In Part I, I discussed origins, but three cultural and historical differences struck me fairly immediately when I came to work in England in 1981.
First, many scientists I met seemed to have little knowledge of the humanities. Correspondingly, knowledge of science seemed lacking among non-scientists. I was hardly the first to notice. C.P. Snow was a great proponent of the “Two Culture” theory. But it was striking nonetheless.
Second, was the vast industrial capacity. Sheffield was still very much at the heart of the UK Coal and Steel industry and South Yorkshire probably had more industrial capacity and jobs than the entire 26 counties of the Irish Republic.
Third, was the range in quality of the printed media. The low-quality reportage of many of the tabloids was alarming, as indeed was the highly opinionated British-exceptionalist and right-wing bias of some broadsheets such as the Daily Telegraph.
I argue in this section that these three immediately obvious cultural and historic differences each contributed to Brexit.
Education – C.P. Snow and the Two Cultures
Fig. 1 is is a rather amusing cartoon depicting the Scientific vs Creationist method. Apart from the STEM subjects, there are lots of other disciplines such as History and Archaeology, when done well, have an evidence-driven methodology resembling that of the Sciences. Other disciplines, such as many aspects of politics and pro-Brexit arguments, seem based on articles of faith, often resembling the Creationist Method or that of extreme religious cults.
In Physics there is nowhere to hide. Relativity and especially Quantum Mechanics are counter-intuitive and pretending to understand something you don’t is not a good idea.
Never pretend to know or understand something you don’t
This was very sound advice given to me just before I went to the Harvard Smithsonian by one of my professors. I had been worried about meeting some of the world-leading names in my field. In practice, they were absolutely secure in their knowledge and position and were nothing but helpful and encouraging.
In Ireland, a rounded education has always been valued and students take a wider range of subjects right up to finishing school. A two cultures divide between humanities and science doesn’t exist. For example, even though my father majored in humanities he had an excellent grasp of Newtonian Mechanics and frequently taught a class in ballistics.
Things were different in England. As C. P. Snow remarked in his famous 1959 Rede Lecture Across the Great Divide:
I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”
It wasn’t just the ignorance of science, that was a major issue. There seemed almost an attitude that too much knowledge of science and mathematics was the mark of an uncultured barbarian. There seemed a delight in some quarters of broadcasting one’s absolute inability to do mathematics.
Engineers were people who fixed your washing machine or wiped down a machine daily with an oily rag. There seemed to be little understanding that the Profession of Engineering needed a very high level of education and in almost every country outside England was highly revered.
This was a real problem. For around a decade I was admissions tutor for the Engineering School in Leeds Polytechnic (pre ’92) and Leeds Metropolitan University. It became increasingly difficult to recruit students to our engineering programme. At the start, I had about 2,000 PCAS admissions. By the time I left in ’97 this had dried up to about 50.
Physics was even worse. When I came to the NE of England there were Physics courses at three of the Universities: Durham, Newcastle and Northumbria. A decade later only the Durham course remained.
Fortunately, there has been an improvement over the past decade, with Physics becoming more popular again and both Newcastle and Northumbria have re-opened their courses. Some put this down to the Brian Cox effect.
From the greater UK perspective, the bigger issue is that the country can be and is indeed being currently run by people who are not grounded in reality. In science, evidence is vital and there is a belief that absolute truth exists. For some (but by no means all) in humanities, sophistry and a belief in relativism are the order of the day. HMG is moving towards Newt Gingrich territory: “what people feel about an issue is more important than what the actual facts behind the issue are.”
PM B. Johnson seems to lie with impunity. The insistence for example that the Irish Protocol will cause no checks or friction in the Irish Sea is patently untrue, but too many of the voting public are either blissfully ignorant or simply don’t care.
Repeated lying seems to have little or no penalty attached. HMG is pursuing a badly thought out Brexit policy, based on blind faith rather than evidence. The English education system is certainly partly to blame.
From Industrial Heartland to post-Industrial Wasteland
Ireland is so lucky to have so little heavy industry. All this will be gone within a decade, the economic and social costs will be staggering, as indeed the challenge of high quality replacement jobs and the industrial strategy needed.
The Sheffield economist was replying to my contention, in 1981, shortly after I arrived, that S. Yorks had been fortunate to have a simultaneous abundance of iron ore, coal and water, which put it at the heart of the industrial revolution. Ireland may have been moving on from what has been described by the economist David McWilliams as a “Beer and Biscuits” industrial economy but had minimal industrial capacity compared to Britain.
The Sheffield economist was remarkably prescient, as indeed the S. Yorks coal and steel had virtually disappeared within a decade, apart from a few specialist high-grade steel plants. If anything, he underestimated the speed at which those jobs would disappear. He would have I’m sure been horrified by the complete lack of any meaningful industrial strategy apart from the naïve belief that the market would provide.
It was not just S. Yorks, of course, but a large part of the Midlands and North of England, S. Wales and the greater Glasgow region was also decimated.
Although working in Sheffield, I bought a house in Barnsley. This was very prosperous at the time, with thousands of highly paid coal-mining jobs readily available. Within a few years, however, it was the epicentre of the coal miners strike led by Authur Scargill. The strike was a crushing defeat for the miners, and coal production was virtually gone within a few years. Barnsley and many other similar towns throughout post-industrial Britain never recovered.
The lasting impact of this de-industrialisation has been explored in detail by Profs. Beatty and Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University, in Jobs, Welfare and Austerity. The report is worth reading and its findings damning, but some of the headline findings are sobering.
UK manufacturing employment has fallen from 8.9 million to just 2.9 million over the last fifty years, and 500,000 jobs have disappeared from the coal industry. This has destroyed the economic base of many communities, especially in the North, Scotland and Wales.
The main effect of this job loss has been to divert vast numbers of men and women out of the labour market onto incapacity-related benefits, these days Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which accounts for almost 2.5 million adults of working age. The highest claimant rates – 10 per cent or more of all 16-64 year olds – are nearly all in older industrial areas.
The Treasury has misdiagnosed high welfare spending as the result of inadequate work incentives and has too often blamed individuals for their own predicament, whereas in fact a large part of the bill is rooted in job destruction extending back decades.
What is even sadder perhaps, is that the Brexit many have supported will likely hit these post-industrial areas hardest. It is, however, not surprising that many voters are totally fed up and feel they have nothing to lose.
The mismanagement of industrial policy in the UK has been a travesty. There is a so-called new 2018 industrial strategy which has been comprehensively critiqued by Mike Parr on this blog.
Britain is in a class of its own regarding manufacturing decline: and a class that indicates clearly that this has nothing to do with the EU. Half of the countries […] are EU members, yet none has such a low manufacturing base, or one which has declined faster.
Questions need to be asked as to why similar countries such as Germany and Japan have maintained their industrial base and smaller ones such as Denmark and Ireland greatly expanded theirs. In Ireland’s case by over a factor of ten during the forty-year period from 1980-2020.
The sad fact of the matter is that many in the now “blue wall” seats from the former Labour Heartlands have felt ignored for generations. To many, a desperate gamble is better than continued relative decline.
Media – from Agnotology to Propaganda
In Ireland, particularly on the more populated east coast and in the border areas, the BBC was readily available, in the ’60s and early ’70s through oversized TV ariels.
These ariels used to be a hazard and during a storm, I remember our neighbours blowing down on the other side of our semi-detached house, causing considerable damage. By the late ’70s these had largely vanished following the introduction of cable TV.
The BBC was widely admired and landmark series such as Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth boosted its reputation even further, and not just in Ireland of course.
The Irish state broadcaster RTE tried its best but worked on a shoestring in comparison to the BBC. My Father Kevin’s own TV series on rural life in Ireland (“The Hearth and Stool and All”) was studio-based and in black and white, but apparently did produce enough money to get a new family car, a Ford Anglia assembled in the Cork Plant.
The newspaper scene was very different to the UK, with no Irish tabloid press. The English tabloid media came as a shock when I arrived in the UK. The dumbing down, sexual prurience — “vicars and tarts” sensationalist stories, page three girls etc. — and lack of decent or balanced analysis was disturbing. Later, stories denying the reality of Climate Change were very alarming. Agnotology — culturally induced ignorance or doubt seemed a major force.
The right-wing bias and jingoism was scary, particularly in the Mail (one of whose promoters I may have once offended by confiding what I wouldn’t even use it for).
The UK media scene has since degenerated, become even more right-wing, less balanced and even more economical with the truth. The rise of the Euromyth, which Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson largely invented for laughs, as detailed by Martin Fletcher in Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead, and contributed to a downward spiral of lies and normalisation of the acceptability of mendacity.
It is tempting to dismiss Johnsonian mendacity as harmless fun — an Etonian jape. However, considering e.g., that the incandescent lightbulb myth is credibly reported to be believed 30% of the Brexit-voting public it’s clear that a substantial part of the English public, and more importantly, the electorate, has effectively been politically groomed and brainwashed. Sadly, the outlook, post-Brexit, is not for any improvement, given what appears to be significant media complicity.
Simon Wren-Lewis’s powerful piece on the right-wing press in Post-truth and propaganda finishes with:
Liberal democracy’s survival in the UK and US may depend on recognising and resisting what is in the process of destroying it.
It seems that the machine has moved from the dumbing-down stage (agnotology) to propaganda on a level which would have been the envy of Joseph Goebbels.
The BBC also is not immune, as I have argued previously in BBC Brexit Coverage: Objective Truth, Relativism and Gaslighting. With Tony Hall stepping down as Director-General it may deteriorate even further.
There is also the Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, AIQ strand where millions of false ads were used in both the Referendum and recent GE.
Specialising too early seems to be an issue in England. Compounding this, unlike in much of continental Europe, very few scientists go into politics. A relativistic mindset seems to have developed where all opinions are equally valued. This is fine if opinions are based on truth or evidence, but too often they are not. Many UK politicians have a poor grasp of l’actualité and, simultaneously, the UK has a long history of admiration of “clever” politicians able and willing to argue any side that will yield advantage regardless of what the truth is.
Deindustrialisation, with insufficient thought as to replacement jobs, has opened up a town/city divide, as in the US, with the larger cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield doing well but ex-industrial/ex-mining towns such as Barnsley left to rot. This has been excellently documented by John Harris in his anywhere but Westminster Series.
The malign effect of much of the British media is all too obvious.
These three immediately obvious cultural differences have all made Brexit far more likely than the equivalent Irexit so many Brexiters, many with delusional ideas of Irish dependence, long for.
To an Irish, indeed to any international, observer, it appears that the UK is not as serious a country as many of its citizens still imagine — despite some fairly unmissable clues. The reaction in the US State Department to Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary, e.g.
Not serious about education, industrial policy, or the integrity of its media.
Part III available here.