point is to agree with Nagel’s argument about the irrelevancy of peripheral attacks.  What we have seen with Clinton Vs Trump and, to a lesser extent with Brexit, is that the electorate has become bored with the attempts to paint one candidate or other as the archetypal pantomime villain. People like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage thrive on this kind of publicity. It gives them the limelight, the opportunity to quickly brush aside personal attacks, and to push their message. While the Clinton team was going all out on Trump’s alleged groping, Trump himself was continuing to make the points that were connecting with ordinary Americans – jobs, immigration and security.

    It seems clear to me that the Remain campaign lost the EU referendum at least partly because it failed to tackle the real issues head-on. The briefing against Johnson, Gove and Farage, and the focus on potential economic instability obscured the real issues that concerned people – immigration and sovereignty. Had Cameron et al made a real attempt to explain and applaud EU democracy and co-operation, and to highlight the facts showing the massive contribution that immigration makes to the UK economy and society, the outcome may have been different. These issues were mentioned by the Remain campaign, but in such a half-hearted, uncommitted manner that they carried no weight.

    The focus on peripheral issues in an attempt to undermine the credibility of one’s opponents played a key part in elevating Trump and Brexit. If sensible mainstream politics is to regain its credibility it must ditch the consequentialist reasoning that tells us that the ends justify the means, and redouble its efforts to keep the focus on the issues that really matter. Using a military analogy would usually be inappropriate, but, as Nagel might advise, now is the time to clearly identify the target and aim carefully.


    Nagel, T. (1972) ‘War and massacre’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 123−44.