AC Grayling on how Brexit may unravel

The philosopher and master of New College of the Humanities talks to Agnes Frimston about why he's still a Remain campaigner, the blackmailing of MPs and the implications of military technology on warfare

Why do you think Remain lost in the referendum when all the economic arguments were in favour of staying in the European Union?

As with most things, there’s never just one cause. On the Remain side, the campaign was lacklustre. The positive advantages of remaining in the EU were too little emphasized. Too much weight was placed just on the economic considerations.

There is another side of the story, however. Those who voted to remain, on the whole, had the same view. They had up to 40 years of experience of being in the EU, and they believed with more or less enthusiasm that it would be better to be in than out, whereas the Leave voters were of a very diverse range. They were an aggregated set of groups of people who may otherwise not have had anything in common. The aggregation was effected by a Leave campaign which, as we know, consisted of a great deal of misinformation, false promises and empty slogans. We’re discovering also that a lot of hidden manipulation went on by the use of big-data techniques and so-called ‘hyper targeting’.

Aren’t these techniques a fact of life in the 21st century? 

Yes, they’re perfectly legal and they are a feature of our technological age, but what we require is transparency. In my next book, Democracy and Its Crisis, I discuss the need for complete transparency about who’s involved and how they’re involved, what they’re doing, with what agenda, with what aim. But we also need caps on spending which include not just what happens in the period of a general election or a referendum campaign but the overall amount of investment that goes into the development of these technologies, because they are extremely expensive. If you have very wealthy individuals or groups able to bring them to bear, then in effect the amount of spending which has gone into the campaign could be vastly greater than the amount which went into the counter-argument.

You talk about the fact that the Leave campaign is deeply split. What does this mean for the future? 

There is a relatively small group of people who have had a long-standing and very clear agenda about leaving the EU and why they want it. Nobody else did. The rest had attitudes. They had a general sense, a feeling. Jonathan Swift said about this, ‘It’s very hard to reason people out of views that they weren’t reasoned into.’ It’s quite difficult to deal with people’s emotions and attitudes until those emotions and attitudes are changed by events. On the Leave side, what was aggregated was a variety of feelings of hostility or opposition − much nourished, of course, by our tabloid press.

As evidence of the difficulties and dangers, complexities and deficits of Brexit accumulates, so we might see that there’s no need to give the reasons, because the emotions will have changed. 

The Remain camp seems to be leaderless. What should people who want to Remain be doing?

Here we are, 11 months after the referendum and what we’ve seen is not a fading away of the Remain sentiment, but instead a strengthening of it. 

At this point, what we want is lots of different voices and lots of different groupings. The calling of the general election has put on hold how the Remain movements – plural – will coordinate or coalesce.  

There are views that there should be a single organization rallying behind a single leadership, with a single voice. That may very well happen. It’s very early days. 

There is no top-class political figure visible who might take the lead.

No, not at this juncture. However, there are quite a few top-class  figures who have quietly vacated the scene. George Osborne is not even standing for election this time round, because he is putting as much distance between himself and the legacy – the toxic chalice – as he possibly can. Whatever happens, you would expect him to reappear at some point in the future.

‘If I bribe, blackmail, threaten or refuse to promote one of my employees if they don’t toe the line I’m in trouble, but the whips do this every day’

As a Remain campaigner, how do you explain Theresa May’s high polling when her policy is to carry out a hard Brexit? 

It’s noticeable that the election is an election of Theresa May, essentially a sort of presidential election. At least some of the support is not support for her but horror at what’s happening in Labour. 

If our representative democracies actually worked, they would do a reasonable job. But in the United States of America, the system has been hijacked by money. It’s a plutocracy: you can buy the White House if you’ve got enough dollars. 

Here it doesn’t work because of insufficient transparency, a far too weak electoral commission, and a first-past-the-post voting system, which hideously distorts how things work. We get governments elected on a minority of the overall vote – a quite small minority – which are able to do absolutely anything because of what Lord Hailsham called our elective dictatorship, reinforced by the whipping system. 

One of the most extraordinary things that hardly anybody knows about our system is that the Palace of Westminster lies outside the remit of the common law. If I bribe, or blackmail, or threaten, or refuse to promote one of my employees if they don’t toe the line, I’m in trouble, but the whips do this in Parliament every day that there’s a vote.

They blackmail them?

They blackmail, and bribe them; they threaten them, they bully them. This is utterly unacceptable. I think that it’s legitimate to whip your MPs into the lobby for manifesto pledges, that’s the basis on which they were elected, but for anything else they should be independent and they should make up their own minds. 

How do you explain the rise of identity politics in western democracies? 

Here in the United Kingdom, one of the great anomalies of the situation is that David Hume − a Scotsman, and a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a proud citizen of Edinburgh − could describe his history of these islands as the history of England. It was because in the 18th century England denoted the English-speaking part of the world, which included Ireland and Scotland, so it wasn’t a nationalistic identity. The invention of Scottishness in the 19th century, the invention of the kilt, and tossing of the caber, goes to show that nationalism is a creation of political romanticism in the 19th century. It really didn’t exist before them. 

I think the idea of identity, and nationality, and nearby-neighbour ideas of ethnicity and race, all of them are very recent into our discourse. The Scots, or some of them, had a strong sense of difference between the Highlanders and Lowlanders mainly because of educational and cultural differences. Now the Scots think that they’re all Scots and are no longer divided between Highlanders and Lowlanders. 

The English: who and what are the English? Go to the North East, go to the South West, go to the Welsh Marches, go to Southern England, go to Kent. We’re not talking about people who have a real sense of belonging. You have people who belong to Liverpool, and people who belong to Newcastle, and Londoners, or maybe East Enders. You have tribalisms, but a sense of identity? Personally, I don’t think it really exists until it is artificially constructed for a particular purpose. 

Do people wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m English and my day is shaped by the fact that I have this sense of identity’? I just don’t believe it.

But they might if they were in Essex and they see a lot of East Europeans on the street. They might think: ‘They’re not like me. They’re taking my jobs.’

Yes, indeed, this would be a specific trigger. My argument is that questions of identity arise when they are triggered, and that would be one trigger. That would be one of the two kinds of case where xenophobia and anxiety about immigration arise. 

There are those people who live cheek by jowl with immigrant communities, who always overestimate their numbers, who think that they’re filling up the schools and hospitals, and their jobs, that kind of anxiety. 

Then the other kind of xenophobe is the kind who occupies an all-white village in Wiltshire and has never seen an immigrant in his or her life. The Daily Mail speaks to the one kind and The Sun to the other.

But there are some people who have genuinely lost out in Britain from being part of the EU, due to migrant workers depressing wages. Aren’t their grievances legitimate?

I’m certain that in every economy there will be people who lose out as a result of competition or of technological change. We are on the cusp of several decades of pain as a result of increasing automation, the application of machine intelligence and artificial intelligence or AI, and robots that are going to do many of the things that people do but much better. Heart surgery, teaching maths in primary school: done much better by robots than by human beings. 

They are also always painful transitions as a result of competition or of developments in commercial or industrial techniques. The fact that you’ve been put out of your job by a Polish plumber is one thing. 

To be put out of your job by another English plumber who happens to do the job better or more cheaply is the same thing.

But a Polish plumber will work for less…

The ‘red in tooth and claw’ capitalists will say that market forces are at work here. I fear that EU-style capitalism, which tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, is threatened in these islands by Brexit and the introduction in its place of a US-style capitalism, which would be every bit as harsh, if not harsher, in those market forces.

If Britain leaves the EU, will it be back in 15 years?

Almost certainly – for at least two reasons: one is that there is a body of determined, committed and persistent Remainers who, if they can’t stop Brexit, will continue to work and argue for a return to the EU family. The realities of life outside the EU, and everything that that implies, will make a return to the EU seem very attractive. 

When the realities kick in, a hard Brexit is going to seem to be an intolerable cost for the country. It may be that, if there is a Brexit, it will be a soft one. The point has been made among people in the Commission and the European Parliament that if it is a very soft Brexit, with a long transition period, then going back into the EU will be just a matter of throwing a switch. We’re talking five years to eight years − much less than 15 years – after which the cold shower of reality will have sodden us to the point where we think, ‘This really was a terrible mistake.’ 

You have written a book on war which discusses the mechanization of warfare. What threats does this pose?

We human beings seem to be completely incontinent when it comes to technological advances. If we can do something, we will do it. We don’t look at things and think, ‘We’d better not.’ If it can be done, it will be done. 

The threat on the military front is that these automated weapons systems are, in some cases, already among us, even if they’re not actually in operation yet. The future has already arrived in so many different respects, and we haven’t yet thought properly about how we’re going to govern them. 

Human Rights Watch has been urging governments and weapons manufacturers to be restrained when it comes to weapons systems which will have human beings out of the loop. The very inappropriately named LAWS are Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems that have humans out of the loop. They’re programmed in the chilling phrase, ‘to find, fix, and finish’, so they go off to find enemies – people or structures, or weapons systems – and attack them. These might be underwater systems, or surface-based systems, or aerial systems. 

When you consider that more than 30 per cent of the aircraft of the US Air Force are now unmanned, you see how these weapons systems are going to be fighting the wars of the future. It’s not going to be soldiers who fight soldiers; it’s going to be weapons systems that fight weapons systems and civilians. The military personnel are going to be back in Nevada or wherever, but the battlefield is going to be where the civilians are.

It’s a terrifying prospect because the control over them should be sensitive to a number of considerations. If you think about the humanitarian laws of war, they crucially include considerations like proportionality and discrimination. You’ve got to be able to tell the difference between a combatant and a non-combatant. Even in the case of combatants, the use of force should be proportional. These are aspirations, but better to have aspirations than nothing at all. 

You need to have an AI system in your out-of-the-loop autonomous weapons system which is able to tell the difference
between somebody surrendering and somebody about to throw a hand grenade. How is it going to do that? That kind of subtlety of discrimination about human intentions requires a real advance in AI. Imagine a human being walking towards one of these weapon systems. Does the person not know it is there, or wants to surrender, or is about to attack? A human being might not be able to tell, but a human being is more likely to be able to tell than a machine.

A problem of democracy is that the votes of the old always outweigh the votes of the young, so nostalgia seems to win every time. What do you tell your students about this?

Firstly, we should reduce the voting age to 16 and we should make voting compulsory, as it is in Belgium and in Australia. I say to my students that the 18 to 24 demographic is very important. Were all the 18 to 24 year olds to register for this coming election and were they to vote tactically, there might not be a majority for Theresa May. Imagine how it is for this demographic: politics and government are things that grown-ups do and it’s all too difficult. You don’t bother about it. You turn 18, but there’s not an election that year. Maybe there isn’t an election until you’re 22 or 23. By that time you’re way out of the loop. You feel disconnected and it doesn’t matter, not important. Also, if we had a proportional representation system, then every vote would really count. 

We are sitting here in the New College of the Humanities which you founded as a private university. Is private the future of universities? 

Not necessarily. I think that a civilized, advanced society should invest heavily in education, at every level, including the tertiary level. Primary and secondary education should be free. 

At the tertiary level, because having a tertiary education confers a greater advantage on people, the question of making some contribution to it, either by paying fees or through tax afterwards, seems to be fair. There is a question that you sometimes hear right-wingers ask, which is very difficult to answer. Why should the country pay for you to get an advantage over your fellows in society? Why should the bus driver and the plumber be paying for you to be able to get a better job than they’ve got and to earn more? 

Why shouldn’t you make some contribution, some investment? It can’t be the whole expense, but it should be one which is shared between the individual beneficiary and society, because the beneficiary is going to be a benefit to society. 

I also think that if you made it impossible for there to be alternatives providers, or private education, that would be draconian because a society should be open and liberal enough to say, ‘People can take their chances.’ If they want to set up a school, do things differently, see if people will come and prefer that style of education, then why not? 

Do you have a role model, as an activist philosopher?

The most immediate role model is Bertrand Russell, whose portrait hangs in the hallway downstairs. He famously said: ‘Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.’ It’s the task of the philosopher to try to prompt a little bit of thinking.

‘Democracy and Its Crisis’ is to be published in September by Oneworld