Saturday, 15 July 2017

ABC-Austerity, Brexit and Charlie Gard

If there's a key word of the last 12 months, it's been 'populism'. A word that, depending upon your view of the issue at hand, is said either with a cheer of triumph or through gritted teeth.

The odd thing is, the ones who are most likely to be saying it through gritted teeth, are often the ones who talk most about the need for the empowerment of ordinary people against the establishment-the need for the working class to stop being dominated by the needs of the rich elites. Yet, in issues like Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, the response to ordinary people feeling empowered, participating in the voting system and expressing their views in large numbers is 'wrong answer you uneducated people Go back to the starting square whilst we explain the right way to you'.

The fundamental contradiction in such responses is that they say they want ordinary people to be empowered, but only if they come up with the correct answer. For example, contrast the response to the unexpected success of the Brexit campaign to the unexpected relative success of Jeremy Corbyn in the election. The latter, also based on a part of the population that do not normally vote-young people-coming out in large numbers is seen as a triumph of empowering a disenfranchised group rather than an uninformed gaggle who have disrupted the predicted outcome.

Populism is seen as being an unintelligent, casual disregard for knowledge and evidence. See for example, the comments of Professor David Rothkopf-'Donald Trump has won power because his supporters are threatened by what they don't understand, and what they don't understand is almost everything'. Populism is seen as some kind of mindless disregard for the 'expert', a lack of care for evidence and knowledge.

Yet is that the case? Could it be that what people are really tired of is people saying 'trust us, we're the experts', without them bothering to engage in debate, explain in ordinary people's language why they believe something to be the right way forward, and be seen to have the humility to listen and adjust their positions when ordinary people make a valid point.

This unwillingness to explain was seen during the referendum when the EU and the government basically ran their campaign on the basis of 'trust us. Leaving will be a disaster', without engaging with the real concerns expressed by people and seeking to address them. It has been seen all the more so in the EU's response since the referendum when they could have stood back, looked at the result and said 'we have failed to engage and make our case to ordinary people. We have failed to address their concerns. How can we learn from this and make adjustments to rescue this situation?' Instead they just continue to adopt the approach of 'any right-thinking person would support the EU' and look haughtily down at those with a different view.

If I'm honest, I think we saw a politer, more toned-down example of 'trust us. we're the experts' in the Conservatives’ approach to the last election. Theresa May's stance was 'trust me. You need a steady pair of hands at this time. We need to continue with austerity' and made no attempt to explain or win hearts and minds beyond that. Small wonder we saw a different form of populism emerge in response and vote for Corbyn.

Right at this moment, we see another example of the ‘trust us. We're the experts' approach in the Charlie Gard case. I'm not pretending there are any easy answers on this tragic case, but what does concern me is the approach reported taken by medical staff in this and too many other cases (and I'm not at all pretending the issue is easy for them). which is 'trust us. We're the experts' when the best interests process is far more meant to be about all those who know a person well engaging together and reaching a common view. Clearly that will not always be possible, but neither does that mean in such situations that the 'experts' view prevails.

Am I arguing against the importance of expertise? Absolutely not. But I am saying that part of the responsibility of being an expert is that you engage with the public, explain your positions in ordinary language as much as possible, be seen to adjust your position in response to valid argument (even if it isn't put in the kind of technical language you might be used to) and, perhaps most importantly, be seen to act with grace when you lose an argument. Do not, like Hillary Clinton, dismiss those with different views as 'a bunch of deplorables'. (Any surprise that those deplorables, once you'd insulted them, then decided not to change their mind and vote for you Hillary?)

We need experts, but we need them in order to bring wisdom to debates that engage large numbers of ordinary people, not who use ordinary people as cannon fodder until they reach the right decision.