Three weeks before Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, Conservative Michael Gove delivered a quote that would sum up an era in British politics.
When asked if he could name any economists who backed Brexit, he responded: “People in this country have had enough of experts”.
As awful as this quote was, which led to it becoming a key reference-point of “post-truth” politics, Gove wasn’t exactly wrong. Lots of people were sick of experts. They were sick of people armed with actual facts telling them that stories about “benefit scroungers” they’d seen plastered across the papers, or the “health tourists” they’d been told were pouring into Britain, were over-exaggerated lies peddled for political gain.
As living standards deteriorated, lots of people were angry and wanted their feelings to trump reality. And as we currently languish outside of the EU with little clue what our future relationship will be, against all advice from every expert in sight, it would seem that raw emotion has won the day.
We’re not the only country with political leaders who’ve encouraged us to abandon expert opinion. Our recent general election campaign might have seen the Tories pose as an official fact-checker on Twitter, but across the Atlantic a white supremacist-sympathising reality star president has waged a war on truth. Trump has drained funding for arts and security initiatives to pay for a border wall most people don’t want and, according to experts, is entirely unnecessary. He’s pretended that tax cuts for billionaires will benefit working people, despite study after study confirming that this isn’t the case.
But now we have officially reached the point where, miraculously, experts are suddenly back in fashion again.
As coronavirus becomes a global threat to public safety and challenges the unquestioning wisdom of our political overlords, politicians suddenly can’t get enough of expert opinions. Like rats fleeing the sinking ship, with fear in their eyes, they’re begging the public to keep calm and trust health experts whose job it is to know about these very complex matters. From Boris Johnson to Matt Hancock, Rishi Sunak and even Gove, they’re all at it.
And who can blame them? Johnson, the man tasked with leading us through this crucial time, has repeatedly admitted to shaking the hands of patients receiving treatment for the virus, a la Princess Diana during the AIDs crisis – despite this going against expert advice. He’s also encouraged people to “carry on as normal” even though expert guidelines advise self-isolation and ramping up personal hygiene if people have potentially been exposed.
Politicians who have pushed alternative narratives regarding the biggest political issues of the day by sowing misinformation via unregulated social media platforms have finally met their match. Dodgy tweets and Facebook ads aren’t going to cut it if coronavirus is declared a pandemic – instead they will put people in very real physical danger.
It doesn’t just stop with immediate human casualties either. Tories know their shaky economic model – which currently leaves over two million people at risk of receiving no sick pay if the virus spreads – is as vulnerable as the elderly most likely to suffer from this outbreak. They know that the NHS, which has been starved of cash (again, against expert advice), is ill-prepared to deal with a public health crisis. They know that the uncertainty of coronavirus is already making stock markets shaky. Is Brexit Britain a safe and attractive investment? Probably not. How will the economy fair if coronavirus causes a recession? Probably not well.
And who will people blame? Probably immigrants, knowing the UK – but the politicians will struggle to completely escape the firing line.
For years, the rhetoric from the right has urged people to invent their own, often skewed, narratives.
Of course the existence of coronavirus isn’t the fault of Tory politicians, or indeed president Trump. But the long-held political strategy that has deliberately peddled misinformation and encouraged people to disregard experts now has potential to put everyone in danger, not just the people they’ve always been comfortable throwing under the bus.
So, with fear in their eyes, Tories are begging us to trust experts – and we should. Because the culture war these politicians have profited from might end up being fatal if we don’t. But we can’t forget their actions. The Tories might no longer have “had enough of experts” – but I’ve had enough of them.