Whilst I was away, the nation celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday. Nobody has noted that such celebrations suggest an under-appreciated conservative reason to vote Remain.
The point is that, in doing her job so well, the Queen has taken an issue off the political agenda – the question of whether we should have a monarchy at all. This is a great public service. People aren’t very good at thinking. We face what Thomas Homer-Dixon called an ingenuity gap – a gulf between our limited knowledge and rationality on the one hand and the complexity of society on the other. This gap means that it’s best that we think as little as possible about political issues and make do with the arrangements we have, even if these are imperfect. As Alfred North Whitehead said:
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.
Brexiteers, however, are doing the exact opposite of this. They are putting onto the agenda things that don’t need to be there. If we vote Leave, our politics will be dominated for years by political wrangling with the EU and with trade negotiations with the rest of the world. Philip Collins’ plea on twitter was a just one:
Please don't make me learn the difference between EEA & WTO rules for trade negotiation. Please, please don't do that.
Given the ingenuity gap, there can be no assurance that these will turn out well: Mr Gove’s claims to the contrary seem to me to owe more to that most ubiquitous of cognitive biases, overconfidence, than to hard reason. In fact, there’s a paradox here: Leavers scoff (rightly) at economists’ forecasting skills but fail to point out that forecasts fail because economies are so complex – and this same complexity is an argument for not disrupting trading rules unnecessarily thus creating uncertainty.
What’s more, with the cognitive bandwidth of our politicians limited, such issues will displace more important ones, such as how to tackle secular stagnation, the housing crisis, how to improve public services and the benefits system, and so on.
The political leader knows in advance that all change, however well intentioned, will disrupt the social fabric, with unforeseeable and potentially serious negative consequences. Still more is this true of sweeping, radical change…For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.
Unless you are a grotesque bigot, you cannot claim with any confidence that Brexit will bring overwhelming social benefit. Nor is there any “extreme necessity” – one of Whitehead’s “decisive moments” – why we should leave now. Yes, such a moment might occur in future – though nobody can tell – but for now we are rubbing along tolerably within the EU. We don’t therefore need to incur the massive cognitive cost of leaving.
From this perspective, Leavers are not conservatives. The kindest thing one can say about them is that they are radicals, but many of us would have less kind words.
There is, though, another point here, one I’ve made several times. It’s that one form of conservatism is largely lacking from our political discourse – a cool scepticism about rationality, perfectibility and top-down-driven social change. For me, this is a considerable loss.