Anti-intellectualism at the Heart of British National Identity
[…] no people has ever despised and distrusted the intellect and intellectuals more than the British.
‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts’, proclaimed prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove in a live Q&A session during the recent Brexit debate in the UK. This statement became the most notorious example of what Dominic Shellard, Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University, criticized as the ‘pernicious anti-intellectualism’ that characterized—and impoverished—much of the debate. Shellard also expressed the concern, shared by a number of academics, that the Leave campaign’s victory was at least partly due to its use of such anti-‘expert’ rhetoric.
Of course, the referendum, and the anaemic debate that preceded it, seem to have receded to the point of insignificance in the hectic weeks since. While there was some discussion in the British press of the crass anti-intellectualism inherent in Gove’s remark prior to the vote, in its wake interest has shifted to the political consequences of Brexit on the one hand, and on the other to the far more obvious and ominous cult of ignorance represented by Donald Trump in the United States.
To gloss over the Brexiteers’ comments now, however, would be a mistake, particularly for a historian. First, despite the pace of post-Brexit developments, the referendum took place only a little over a month ago; by any non-journalistic standards, it is still very recent history.
Second, and more interestingly, Gove’s comment is notable as an example of a specifically British strain of anti-intellectualism that has been embedded in the national consciousness for centuries. Indeed, the UK can almost be considered the motherland of anti-intellectualism. In his study of the phenomenon in his own country’s cultural and political life, American historian Richard Hofstadter suggested that ‘anti-intellectualism, though it has its own universality, may be considered a part of our English cultural inheritance, and that it is notably strong in Anglo-American experience’. More playfully, journalist Ben Wright has opined that ‘The UK has a long tradition of wariness towards intellect—where else in the world would the phrase “too clever by half” be considered an insult?’ Anti-intellectual ideas in Britain have long been a basis for political ideology, as a source of national pride and distinctiveness and, therefore, as a highly useful instrument of demagoguery.
Beware the eggheads
It is worth noting that, despite the presence of an ‘ism’ in its name, anti-intellectualism is rarely a distinct ideology or movement. Far more often, it appears as a tendency underlying other socio-political outlooks.
As defined by Hofstadter, anti-intellectualism views academics or specialists as ‘pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive’. In its milder form, intellectuals are dismissed as idealistic hermits, out of touch with the ‘everyday concerns of the majority’, and their knowledge and opinions deemed impractical or irrelevant. In its more rabid manifestation, they may be presented as an outright threat to the prevailing cultural or political orthodoxy—and therefore to the majority’s way of life. As a result, ‘the anti-intellectual is often anxious not to be marked as part of an educated elite, the kind of person that they suspect uses ideas and language to maintain a position of power’.
Anti-intellectualism couples this denunciation with a populist championing of the virtues of ordinary folk. ‘The plain sense of the common man’, as Hofstadter explains, ‘is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in the schools […] In any case, the discipline of the heart, and the old-fashioned principles of religion and morality, are more reliable guides to life than an education which aims to produce minds responsive to new trends in thought and art’. Anti-intellectuals have therefore often attempted to frame their stance as a contribution to democracy: the insistence that everyone’s opinions on all topics are equal, that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’, seems appealingly egalitarian.
In this way, anti-intellectualism is elevated almost to a moral principle, a principle embedded in various ideas and institutions integral to modern British national identity.
The country of ‘common sense’
More specifically, and in contrast to its populist and anti-elitist pretensions, anti-intellectualism has repeatedly emerged as a hallmark of the conservative strand of British nationalism. Ed Rooksby, for instance, has set out the way in which anti-intellectualism usually serves a ‘deeply conservative function. Prevailing practices, institutions and hierarchies are insulated from criticism—they are simply “reality” and part of the natural order of things. Those who do engage in far-reaching criticism of what exists are alien and un-British and, anyway, such thinking is both silly and dangerous simultaneously and should be treated with contempt’.
This position is rarely articulated explicitly, but underlies many conservative criticisms of radical change and reform. By denouncing such change as anti-British, and associating their own interests with those of the nation more broadly, conservative thinkers are able to present their ideology as the most in tune with the national psyche, and therefore the most legitimate.
As researchers such as Rooksby and David Simpson have argued, the British relationship with anti-intellectualism stretches back at least as far as the seventeenth century, when landed gentry began expressing anti-rationalist ideas in an attempt to discredit Parliamentarian radicals demanding land reform. Rational abstraction and theory began to be linked to ‘dangerous levelling tendencies’ and unnecessary interference with the status quo. These negative associations were reinforced by the French Revolution, which was widely considered to be ‘principally the result of ideas’—ideas which had demolished the old regime in France, and threatened to do the same across the Channel. Anti-intellectualism served as a ‘defensive ideological shield’ of sorts, justifying and protecting the position of the ruling classes. In the process, it also became a means of distinguishing Britain from continental Europe (particularly France), offering the reassuring narrative that the British were secured against such radicalism by their own national mentality. This idea was bolstered by flattering comparisons between British and European intellectual traditions, with the empiricism of Isaac Newton juxtaposed with French and German Idealism and rationalism.
The codifier of British anti-intellectualism in this period was the eighteenth-century statesman and theorist Edmund Burke. Burke’s work on conservative doctrine incorporated the first detailed, ‘worked-out justification’ of anti-intellectual thought, developing the latter into a ‘key organizing component’ of British conservatism. Perhaps the most important element of Burke’s work was his assertion that anti-intellectualism stemmed from an understanding of ‘common sense’. The notion that the world could be comprehended simply by applying ‘common sense’ was a powerfully attractive one, with profound implications for politics, scientific enquiry and morality. Theory, from a Burkean perspective, was a distraction and an over-complication in all these areas, and should be opposed.
This idea resonated with the ruling classes and, later, the broader British populace, and over the following centuries the belief was consolidated that a distrust of theory, grounded in ‘common sense’, was a unique and virtuous national trait. As Rooksby claims, this form of no-nonsense, anti-intellectual patriotism ‘continues to circumscribe and limit British intellectual culture today’. Certainly, its echoes are discernible in modern discourse on elitism, ‘pretentiousness’ and ‘inverse snobbery’, as well as in more earnest political debates on ‘post-truth politics’. The Brexit debate bore similar traces of this heritage—both its Eurosceptic and its anti-intellectual branches.
Part of the national tapestry
None of this is to suggest that the Brexit debate was merely, or even mostly, an anti-intellectual propaganda campaign; it was far more complex. The content and colour of the debate were certainly influenced by well-founded, longer-term concerns about the disconnect between political and academic elites and the general public, and these concerns were reflected, though not best represented, in the anti-intellectual rhetoric of Gove, Gisela Stuart, Nigel Farage and other prominent Brexiteers. Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that the British public is in fact more trusting of ‘experts’ than these figures claimed.
As the above makes clear, however, anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in modern understandings of Britishness, and is likely to factor into any national conversation of this sort. Tightly woven into what the British consider their national character, it may surface as anything from a resource to be tapped by political populists, to a minor irritant in an otherwise healthy debate. In any event, however, it is too important to ignore.
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