A general election looms, the outcome could go almost any way and those who normally offer themselves as experts are seized by panic. Parliamentarians, journalists and academics who previously exerted a degree of control over policy, debate and knowledge — or flattered themselves to think they did — worry their grip is being loosened. Behold gatekeeper anxiety: political and media elites locked in a feedback loop of despair. Sufferers’ symptoms range from anguish to hysterical anger.
The backlash against Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament is a good example. His move was political skulduggery — but the gatekeeper class hallucinated a ‘coup’ and imagined themselves as democracy’s last line of defence against tyranny. Shadow minister Clive Lewis threatened a Commons sit-in, while Nicola Sturgeon bewailed the arrival of ‘dictatorship’.
MPs have been up to their own parliamentary jiggery-pokery but, then, that is the birthright of people like Dominic Grieve: to run the country without the little people having to get their heads around the details. There is an unmistakable air of entitlement to this rebel cry; the Oxford Union has been radicalised.
While MPs talk as though Brexit is something being done to them, it is really something they did to themselves. Referendums are at odds with our parliamentary system, yet MPs voted for a plebiscite and voted to trigger Article 50, instantly limiting their time for scrutiny. Presented a choice between Theresa May’s unhappy compromise and a no-deal exit, parliament sunk its own lifeboat. Three times.
Then we have the tragic figure of Tony Blair. Brexit could never have happened on his watch; he wouldn’t have allowed it. That is the root of the current crisis as MPs see it: they let the voters make one straightforward decision and they couldn’t even get that right. MPs don’t see what they’re doing as obstruction; it’s a rescue and recovery operation for familiar norms and certainties.
The media, meanwhile, has also been experiencing gatekeeper anxiety. Channel 4 was bewildered when relations broke down with No. 10, after the broadcaster’s head of news Dorothy Byrne called Boris Johnson ‘a known liar’. Byrne has been unfairly maligned in that her MacTaggart lecture was just as critical of Jeremy Corbyn — but her choice of words revealed the angst that those in her position are experiencing. She advised her audience of industry insiders to ‘forget the idea that the public can judge what is true’ and urged them to fight ‘attempts to sideline our central role in the political life of this country’.
The principle that democracy requires journalistic scrutiny is one worth defending, but what Byrne was sticking up for was the privilege of big media to tell the punters what to think. It is the same assumption that animates Remain resentment towards the BBC for not calling all Leave campaigners the liars that they are. Liberals are so certain of their virtue and their opponents’ vice that they think it is the role of broadcasters to enlighten the rest of the country.
Brexit is regarded with disgust as a barbarian invasion. The referendum allowed the hoi polloi a foot in the door and now they’re scuffing the old oak floor and pawing the valuables.
But the rage against Brexit is not causing voters to repent. It is causing them to look afresh at experts and insiders. The inexpert serfs are deciding for themselves and their betters are getting salty about it. In a fit of pique, both the Financial Times and Ken Clarke put themselves down for a caretaker government led by Jeremy Corbyn. There is a tantrum-throwing petulance at work that wants the country to suffer as a salutary lesson. Hell mend you, Sunderland.
Experts don’t always spot when a historic shift is upon them. Academics scoffed at Ronald Reagan’s talk of ending the ‘Evil Empire’. In 1948, only one in ten doctors favoured a National Health Service, and a former secretary of the British Medical Association warned it represented a first step towards Nazism. The economist cartel greeted Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 budget with an open letter, signed by 364 of them, warning Thatcherism would ‘deepen the depression’ and fail to control inflation. Their science proved not just dismal but dim.