Pontificating Professors

Headline: This ‘will of the people’ talk must stop – we need a better democracy than that

We know that most academics voted Remain in the referendum. Not, of course, because universities have access to considerable EU funds, but because membership of the EU is best for the UK, in their opinion. conversation

We read many articles each week from The Conversation, a website by and for academics, which, without exception, take digs at Brexit or attack it directly. Perhaps it’s time we dug back and pointed out that professors’ opinions outside their areas of academic expertise are of similar value to anyone else’s opinions, that is not much, including our own, except where supported by evidence.

In this post we’ll take a single example, not because the author is egregious but because his opinions are similar to so many others and because he backs them up with the authority of his professorship rather than with evidence.

The other problem with professorial punditry, apart from the lack of supporting evidence or even an acknowledgement that there should be some, is the wilful refusal to consider any evidence from the other side, the Brexit side, notably the comprehensive failure to consider the consequences for the UK as a member if the EU breaks upeu_futures-1. We believe that this is a real risk and that people who advocate remaining in the EU should include a consideration of this risk when they offer their opinions on behalf of the rest, at least those who are not “delusional”.

James McDougall is Associate Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford so his authority, on matters of modern history, is not in question. However, he chooses to denigrate the UK’s democracy, perhaps because a majority of referendum voters chose the wrong option. He is not alone in questioning the value of democracy when people vote the wrong way; this is frequent in the EU, which has established a reputation for disdaining and over-riding the views of its citizens.

Professor McDougall has an article, dated February 7th, in The Conversation.

We’ll start with his offer of some ‘alternative facts’:

The Article 50 Bill is set to be voted through parliament, amended or not. Then Britain’s secession from the European Union will begin. So will the removal of citizens’ rights that withdrawal will entail. Parliament’s vote will give proper legal force to the advisory referendum result, which had the moral legitimacy of a popular vote but no legally binding authority. Conservative and Labour MPs are told that they must respectthe will of the peopleenshrined in the Leave vote.” democracy-1

He wants us to believe that Brexit will cost British citizens some of their rights. He offers no evidence, he just presents his opinion as if it were fact. He fails to mention that some rights will be restored, because that would spoil his gripe. We wonder what would have been the professor’s view of the referendum result had it gone his way.

Then he opens his challenge to ‘the will of the people’.

Democracy, in most democratic societies, is a process of informed debate. Conflicts are mediated, divergent views reconciled as far as possible. A consensus is reached that takes account of differing views in the general interest.”

This reads like some utopian vision of democracy rather than the messy, simplistic version that we live with in practice. The yes/no referendum is more representative of democracy in practice; perhaps
his version would have produced a ‘better’ result, or perhaps it would have made no difference. The elected government chose the fact and the form of the referendum and, at the time, no one questioned its democratic legitimacy, though many complained that it was crude. 

The politics of Brexit lay bare how shallow democratic political culture in Britain really is. … British political history is not one of deep-rooted democracy.”

democracy-2We think he may mean the result of the referendum rather than the “politics of Brexit“, whatever they are. He goes on to provide us with a short history of the origins of British democracy – which is in his field of expertise – concluding:

But that never made Britain’s people sovereign… Britain has never had a generalised, mass political culture of informed, engaged citizenship. … ordinary people have been expected to do what they’re told – and have sometimes been bullied into doing it.”

This clearly contradicts his earlier claim, quoted above, that democracy, “in most democratic societies,” is a process of informed debate, and so on. But that was wishful thinking anyway. The referendum at least gave access to a “generalised, mass political … engaged citizenship” (the biggest turnout ever) who refused “to do what they [were] told” in spite of being “bullied into doing it.” Some of us “ordinary people” were pretty well informed (on both sides) despite being deliberately misinformed by both campaigns.

The referendum campaigns put this shallowness of democratic culture on full display. … Leave had no real program to offer but won on the emotive appeal of slogans. ” slogans-1

He really doesn’t like the outcome of the referendum. When the only means to express their views is a yes/no referendum, delegating a decision to voters, and the result displeases the professor, then democracy must be flawed. We doubt that we would have read this had the result gone the other way. And Remain had no program either, having run into the sand trying to get the EU to change to accommodate UK interests. There was no programme to address the harm of further integration; of being outvoted on matters of national importance (under QMV) or our courts overruled under a radically different code of justice from our native, evolved one; or of protecting us from a still highly likely collapse of the unstable single-currency union. This is partiality unbecoming of a professor of any discipline, especially his.

Understandable “is the discomfiture of politicians suddenly required to enact a policy which only the most delusional among them support, and which almost all responsible assessments judge to be against the national interest.”

This is all opinion, to which the author is entitled. But if he wants to be respected as an Oxford professor he should apply the same rigorous standards of evidence-supported fact that he no doubt does when writing his academic papers. Or he should make it clear that he is offering his opinions as a concerned citizen, not as a professor.

Brexit … has revealed the historic weaknesses and vulnerabilities, not the strength, of British democracy. After Brexit, Britain will need something better than this.”


The professor’s knowledge of history has revealed all this, not Brexit. We might agree that a crude yes/no referendum reveals a weakness of our democracy but we would not argue that the result reveals any such thing. The professor does not argue this, he merely states it, and we are not expected to challenge him. Also, many “responsible assessments” are changing – in the City, at the IMF and even by some of the EU nations’ leaders – given the failure of pre-Referendum forecasts. 

We believe that we have shown in our blog, with evidence and beyond reasonable doubt, that remaining in the EU would be “against the national interest”.


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