Science, Brexit and ‘post-truth’ politics

STEPS co-director Andy Stirling is one of six researchers writing in the Guardian on ‘science after Brexit’. A longer version of his part of the Guardian article is below.

Pub with 'Vote Leave' flag

The current woes of British democracy are grim and momentous. This is no time for gratuitous piggy-backing of other issues. The early indications of ‘Brexit’ specifically for UK science policy are worryingly clear. Less obvious – but deeper – is how the presently pervasive political trauma relates to crucial relations between science, truth and democracy in general.

According to its own cherished identity, ‘science’ is supposedly about ‘truth’. To properly get at truths, requires open, respectful, reasoned contestation – free (though only ever partly) from fetters and pressures of power. So science arguably best comes about – and flourishes most – in energetic strivings towards democracy. Without this, it can become vulnerable.

This is why so much history and philosophy suggest (often romantically) that democracy and truth are deeply linked. Neither is fully realised without the other. Each is plural, complex, uncertain and slippery. Both are often abused in special pleading. To over-assert claims to either is damaging. Yet to undervalue them is even more harmful.

Much needed, then, are democratic virtues like equality, pluralism, social justice, solidarity, trustworthiness and reflective deliberation. Without these, referenda are clumsy lightning rods. So what are the implications, when society suffers a collapse – not only in these political qualities, but in abilities properly to notice their decay? Reflecting similar pressures elsewhere, this is the present danger in the UK.

What to make, for instance, of how lies have become routinised in mainstream politics? How should we act when democratic institutions and arenas become saturated by narrow elites? What if the most emphasised values and aspirations in politics are deeply undemocratic? What to do, when ‘democracy’ itself is invoked as cover for uglier sectional agendas? How to reverse the resulting corrosive exclusion, cynicism, fear and pent-up violence?

These are strong words. But both democracy and truth depend on avoiding comfortable blinkers. So, there are responsibilities for all who share these values, to face and challenge the threatening forces. Each of these questions should therefore be taken seriously.

‘People want to be lied to’

First, to use the word ‘lies’, may seem overblown. Yet – with Referendum promises already evaporating – this is not a critical accusation, but a self-righteous defence. Boris Johnson was recently backed by his biographer and evident friend on Radio 4, saying: “the people want to be lied to … [they] want to be told there is some answer”. Such slips highlight the cynicism of the moment. So, too, did the interviewer’s failure even to question this assertion.

To point to the smothering of British ‘democracy’ by oppressive privilege is hardly contestable. Whether by race, class, gender or regional inequalities – in elitist schools and universities; private education; concentrated media ownership; concealed interests; segregated cities; unaccountable science; flawed justice; an overbearing military; corporate power; official secrecy; public mistrust; a tenacious aristocracy; nonproportional voting; unrepresentative political parties; unelected parliamentarians and the income distribution and taxation of an oligarchy – the fact is, that Britain is shamefully unfair, unequal and undemocratic. Neglect of this truth, is both a cause and a symptom of further erosion.

Despite routine insinuations in jingoistic, xenophobic ‘Brexit’ rhetorics, British ‘democracy’ manifestly compares unfavourably in Europe. Europe has (for all its flaws) been the most important single source of faltering progress in British democracy. And the truth is, that much UK Euroscepticism specifically resisted empowering democratic EU institutions.

But both truth and democracy are being undermined in even more direct ways. Sinister in its overtones, rising visions voiced by George Osborne as “my country, right or wrong”, explicitly uphold nationalist prejudice over either truth or democracy. As the Somme commemorations also recently reminded us, this can drive horrific violence.

On the notional ‘other side’ of politics, the Parliamentary Labour Party is no less cynically undermining democracy and truth. Efforts to oust Corbyn also urge people not to vote for what they think is true or right. Instead, politics is presented simply as a duty to support only whatever top-down selection “can win” – leaving wider repressive forces intact.

Taking back control

Even more insidious, are calls to “take back control”. In a dynamic, uncertain world, sovereign “control” was always a fallacy. As Macmillan noted at the post-war height of imagined UK power (now only – unhealthily – dreamt of), the greatest shapers of history are “events, dear boy, events”. Claims to control are fig-leaves for privilege surfing ‘events’.

Facing outward from power, rather than inward onto it, control-talk is profoundly undemocratic. When targeted against foreigners, immigrants and refugees, it is a code for racism. To identify this is not to call names. Racism is a pathology of ideas, not people.

Yet diffidence in truly naming bigotry highlights further frailties in British democracy. Dragooned (falsely) into tainting the Labour leader, the gravity of racism is corrupted into an internecine tactic. Meanwhile, racist untruths around “getting our country back” remain alarmingly under-challenged.

These perversities matter. When control is disappointed (as is inevitable), bigotry slides into violence. A foretaste is the murder (in the cause of “Britain First!”) of MP Jo Cox. Here, truth and democracy were further eroded by racist obstacles to recognising this as terrorism – and by failures properly to interrogate these obstacles. There would be less media reticence, if the shout had been “Allahu Akbar!”… and likely some very different lies, than that ‘Brexit’ happened “without a single shot being fired”.

So turns the grinder of ‘post-truth politics’: as truths are neglected, democracies weaken in their capacities to build truths. Events in the US show daily, how close violence is beneath the surface. Too many (like me), saw only very late, quite how serious is this vicious circle.

But a hope amidst the anguish and anger, is the spur to renewed striving. Imperfect journeys rather than boasted arrivals, respect for truths and democratic struggles are mutually reinforcing. As few should know better than those steeped in politics of science, the stakes were never higher than here and now. Step by step, the challenge is nothing less than building democracies anew… Good luck!

Image: The Sovereign Pub, Coventry. Via Flickr