Jenny Saul on Brexit

Jenny Saul has written a fantastic piece over at Huffington Post about the complexities of Brexit. Racism and xenophobia are, she agrees, a part of the explanation for the success of the Leave campaign, and was doubtless a major motivator for some (though not all) Leave voters. But, she argues, it would be far too simplistic to explain Brexit as simply a matter of racism. There are other, complicated factors involved, including especially public (mis)perception of the economic implications of a Leave vote:

Many of the people voting to leave the EU genuinely blamed immigration for the starving of social services, which was in fact caused by Cameron’s austerity policies. Many of the people leaving the EU genuinely believed that the UK economy would be thriving and we’d be on top of the world if not for the EU’s fetters. Many people were excited by the thought of saving £350 million per week, and putting this money into the NHS (the most widely reported promise of the Leave camp, a promise already renounced). These beliefs were manifestly false, and regularly debunked.

But this, Saul argues, is where things get really tricky – and where the issues become ones that need to be thought through carefully, rather than dismissed simply as ‘Leave voters are xenophobic/racist’:

But either [Leave voters] never came across these debunkings or they didn’t believe them when they did. This fact-insensitivity is something that we must urgently pay attention to. And a key cause of it is something also urgently in need of attention: poor and working-class people have been told for decades that the experts in charge will look out for them. They have been made promise after promise about how free trade will actually help them, and about how lowering taxes on the rich will improve life for everyone. These promises have been revealed as patently false and cynically manipulative. Given this, it is completely rational for them to distrust the elites, including the politicians, bankers, and economists who have been forecasting economic doom from Brexit. . .But total distrust of experts means a lack of access to one of the most important sources of facts that there could be. And democracy only makes any sense at all when the populace is able to base its decisions on facts. We are at a crisis point here: Lies are being told, immigrants are being scapegoated, and there is widespread distrust of those trying to get the truth out. Somehow, we need to find a way out of this.

11 thoughts on “Jenny Saul on Brexit

  1. It is certainly rational to distrust politicians, but the Leavers were apparently willing to trust the ludicrously obvious lie of “Let’s give 350 extra Millions to the NHS”. So “distrust” is clearly not the reason for the Leave vote.
    I heard a lot of people:
    – complaining about the Euro-banana (as if there were no silly British laws ),
    – saying they want their laws to be made by British people (regardless of how good the laws are),
    – complaining the EU laws were made by people they didn’t elect (as they didn’t bother to vote),
    – and complaining about payments to the EU (failing to tot up the subsidies and grants flowing back into Britain).
    This isn’t about being lied to, this is being childish and irresponsible.
    Maybe democracy only makes sense if people are willing to inform themselves, weigh the evidence and make a responsible decision.

  2. Thanks for this, Jenny. It’s an important argument, with broad applicability. I’ve been arguing a similar point with respect to widespread, apparently irrational, and certainly cynically and explicitly manipulated, mistrust of science: insofar as science is embedded in institutions, its rational credibility rests on the trustworthiness of those institutions; and when they (we) act arrogantly, dismissive of the knowledge within marginalized communities, complicit in structures that maintain inequitable privilege, it’s not rational for people to trust what we say. We do need experts and expertise, but they need to be trustworthy, and arrogant expertise is not trustworthy.

  3. I agree we need trustworthy experts, but this is yet another simplistic explanation. People are not fact insensitive because they are lied to, but because they choose to be. They consistently choose to disbelieve only one side of the argument: the side they don’t want to believe.
    Part of growing up in our society is learning both to tell and to detect lies: Santa, social lies, lies to avoid punishment, advertising lies, political lies. “Read my lips” / “I want you to listen to me” / “Mein persönliches Ehrenwort” / “Plutôt perdre une élection”. (I’m not making the case that this is a good thing, but that it is a matter of fact.)
    I maintain that nobody really believed “350 Million for the NHS”, but there’s a Ronald-Laing-game going on:
    – I don’t believe it
    – but I can pretend to believe it.
    – “I care about health care”
    – sounds better than “Britain for the British”.
    – So I can vote for, and hopefully get what I want (foreigners out!)
    – and when the noble goal doesn’t materialise
    – I have the moral high ground:
    – “They lied to me!”

  4. What Delft says in absolutely true and important. I don’t think trustworthiness is sufficient, but it is necessary, and it is specifically our responsibility (“our” meaning those of us who are stably employed by, identified with, benefiting from and dependent on universities and other sites of authorized expertise)–and it is too often overlooked. People may very well not trust us even if we are trustworthy, but it is our responsibility to make it the case that if they DO trust us they are acting rationally. And it is that responsibility that we are not living up to. I take part of Jenny’s point to be similar: we need to be attentive to the reasons why so many of our compatriots feel disrespected, alienated, disadvantaged and neglected–specifically to the reasons why it is rational for them to feel this way–i.e., we have to pay attention to class. This is not to neglect all the racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, fascistic aspects to the right-wing surges we’re seeing, but rather to acknowledge the grain of legitimate, class-based anger and alienation they feed on and maliciously exploit.

  5. And yet I find Delft’s explanation also too simple. Belief perseverance and confirmation bias are not simply chosen. If they were, then they wouldn’t be so tricky and intractable. I know I’ve fallen for click-bait headlines with the thought, “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if that were true.” I find out they’re not true, and it takes some mental rearranging of my belief-furniture to appreciate how hasty I was. Dispositions aren’t just chosen.

  6. @Naomi Scheman
    “it is our responsibility to make it the case that if they DO trust us they are acting rationally. And it is that responsibility that we are not living up to.”
    I don’t understand what you are referring to.

    I didn’t mean that we choose “freely”, whatever that really means, but that the selection of what we believe and what we don’t is not a quality or a consequence of the speaker, e.g. “trustworthiness”, but a quality of ourselves, our sets of beliefs and biases.

    The distinction is an important one, as if the first were true, the exhortation to experts to be more honest (?), sensitive (?), or whatever might (at least in principle) fix the problem. If the second is true it can’t because it’s not the root issue – though I agree with Naomi Scheman that we need to acknowledge a legitimate anger of minorities that their interests have been systematically ignored or suppressed.

    Probably the most helpful initiative I’ve heard of is teaching philosophy in primary schools, encouraging people from an early age to think for themselves, ask questions and make up their own minds. The popular lazy strategy in voting, of fixing on someone you think you can trust and then believing / going with whatever they say, is hopelessly flawed and should be strongly discouraged. We should clearly set the expectation that people take responsibility for their decisions – and this is what I find sadly lacking here.

  7. I’m still stunned by Brexit, it took a week for me to process it into a blog post myself ( ) but despite being pro-Europe, I’m now indulging in the hope that picking the scab will now mean problems WILL be solved, because at least now they’re being talked about. Under that hope is the quiet worry that democracy itself is flawed, and people have now moved on from the “in or out” debate and, having discovered after years of election apathy, that votes can and do count sometimes. I say worry because I’m hearing chat like “the elderly should have half a vote because they only live with the consequences for half as long” and “I want a do-over!”

  8. Thanks so much for the great discussion. I think another key is to apply truth in advertising laws to politics. It’s not easy, but we have to find a way. And we have to find a way to effectively debunk the claims that are outright lies. People can’t reason effectively if they are reasoning from false premises.

  9. About debunking outright lies: in both the UK and the US the press has failed to make politicians responsive to the facts in some very crucial cases. has a recent article, mostly on what Trump has gotten away with.

    Perhaps we should think of some strategies for pressing journalists to stop just repeating the lies.

    Your HuffPo article also promotes an important understanding, Jenny.

  10. Different factors may be at play with different people who were/are in the Leave camp. Among those factors I would imagine resentment against elites of various sorts plays a significant role. I’d imagine some Leave voters are quite satisfied that academics, professionals, and ‘spoiled millennials’ will have greater difficulty maintaining their jet-setting lifestyle on both sides of the Channel. I’d imagine some Leave voters (not seeing that their own pensions are at risk) don’t really care that global equities markets tanked just following the vote. I’d think that some Leave voters believe that Brexit will put an end to what they imagine as foreigners gliding into their cozy communities to take jobs and benefits. This should cause concern in the USA where many voters will gravitate towards an unknown that they believe won’t be worse for them than the status quo and could at least make life more difficult for the sorts of people they despise.

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