This interview was conducted at the 2017 European Think Tank Summit, hosted by Chatham House.
You’ve recently qualified your assertion that people have ‘had enough of experts’. Can you explain why?
When I was being interviewed on Sky by Faisal Islam, he put it to me that there were a number of economists and organizations of economic prestige that questioned the arguments for leaving the European Union and said that it would be a mistake if we did. I countered it by saying people have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms that have got things so wrong in the past. And Faisal Islam, as a skilled interrogator, cut me off half way, so while I completed my sentence he took the first half and said ‘people have had enough experts?’ and used that as a fencing posture in the interview itself.
One of the things I have sought to do is to explain why I said what I said. Now the words I used have been taken out of context, but that’s just part of politics. So while I feel a need to remind people of what I actually said I don’t get too het up by the fact that my words, like those of many politicians or many actors in public debate, sometimes get a little bit skewed. That’s just life.
If experts are a problem where should people go for trustworthy information?
I’d say always look for the dissenting voice. I think the most important thing is to, when you’ve got a settled consensus, look at the people who are challenging it. And if you think their arguments are well constructed, then pay close attention; if you think it’s just bogus nonsense then fine, but always test every proposition. The idea that things should be taken simply on trust because of someone’s position I think is an invitation to intellectual conformity and what we need is a vigorous, debating, dissenting culture.
Now of course there are some propositions – the earth is round – where the opposition to it has been so discredited that it’s easier to discount it right from the beginning, but there are other propositions – for example, the best way to organize your economy – where the right thing to do is to look at dissenting views and then make your own mind up using skills that hopefully a good education will have instilled.
Isn’t there a danger that this leads to undermining trust in important institutions, for instance what we’ve seen with the judiciary in the UK?
I think it’s certainly the case that you can’t have the effect of the operation of the rule of law unless you accept the judges and their rulings should be respected. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a degree of dissent. Indeed, in our recent Supreme Court verdict on Article 50 and its triggering, the judges themselves disagree. And some people have argued that the minority or dissenting judgement encapsulates the arguments more effectively than the majority judgement.
I think the right thing to do is to strike a balance, so there should be respect for institutions like our Supreme Court but there should also be respect for people who choose to dissent, but who dissent in a respectful way that is rooted in reasonable disagreement. When things descend into name calling or when the argument becomes raucous or uncivilized then that is a problem and therefore all of us, I hope, in public life, have a responsibility to balance welcoming divergent views while recognizing a proper tone, a civilized tone, needs to be maintained in all debate.
Would you consider yourself a populist?
No I wouldn’t – and I think that ‘populist’ is sometimes used as a badge which isn’t always deserved. To use an old trope: ‘I am a democrat, you’re a populist, he is Donald Trump’. My own view is that there are some political movements that do trade in simplistic solutions and, for the sake of argument, I would say that Marine Le Pen and the Front National are one. I could never bring myself to vote for them if I were a French citizen in the same way that I wouldn’t vote for particular political parties here. I think that I am a centre-right, economically classically liberal conservative, so in that sense I don’t think I am a populist at all. Some of the views that I hold on a variety of matters from the nature of education to the future of capitalism are not populist views, no.
What are your thoughts about Donald Trump’s exclusion of particular news agencies from the White House press room?
I think that’s wrong. The whole point about power is that it should be held accountable and the whole point about the media is that you should encourage the maximum free expression and the maximum pluralism.
John Major has criticized the government this week for being overly optimistic about Brexit. Do you think the government will be able to meet the expectations of the British people once negotiations have taken place?
I do yes. I think some of those that were involved in the Remain camp feel a need to criticize the government, criticize the prime minister, and cast doubt on the potential for success. I think the PM has proved in her period in office so far that she is a skilful negotiator whom people should underestimate at their peril and therefore I am confident that she will be able to not just secure a good deal for Britain with respect to its arrangements for the EU but will be able to put in place the types of policies that will help Britain to succeed.