The draft Withdrawal Agreement
Theresa May brought back from Brussels should trouble us all. It does two things: it reveals something lurking in the shadows of Brexit – a deep, troubling and dangerous irrationality; and it is also the supreme example of the Dunning-kruger effect.
First, the irrational: The last Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, resigned as a result of the Agreement. We would be correct, because of his office, in assuming that he had negotiated it. If he had not been a party to the negotiations, who was? And why had he reacted as if he had seen it at approximately the same moment as the general public?
A few days after his resignation, he sent this tweet to Jeremy Corbyn, in response to a remark the Labour leader had made mocking him: “Dear @jeremy corbyn Good joke. Would you like to debate me on Brexit? Name your date,
I’m sure we can find a venue. I’ll understand if you’re too busy debating whether a second referendum is Labour policy with @Keir_starmer Best wishes, Dom Raab #convictionpolitics.”
The nation is at the most significant juncture since Suez and yet we have no space nor time nor inclination to ask what this challenge from the former Brexit secretary to the leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition means? And why?
We brush it off; ignore it as just another episode in a litany of madness.
The people I know who voted Leave, many of them fierce and public advocates, have told me that they would rather stay in the EU, that they insist on staying in the EU, rather than accept Theresa May’s deal. None of them say this with any kind of fervour, not even resignation, but with a kind of menace, a hint of a threat in their voice.
I think that this is because they are not only exhausted by it all but see something inevitable and awful ahead. And something shameful, too. Shame, for them, is the worse offence. Which is perhaps why the prime minister brought the absurd piece of paper back, why she is defending it on the airwaves and up and down the land. She wants her enemies to be ashamed before she leaves. Maybe for us all to be ashamed.
But it was her party, under her predecessor, David Cameron, who approved the Tory manifesto of 2015 which stated on page 30: “We will negotiate new rules with the EU... We will then put these changes to the
British people in a straight in-out referendum on our membership of the European Union by the end of
Nothing in this implies difficulty.
Any citizen would be right to assume that the Conservatives knew what they were talking about. Every MP has a duty of care, the obligation to do no harm to their constituents or the nation.
The Conservatives won and had to deliver. As the government’s leaflet supporting the manifesto promise put it: “The referendum on Thursday, 23rd June is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union. The government believes it is in the best interests of the UK to remain in the EU. This is the way to protect jobs, provide security, and strengthen the UK’S economy for every family in this country – a clear path into the future, in contrast to the uncertainty of leaving. This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.”
But the legal fact turned out to be that the government could not “implement what you decide” because to do so involved Acts of Parliament, which only parliament itself could repeal. This is where the Dunning-kruger effect enters the frame
This phenomenon, which often affects people in upper management, was named by American social psychologists David Dunning of the University of Michigan and Justin Kruger of New York University in 1999. It describes the human propensity for self-delusion.
We humans, the psychologists believe, often overestimate our abilities. They state that this often results in “illusory superiority” that makes “incompetent people think they’re amazing”.
This often creates incompetence at the top. This is how Dunning-kruger affects us all. Because when people rate themselves higher than they are, they tend to be promoted up the food chain. If they are over-publicised, these examples of Dunning-kruger can foster illusions of expertise, of power; of even the inevitable.
Since we all, as Dunning and Kruger believe, lack the skills at knowing how incompetent we actually are, we tend to be attracted to those who display an arrogant self-importance. This is human. Those who are competent, who know what they are doing and talking about, tend to play this ability down. That leaves us, according to the American psychologists, with a lack of understanding of what competence is. This leads us to attach expletives like ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ to people with experience and knowledge. Again, this is human.
But Dunning-kruger implies that we may be in the midst of an epidemic of incompetence.
The journalist Max Hastings recently described the leading Brexiters as “failures in office, adventurers, oddballs, or all three”. Picture the scene recently of backbencher Jacob Rees-mogg holding a press throng at bay as he pontificated on the coming demise of the prime minister. He stood like a kind of male Cassandra, warning all in his stentorian tones that this would shortly happen.
The nation waited.
Consider Liam Fox, the trade secretary, assuring one and all that Brexit would mean trade deals aplenty. As of this writing, none have appeared; Boris Johnson, who it could arguably be said helped invent the picture of ‘Bendy Banana Brussels’ while a journalist, has promised all manner of things. That we no longer wait for his threats and promises to materialise is an indication of the malaise this absurd adventure may be creating.
The Withdrawal Agreement becomes the symbol of where we are: adrift; rudderless. It is time to ask the people. Check in. As a matter of urgency.
ABSURD ADVENTURE: Clockwise from top left, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-mogg, Dominic Raab, Liam Fox