A few days ago, I attended a small dinner party of very pleasant people, all of them of the more-or-less intellectual middle class. As the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was then only three weeks away, it was almost inevitable that it should come up as a subject of conversation.
“I don’t know anyone who’ll vote for Brexit,” said one of the guests.
I have no idea whether or not this statement was literally true, whether he really didn’t know anyone who would vote for Brexit, but its truth or falsity was in any case beside the point. More often than not, we speak not to enunciate a truth but to praise ourselves, or to exhibit ourselves to others in the best light possible. Of course, that also means that we have to be aware of the sensibilities of our audience; therein lies one of the hazards of human intercourse.
At the time my fellow guest made his proud announcement, the polls suggested—though they might have been wrong, as they often are—that 52 per cent of the electorate intended to vote for Brexit. What in effect he was announcing, therefore, was that he did not know personally anyone similar to half his countrymen, and this was a source of immense satisfaction, or self-satisfaction, to him.
And yet I suspect that in some sense he also considered himself a true man of the people, unlike those of differing opinion who, however numerous they might be on the basis of a mere head-count, were not really of the people at all, but rather enemies of the people. His conception of the people would have been a dialectical materialist rather than what Marxists would have called a vulgar materialist one: for while the latter was capable only of seeing the surface of things, the former penetrated to their essence.
My fellow guest clearly believed that he was one of the enlightened, amongst whom he had always lived and breathed and taken his being, while those who differed from him were not merely mistaken (after all, no one can say for sure what the future will bring), but benighted, ignorant and probably malevolent. A person with enlightened views such as his was incontestably of the people because he knew what was best for them, better than they knew themselves, and wished only their happiness or welfare.
By contrast, those of differing opinion on the subject were by definition or ex officio provincial and xenophobic. They desired to have done with the European Union because they hated foreigners and wanted to pull up the drawbridge to preserve:
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Nostalgic for a glorious past that never really existed but which, in their ignorance, they believed was restorable (rather as Muslim fundamentalists do, in fact), they wanted to live in glorious isolation: unlike the sophisticated cosmopolites like himself, who were equally (if not more) at home in Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin and Gerrards Cross.
There probably exist such people, these xenophobes: dislike or contempt for foreigners, if not inscribed in human nature as a kind of destiny, is at least widespread. But to characterise all Brexiters (as they are known in a characteristically ugly contemporary locution) as xenophobic was quite simply inaccurate, and wilfully so. The more articulate among the Brexiters, at least, believed on the contrary that it was the pro-Europeans who were narrow-minded, not xenophobic exactly but nonetheless deeply provincial, people who had not yet woken up to the evident fact that Europe is no longer the centre of the world however prosperous it might appear and that it had entered a prolonged economic decline relative to the rest of the world at the very moment Britain hitched itself, hitherto indissolubly, to it.
The arguments on both sides are by now too well known to need much rehearsal. The strongest on the pro-European side, it seemed to me (though not very strong) was that exit from the Union would usher in a period of uncertainty and turbulence. But of course it was one of the arguments of the Brexiters that much greater turbulence was building up in the future of Europe anyway, as a Yugoslavia on a vaster scale was under construction without a Tito to keep the lid on for more than thirty years. The advantage of the pro-Europeans here was that, while the turbulence caused by exit was near and therefore more certain, that of the Europe-wide Yugoslavia was more distant and therefore less certain. On the other hand, you can’t have a democracy without a demos, and there is no European demos; what is more, there is no prospect of one; therefore there can be no European democracy. (One might call multiculturalism a utopia without a demos, incidentally.)
My fellow guest said he had not heard anything that for him constituted an argument for Brexit, in which case I could only think that he had not been listening very hard, or was plain stupid. The whole question was obviously so settled for him in advance that there was no need to listen, for by definition there could be no argument in its favour: therefore, he had heard none.
Needless to say, I condemned such closed-mindedness, such bigotry: but then a still, small voice from somewhere in the back of my head (I can almost locate it physically, it is just to the left at the top of the occiput) began to nag at me, Are you yourself any better? “Do you not,” continued the voice in the most irritating fashion, “close your mind to the arguments of those with whom you disagree, caricature them, and resort to ad hominem assertions (they are not arguments at all, though often called such)?”
Yes, I replied to my voice, I admit that I resort to the ad hominem, but only after I have proved that the view opposing mine is actually wrong.
“Rubbish, and you know it,” replied the voice. “Nothing on earth would persuade you to change your mind once it is made up. You’re too proud.”
I admitted that I characterised the pro-Europeans in my mind as a coalition of various kinds of rent-seekers, corporatists and people who hoped via the European mechanisms to impose their own favoured social (or anti-social) policies that they had not a hope of persuading their own countrymen to accept. They were bypassers and contemners of democracy: just look at who was in the coalition! There was no need to seek further for the explanation of their pro-Europeanism.
Not only that, I continued, but many pro-Europeans are not even aware of their own best interests. For example, a large majority of young people are in favour of remaining in Europe, though it is precisely European policies that have resulted in so much youth unemployment in Europe. Couldn’t they see it when it was all so perfectly obvious?
That’s the trouble with democracy, I said to myself. There are all these people voting on difficult questions who have no capacity for logical or connected thought.
“But hang on a moment,” said the voice at the top of my occiput, “you accused the pro-Europeans of believing something very like that just now.”
Yes, I replied, but that’s different: I’m right and they’re wrong.
“But they don’t think so,” replied the voice. “They think they’re right and say that you’re wrong.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied. “Have you never read a dictionary of quotations? Have you never heard Emerson’s famous dictum? He said that a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds. And anyway, because of Godel’s theorem, no system of thought can be entirely axiom-free.”
“‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate,” said the voice, “and would not stay for an answer.”
“Oh for goodness sake,” I replied, “can’t you just give it a rest? It is perfectly obvious that the pro-Europeans are a corrupt gang of small-minded rent-seekers and politicians for whom the European Union is a vast retirement fund. The Germans don’t want to be German any more and the French want to be powerful. That’s all there is to it.”