David Cameron and Angela Merkel attend a meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It's a myth that Britain is sleepwalking towards Brexit

With the young most in favour of EU membership, euroscepticism faces death by demographics.

Britain is sleepwalking towards Brexit. That's increasingly the verdict of the commentariat, anyway. In today's Times, Dominic Cummings argues that "Voters don’t believe the prime minister when he says he’ll get a better deal for Britain in Europe". Last week, Matthew Parris wrote "Have no doubt. We’re heading for an EU exit". Matthew argued that "Britain is heading for the exit. Something seriously impressive has to be achieved to change our course." 

The rationale is simple. As Vernon Bogdanor warned in a recent lecture“Don’t imagine that Mr Cameron can pull off Harold Wilson’s trick a second time.”

Mr Wilson managed to convince the public that he had secured a triumphant renegotiation before the 1975 referendum, when he had done nothing of the sort. With the political class having never been held in more contempt - and the "Yes" camp in any referendum in 2017 certain not to enjoy the nine-to-one funding advantage that the pro-EU forces did 39 years ago - Mr Cameron would face a much more onerous task. Professor Bogdanor notes a Gallup poll in January 1975 showing a narrow majority in favour of leaving, while 71% said they would prefer to stay “If the Government negotiated new terms for Britain’s membership of the Common Market" - something that closely resembled the final result. "People could be greatly influenced by what the political leaders, in particular the leaders of the Labour Party, said". The implication is that the same is not true today.

But here's the thing: even if Professor Bogdanor is right, it won't matter. The polls tell us that Mr Cameron doesn't need to pull off Mr Wilson's trick. A YouGov survey last week, showed support for remaining in the EU at its highest level under the current government. The public suggest they would still listen to the advice of the government - there is a 35% lead in favour of staying in the EU in the event of Mr Cameron recommending that Britain does so. Yet, even without one, staying in is the preferred option: 44% would vote to remain in the EU, compared to 36% who would sooner leave. 

Even if the public were to ignore Mr Cameron's advice, he has already made his greatest contribution to the pro-EU cause. The near five-year gap between his pledge to hold an in-out referendum and the date when this would be amounts to a bump of several points for the "Yes" camp.

That's because of demographics. The generational divide among voters has never been starker than on Europe. The younger they are, the more Europhile they come. Today. only the over 60s support Brexit. Remaining in has an 8% advantage with 40-59-year-olds (even without a recommendation from the PM) - and it rises to 30% among the under-25s. While Britain has an ageing population, this is not, crudely put, enough to make up for the Eurosceptics who are passing away, because those who have been at university, studied abroad and always remember Britain being part of the EU tend to stubbornly cling onto pro European beliefs.

The upshot is simple. Every day that Britain waits for an referendum on its membership of the EU, remaining in becomes a more likely course. Unless opponents of the EU can locate a message that resonates with the young - nay, make that anyone under 60 - euroscepticism faces defeat by demographics. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt