One thing the referendum campaign has cheered me up about, paradoxically, is the social acceptability of outright racism. One thing it’s profoundly depressed me about is the social acceptability of outright bullshit.
Consider the Leavers’ arguments about immigration.
If you’re not going to make some essentialist argument that foreigners are just bad – i.e. to come right out as a racist – you’re going to make some argument about population. There are too many people, pressure on public services, etc. But the UK population is growing quite strongly even without the contribution from net migration. Logically, if you believe net migration is a problem because population you should believe population growth is. Nobody on that side wants less population, nor do they have any plan to spend more on public services, develop cities outside London, or whatever.
So it’s only a problem if they’re foreigners? Isn’t that…a bit racist? Well, now we get the argument that we could have just as many immigrants, but from the Commonwealth rather than the European Union. First of all, if you believe this, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Secondly, this makes so little sense. If you’re worried about too many people, or foreigners taking our jobs, why would Nigerians be any better than Italians?
The next dodge is the famous points system. The problem here is that once you set up a system where you get into the country if you have X points, you’ve implicitly committed to accepting anyone who makes the cut. If you believe that an Englishman has won first prize in the lottery of life, yadda yadda, you should also believe that it would be worth doing almost anything to rack up the points. All countries that have had a points system have done so in order to get more immigrants. Also, if you really are worried about immigrants from Europe, who are the two iconic figures of European immigration? The Polish plumber and the French engineer, both of whom would ace the shit out of any conceivable points system.
The appeal to points is interesting in its Michael Young, Rise of the Meritocracy quality. We’re going to get rid of the immigrants by setting them an exam! Because, as Young pointed out, privilege that is expressed by credentials you get by passing an exam is seen as justified, not least by the people who pass. Ironically, as the thing about exams is that you can pass them if you practise a lot, this promises to subvert the whole thing. And of course no generation was ever as trusting in exams as the people who want to leave the EU, who were also precisely the people Michael Young was worrying about. It’s as if the baby boomers want to check out with one final, epic act of credentialism, a giant collective A-level. Perhaps Young’s predictions finally came to pass, just with regard to nationality rather than class?
Anyway, what gets me about the whole rhetorical circus is that the people behind Vote Leave really, really believe at some level that Britain has a racist majority (note that John Mann MP, a big fan of unpopular-populism, has suddenly discovered Euroscepticism), but at the same time, they realise that everyone who has ever tried this has lost, horribly, and there’s probably a reason for that. That’s why they have to include the unlikely promise of lots more Pakistani immigrants, pretend to care about schools whose budget they slashed as education secretary, or outsource their prejudices to an exam paper.
Something has to fill the gap between the two beliefs, and that something is bullshit in the full Harry Frankfurter sense of the word – speech divorced from reality, to which it makes as much sense to say “truth” or “lies” as it does to say “green” or “capacitive”. The prejudice against that still needs work.