EU Referendum

Booker: Brexit, global warming and group think


Conscious of the torrent of ill-natured criticisms of his stance, Booker goes on the offensive in this week's column with a study on "groupthink".

The debate on Brexit, he suggests, has much in common with political correctness, the obsession with "gender identity", the belief in man-made global warming, both sides in last year's US presidential election.

His view is based on the insights of Irving Janis, a professor of psychology at Yale back in the Seventies, about whom Booker wrote three years ago, under the heading: "Sinister groupthink powers the modern world", and about which I have also written.

Janis can help us to understand so many phenomena in our present world - which amounts to a unique contribution to science. It was he who provided the first disciplined analysis of how the more extreme forms of group think work.

A group of people get caught up in a belief system which in some way doesn't accord with the real world. Ceasing to think for themselves, they are so convinced they are intellectually and morally right that they cannot accept any evidence contradicting their "narrative". They therefore become intolerant of anyone who dares to disagree with them.

Booker has recently been writing a paper on how this helps us to understand the need to insist that there is a "consensus" on man-made climate change. Those who accept it are not just eager to clutch at any scare story or dubious evidence that seems to confirm their narrative.

But what is so special about the phenomenon is their need to demonise those who question their grasp on reality as being just "deniers", "anti-science" or people who could only argue publicly for such ridiculous views because they are being paid by the "fossil fuel lobby".

Janis's analysis helps to explain why the BBC has such a self-righteously one-sided "party line" in its coverage of so many issues, making sure that those who disagree with it are either kept off the airwaves or only allowed on with the intention of making them look ridiculous.

This certainly explains the intolerance in every form of political correctness, such as that which is now so poisoning life in many universities, and why the "anti-imperialists" and "anti-racists" get so hot under the collar about statues of Cecil Rhodes or the fact that Bristol’s most famous concert hall is named after a man called Colston who made his money from the slave trade back in the 17th century.

Long one of the more conspicuous examples of groupthink was the "consensus" that Britain should be grateful for being part of the EU. Anyone who questioned this was scorned as "anti-European", a "little Englander", a "xenophobe". This was seen at its most blatant in the campaign, so actively promoted by the BBC, for Britain to join the euro.

Today, says Booker, all that has gone into reverse. When it comes to group think, this is still evident among some of those who wept in disbelief when last year's referendum result was announced, but they are now drowned out by the exultant group think of the ultra-Brexiteers.

These are the people who remain blithely unconcerned by all the boring and complicated details of what would have been required for us to extricate ourselves from the EU in a sensible, satisfactory fashion, to fall back on vacuous wishful thinking.

There was a time when one could smile at the more light-headed Eurosceptics who, a year or two back, were telling us that we could ignore Article 50 ("just a trap"), and that all we had to do was "repeal the European Communities Act", and we could just "walk away". Some of us used to call them "the magic wand merchants".

But today it looks as though these wavers of magic wands have taken over the asylum, still prattling away about those wonderful "free trade deals"; that "we can just rely on WTO rules"; that "a bad deal would be worse than no deal"; and that "to stay in the single market would be the same as remaining in the EU".

Vitriolic about anyone who disagrees, they remain oblivious to the stark reality roaring down on us as the negotiations approach, with the other side insisting that no talks can begin until we agree to pay for all the future financial commitments we have signed up to as members, and that we cannot begin negotiating trade deals with the outside world until we have formally left the EU.

They seem blissfully unaware of all the complex technicalities involved in any arrangement whereby, as a "third country", we could continue to trade with the single market which still takes 45 percent of our exports and supplies 30 percent of the food in supermarkets.

Most terrifying, Booker concludes, is that these same victims of group think may be about to represent us at the negotiating table. As he has said before, those on the other side will be staring at what we are asking for in disbelief.

That, though, is not going to stop these people. That is the essence of group think – so firm a grip does it have on those afflicted by it that many of them will go to their graves before they change their minds.

We can see this in the continued torrent of abuse on the Booker comments this week, demonstrating another classic characteristic of group think – a total lack of self-awareness. There are no arguments or facts which cannot be ignored or distorted, while any amount of invention and selectivity can be brought to bear to support the preferred thesis.

Yet, the tragedy is, as David Aaronovitch wrote recently in The Times, these right-wing zealots are not only poisoning the well of the Brexit debate, they are compromising the very issue they hold so dear.

But it gets worse. It seems that the people who we call "Ultras" don't care whether they are right or wrong. They have their own agendas which they would see in place irrespective of the consequences. They are doing the equivalent of sawing off the branch they are sitting on, something so very obvious that the EU's negotiators can't help but be influenced.

Whatever Mrs May says up front is being constantly undermined by her "Ultras". What confidence can the "Europeans" have that she will keep her word, when so many of her own side are saying the opposite.

Group think has a terrible cost, and it looks as if we are going to find out how much.