Never underestimate the talent of Remain in scoring own-goals. Tony Blair claiming to be the rebel with a cause; Lord Adonis accusing the BBC of Brexit bias (cough, splutter); and Ian McEwan urging a second referendum because the stubborn oldies will soon be dead. These anti-democrats pollute the airwaves with their verbal farts, but as opinion polls persistently show, the ordinary people don't take them seriously. But now, in an article that must qualify as 'peak Guardian', a commentator has the ultimate plan: stop thickos from voting!
The author is Dambisa Boyo, a prominent African economist who has made sensible contributions to the debate on international aid. She sees through the virtue-signalling of Western governments, whose guilt-ridden largesse is doing more harm than good. Uncritically lavished aid has exacerbated corruption and inequality, and made poor Africans more dependent than ever. Dambisa would take the Christian approach: give a man a fish and he'll eat for day; give him a fishing rod and he'll eat for life. So it's a pity that she has discredited herself with this faux pas.
According to Dambisa, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump demonstrate democracy in crisis. Overlooking Project Fear and the relentless Remain propaganda, she attributes the Leave verdict to fake news lapped up by the gullible masses. In a radical retreat from universal suffrage, Dambisa wants adults to take an intelligence test before receiving a voting card: -
'Why not give all voters a test of their knowledge? This would ensure maximum standards that should lead to higher-quality decision-making by the electorate.'
I've heard a similar idea before. In a mental health lecture recently, I was discussing the hazards of care in the community for patients with paranoid psychosis, and referred to a tragic case of homicide. I showed reports from the Daily Mail and Sun. The students sounded like they were on a media studies course, taking Marshall McLuhan's line that the medium is the message. When I asserted that the story was true (and reported fairly sensitively), some students argued that the paucity of intellect among Sun readers made them unsuited to receiving this information. They would be likely to stigmatise the mentally ill, while racial stereotypes would be reinforced by the killer being black and the victim white. Therefore, tabloid newspapers should be restricted in what news they publish.
Populism is a menace, we are told by the liberal elite. It is fuelled by a plethora of nefarious influences – the Russians, for example. Was the scaffolder in Stockton-on-Tees or the haberdasher in Honiton really compelled to vote Leave by the Kremlin? Those tortuous conspiracy charts in the Observer, linking Vote Leave to Vladimir Putin, are nonsense to ordinary voters. It's simply another tactic to reverse the largest mandate in Britain's electoral history.
According to Dambisa, 'the response to those questioning the Brexit vote has been to use the language of autocrats'. But while 'enemies if the people' is an aggressive phrase, it is not technically wrong. By definition, anyone who rejects the referendum result opposes democracy. She states that the Polish government has 'violate the European Union's founding principles, which include human rights and the rule of law'. Yet the EU is trying to subvert Polish democracy, thereby breaching Poles' human rights.
Nonetheless, let's give Dambisa's proposal some consideration. As she believes that voters go to the booths unaware of the facts, let's use the EU referendum as a retrospective testing ground. Instead of relying on public understanding of the pros and cons of EU membership, eligibility could have depended on correct answers to the following questions: -
- Name your MEPs
- Where does the EU parliament sit?
- Who are the five EU commissioners?
- Which of the following describes how an EU law is made: (a) proposed and passed by commissioners; (b) proposed by commissioners then debated and passed by MEPs; (c) proposed, debated and passed by MEPs; (d) proposed by MEPS then passed by commissioners
The second item is tricky, as I guess that few people are aware of the annual migration to Strasbourg. But it seems fair to ask where our laws are made, who makes them and how. We would have been left with a small sample of the population, I fear – but probably losing no more Leavers than Remainers. My discussions with students prior to the plebiscite showed limited knowledge of basic workings of the EU; it just seemed progressive and inclusive to them. Values trumped fact.
While Dambisa is justified in warning of the impact of social media, the phenomenon of increasingly polarised echo chambers is primarily a cultural rather than electoral problem.She then presents an absurd contradiction. Falling voter participation (certainly not seen in the EU referendum) is undermining democracy, she claims – but the solution is to bar people from the register!
The vote must be earned, she argues. But an IQ test may be unnecessary. The Chinese Communist government could advise Dambisa on its 'social credit' rating, whereby each citizen is scored on ideological compliance through an automated algorithm. A careless posting on Weibo will make it harder for the person to get a job or research funding, or travel abroad. This is the difference between democracy and totalitarianism.
Moving further into Brave New World territory, Dambisa suggests that 'a further move to improve credibility could be to link politicians' pay to the broader progress of the country'. Hmmm… it's unlikely that our establishment, immersed in identity politics, would use economic indicators. Hate crime would be a contender. Perhaps the metric could favour a low incidence, or the opposite – a higher number of prosecutions.
In Dambisa's qualified representation, Guardian readers will have nothing to fear. Not that they're inherently brighter; just that they'll know the socially-acceptable answer to questions like 'what did the EU do for us?' The rest of us may never enter a polling station again.