Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Why Vote Leave.
I happened to be in the United States when Donald Trump first moved ahead in the opinion polls, lecturing at a meeting of several hundred readers of the National Review. The NR, founded by that quixotic genius Bill Buckley, is arguably the foremost conservative journal in the world, and it went on to wage a brave and brilliant, though ultimately doomed, campaign to save the Republican Party from Trump’s hostile takeover. Back in June, though, no one took the Donald seriously. It seemed unthinkable that such a thin-skinned narcissist could lead the party of Lincoln and Reagan.
Of the dozens of NR subscribers and politicians I talked to, only one foresaw that Trump would win the GOP nomination. Her reasoning, though I foolishly dismissed it at the time, now seems eerily prescient. “Donald Trump is the first national politician since World War Two who speaks to people with IQs of less than 100,” she told me. “And, if you think about it, that’s half the population.”
Trump himself later seemed to vindicate her. “I love the poorly educated!” he crowed, as it became clear that the votes of his reality TV audiences were propelling him to victory.
Let’s leave aside whether his policies would benefit people on low incomes. In general, protectionism hits the poorest hardest, and populism immiserates its loudest supporters. But this isn’t really about Trump’s policies. It’s about the sense among a large chunk of the American electorate – and also, frankly, of the British and European electorates – that the elites disdain them. And you know what? They’ve got a point.
When I watched Gordon Brown dismissing a woman who had asked him politely about immigration as a bigot, I was on her side. When I heard a Labour MP saying that she didn’t want girls leaving school to become hairdressers, my immediate reaction was “Who do you think pays your salary, you bloody snob?” When I watch grandees calling Leave campaigners extremists, I see self-interested functionaries defending a system that benefits them personally.
But I have come to realise that these views make me something of a class traitor. Most of my university contemporaries are voting Remain for the same reason that they are hoping for a Hillary presidency. They think that democracy sometimes needs to be tempered and moderated by people with the right qualifications.
That view has a certain superficial plausibility. After all, we accept elitism in other walks of life. We want our pilots and surgeons to be properly qualified. Is it so wrong to trust the experts over the general population?
When it comes to government, yes. It is wrong, not because democracy always produces ideal outcomes, but because democracy is preferable to rule by a self-selected and necessarily self-interested oligarchy.
It’s depressingly easy, when you appear on Question Time, to get a cheer out of the audience by saying, about almost any subject, “Let’s not treat this as a political football, let’s get the politicians out of the picture and trust the professionals.” On one level, everyone likes the idea of a professional: an expert who can disinterestedly pursue the national interest free from partisan scuffles. But no such person exists. We all have our assumptions and our prejudices – professionals more than anyone, if by “professionals” we mean people who have spent their entire careers in one field.
Left to themselves, professionals, being human, will arrange things around their own convenience, not the general population’s. Representative government exists precisely to curb this tendency. The best ministers are those who challenge the tendency to producer capture in their departments, as Michael Gove did at Education and Owen Paterson at DEFRA.
Experts often get things hideously wrong. When the entire Establishment coalesces around a fashionable idea, ordinary people are right to become suspicious. Everyone knew that it was wise to appease the Nazis in the 1930s, to nationalise industry in the 1940s, to have a planned economy in the 1950s, comprehensive education in the 1960s, prices and incomes policies in the 1970s. Everyone knew that it was sensible to back the ERM in the 1980s, the euro in the 1990s, the bailouts in the 2000s. Everyone, that is, except the general population.
There is a lively debate about why clever and educated people are prone to massive misjudgements. One theory is that, being clever, they over-value their hunches and, when those hunches are reinforced by others of their own caste, become far more prone than the general population to groupthink.
Be that as it may, distrust of the general population has been the justification of every tyranny in history. That’s the essence of Churchill’s quip, now so frequently quoted that we rarely pause to consider it, about democracy being the worst system apart from all the other that have been tried from time to time.
Is there a middle way between the rule of the Davos Men and the rage of Donald Trump? Yes. It’s called parliamentary democracy and, for a long time, we took it for granted as our normal condition. The more responsibility you give people, the more responsibly they’ll behave. That’s the system I’ll be voting for on 23 June.