Brexit and the rejection of reason

by Mandy Cormack | 07.08.2018

When Theresa May became prime minister in July 2016, with the bruising, divisive referendum campaign fresh in people’s minds, she adopted a conciliatory tone. It did not last long. Ever since then her government has taken a harsh binary stance, reinforcing the political divisions of the referendum vote, careless of the unity of the UK.

Gone is the pragmatic political discourse for which Britain, a leader in the Enlightenment, is renowned. In its place comes ideologically-driven, political grand-standing on which the government has had continually to compromise. Optimistic trade initiatives have faltered, confident assertions of new freedoms and wealth have dwindled. The government relies on the most ideological Brexiters to shore up its position, the Prime Minister succumbing to their discredited slogans, abandoning any pretence of one nation leadership.

The response of pro-EU voters has been to hunker down, wrong-footed by the cynics peddling tales of the inadequacies of the European dream, and bullied by Brexiter assertions of Britain’s (mythical) pre-eminence in a globalised world. But those who now argue that “the people have spoken” are in danger of accepting a deeply-flawed Brexit process which is as much a threat to democracy as its conclusion.

Insight into this standoff comes in a recent book* by Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard university. Although writing from the US, Pinker’s core case – “that we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril” – is as relevant to Britons as Americans today.

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“Obliviousness to the scope of human progress” has opened the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science and humanism, to attack on two sides, he argues. One onslaught suggests that “the rise of political movements that depict their countries as being pulled into hellish dystopia … can be resisted only by a strong leader who wrenches the country backward to make it great again.” The other is represented by “many of the fiercest opponents (of these movements), in which the institutions of modernity (such as liberal democracy and organisations of international cooperation) have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis.”

Between these two extremes, the Enlightenment-inspired institutions on which we have come to depend to secure human progress, have been left wide open to mis-representation, denigration and hostility.

Pinker’s argument, that we have lost sight of the gains humankind has made through the application of the Enlightenment values of science, reason and humanism, goes to the heart of the Brexit debate as it has evolved. The understanding that humanity is imperfect, that our history is not of some mythical golden age, but rather a brutish, dangerous, painful past, which humans have improved step-by-step through the application of reason, is in danger of being thrown away.

Brexiters blithely dismiss 40 years of achievements in civilising international relations in Europe. Granted, the creativity shown in the European democratic institutions is imperfect: most truly ground-breaking innovation does need continuing reform and development. But to throw away the gains without seeking to replace them by applying equal intellectual rigour, which, in its twisting lies and half-truths, is what the May government is failing to do, is to discard the very strengths that have brought humanity so far.

The Brexit debate has sorely tested the patience of our partners in Europe and the spirit of political tolerance here in the UK. But as a fight for reason, science and humanism in 21st century politics, it is a fight worth articulating – and winning. To give up on resisting the Brexit process now would be a betrayal, an indefensible act of appeasement which would signal a retreat from the very Enlightenment values of rational thought on which we all in 21st century society depend.

Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now – the case for reason, science, humanism and progress. Published by Allen Lane Penguin Random House UK 2018.

Edited by Quentin Peel

8 Responses to “Brexit and the rejection of reason”

  • I know you shouldn’t say so, but apart from the cynical Brexit profiteers this article simply is too intellectual for the average leave voter. And besides Brexit running short of EU patience, the one thing that irritates deeply there is the massive cost Brexit inflicts without the EU citizens being able to diminish the impact at all. In future relations between the UK (or what is left of it) and the EU I would venture a guess that this is going to be the main bone of discontent. Especially if the UK would fail to pay the agreed billions on crashing out.

  • It’s about taking things for granted. The anti-science cults are strongest in places like California which have benefited most from technological achievements. The back to nature movements, new age philosophies and half baked movements of all kinds thrive in places which are furthest from the hardships which existed before.

    That’s why Trump is a climate change denier and an anti-vaccine proponent, and why measles had returned to claim lives in the USA. Trump, like Johnson, has lived a life of privilege with no awareness of what has enabled him to do so. They’ve simply had it too good for too long.

    Brexiters have forgotten about the horrors of two world wars. Britain today is in many ways like Britain in 1914. Full of people bored with their comfortable lives, spoiling for a fight with the enemy across the channel. Waving their flags and oblivious to the destruction ahead.

    I fear it is part of a natural cycle of things – civilisation followed by decline and fall, peace alternating with war, as each generation fails to learn the lessons of the past. Whether reason can prevail this time and prevent another cycle from occurring, remains to be seen.

  • I concur with both the remarks above. I am sorry to say that much of this ‘ignorance’ about the EU is down to a lack of basic political education in our schools. When we joined the EU (EEC) in 1973, schools were flooded with free material about how Europe was structured, why the EU came into existences and its role in free trade etc. I remember teaching all of this to youngsters who were keen to learn. How many people now have any idea of the above basic information? It is why EU elections have such a low turn out. How many people would have voted for Farage as an MEP if they knew his brief was to destroy the EU and cause mayhem for the UK?
    People now get their information about the EU from the popular press and, thus, their negative attitude. It is not rocket science. We have not done enough to destroy all the lies and myths circulated by these dreadfully biased publications.
    I am also deeply saddened that too many youngsters studying GCSE and A Level History can study Nazi German at both levels. In many cases this reinforces negative stereotypes and, although it may not be PC to say it, too many hark back to the war and the days of Empire. It is ingrained into the national psyche and reinforced by the dreadful, dreadful right wing press. It is shockingly depressing that this country has not moved on to accept a new role as a leading member of a progressive and future looking EU.

  • The problem for me is that dishonest people are leading members of the government. Mrs May must know it is time to come clean and admit there is no good Brexit but has she the guts to talk for 30 minutes to the British people on television and say Brexiteers are downright liars and should be charged with treason. Their lies have already devalued the Pound and made most people poorer.
    They brush that under the carpet and claim the fears about Brexit were dreamed up by stupid people. (ignore experts they said even the Governor of the Bank of England).
    Today in a world with Trump and Putin and Iran and North Korea standing together is common sense even for a child or simpleton like me !

  • One of the great mistakes of the remain side during the referendum campaign was the fallure to put across an inspiring case for UK membership of the EU as distinct from predictions of economic damage if we were to leave. Have a look at the last 5 minutes or so of the attached interview given by the former President of Ireland Mary McAleese at the Irish Embassy in London a couple of months ago. That’s the sort of message we want and should shout from the rooftops if and when there is any chance of a “people’s vote.”


  • Thank you for that. It was just superb. If only we had an inspirational voice from the Left saying that in this country.

  • Please don’t call these organs the popular press. They Are the *foreign-owned * press. The so called offshore ownership is of course foreign. That is wh they are so irresponsible.

  • A simple illustration is that in the 80s the UK while still in the EEC was the sick man of Europe. It took becoming a member of the EU to charge up the economy and increase it up to what it became in 2015.