As Dr Lee Rotherham noted on this site yesterday morning, Michael Gove’s remarks on experts during the referendum were much misrepresented. The phrase “People have had enough of experts”, so often repeated by Remainers, was followed by the crucial “from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
The difference between the two is important, because it marks the boundary between a healthy increase in scepticism towards technocracy in our politics and counter-productive antipathy to expertise per se.
Few people believe, I should think, that you can genuinely govern a country without reference to expert opinion. Countries are complex things and our politicians are, for the most part, generalists. It is right and proper that they call upon well-informed sources for evidence when they consider their policies.
But too often many of today’s politicians take this too far: instead of consulting experts before arriving at their own view, they instead farm out their responsibilities wholesale.
Most recently, this has brought us to the brink of handing punitive power over our newspapers to Impress, a millionaire-backed ‘self-regulator’ actively hostile to the popular press which no major title as chosen to submit to.
As I wrote in December, reaching this point involved a multi-layered abdication of responsibility. MPs handed off the job of responding to a political crisis to a judge, whose rulings they now struggle to reject whether they agree with them or not. He decided the press should be overseen by an ‘independent’ regulator.
Even the choice of who that regulator should be – which you might think an important decision – has been handed off to another ‘independent’ group, the Press Recognition Panel, which was itself assembled via an ‘independent’ process.
Note that every instance of the world ‘independent’ in that description is a fresh degree of separation between the exercise of unprecedented state power and any political accountability for its use. The electorate doesn’t choose the regulator, those who choose the regulator, or even those who choose the choosers.
But Leveson is not the only example. For another take Chris Philp’s proposals, outlined here, to empower judges to rule on whether or not a public-sector strike is “reasonable and proportionate” – a process which would charge unelected individuals to dole out white hats and basically write a ‘just strike’ doctrine into British law from scratch.
These are only two specific examples of a much broader trend. Other examples include kicking an ever-broadening range of issues out of the political arena via things like the Human Rights Act and delegating the creation of regulations and the disbursement of taxpayers’ money to an ever-growing network of regulators and quangos.
Of course Parliament is ultimately responsible for all its delegated functions, but creating so much distance between the exercise of power and the voters makes it much more difficult to hold power to account, especially for people who don’t take a very close interest in public affairs.
Even when politicians do make decisions directly, they too often still reach for the shield of experts via the incantation of ‘evidence-based policy’. As Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute notes: “ideology is often dressed up in terminology that sounds neutral but makes significant assumptions about the role of the state and its ability to effectively solve society’s problems. Anyone for some ‘evidence-based policy’?”
One of the triumphant Leave campaign’s key themes was ‘take back control’, tapping into a sense that our political institutions – and by extension we, the voters – were having their authority sapped by other bodies which weren’t democratically accountable. To wrest power back from Brussels only to squirrel it away in the ‘independent’ parts of our constitution would be to leave the job half-done.
Politicians need to take ownership of difficult decisions, rather than trying to disguise their inherently political nature with the rhetoric of ‘expertise’. Nor should we forget that, as Andrew Lilico writes on CapX, experts are still people with social and political biases that skew their testimony.
We need less independence, and more accountability, from people who wield the authority of the state or disburse its money.