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Two of the Worst Words in Politics

03/08/2016 11:12 | Updated 03 August 2016

I have a confession - I'm no expert on this subject. I've not even got a PhD yet. As a sales pitch for this article I realise it's not the strongest.

But if recent events are anything to go by I'll be on Newsnight by the end of the week, head-to-head with Evan Davis. Because Brexit showed that politics has changed. Expertise is now suspicious. Facts? Well they're not to be trusted. And evidence deserves nothing but side-eye. Post referendum, 'common sense' is King. Sounds great doesn't it? How could you possibly argue with common sense? But those two words are some of the worst in politics.

You hear them everywhere. When people say the government should run the economy like a household budget, it's common sense that's meant to be talking. If only George Osborne had visited millions of homes each night to shout that 'it looks like bloody Blackpool illuminations in here'. Budget balanced!

Or when there's a discussion about how to solve crime and someone says we need to lock up every criminal and swallow the key. Even if it's exaggerated to say the average Briton commits one crime every day, if we did that, we better start building more prisons.

We face an almost endless to-do-list of deeply complex problems. Pick almost any of them and there'll be someone with a 'common sense' approach to solving it. It's snake oil, but people seem more tempted than usual to swallow it. Enter stage left, Trump and Farage. This is now mainstream politics, 2016.

Common sense is the last thing politics needs. Because, with respect, we get things wrong. A lot. We excel at it. Take everyone's favourite pre-Brexit policy issue: benefits. The public assume that one quarter of working adults are unemployed (a fair few seem to think they're all sat at home every day watching Jeremy Kyle and are appearing on the show). Never mind that the real figure is just 5 per cent. It must be higher. It feels more.

The same with the number of people in the UK who are Muslim. The figure isn't 21 per cent, as many people believe, it's around 5 per cent.

Or think about how much land we've paved over in the UK. Have a guess. Unless you said 2 per cent, you're way off the mark.

On issue after issue you see the same thing. Immigration, crime, the economy - you name it, we get it wrong. But that's completely understandable. Politics involves some very big, complex issues. Unemployment alone involves globalisation, fiscal policy, monetary changes, business strategy, education, psychology, to name just a few factors. But it's far easier just to think that it's a problem of lazy people refusing to work.

Which is probably why common sense is so appealing; it's a call to inaction. It convinces us that we're already experts. No deep understanding of an issue or policy required. No research. No study. No checking of facts. Deep down, we just know.

Common sense is the politics of the pub. The University of Life. Everyone's enrolled, and people think they're excelling at every subject.

The problem is, there's no textbooks and no one to mark your work. Anecdote is your lecturer. And it's teaching everyone a different syllabus.

It might teach Luke from London that gender equality isn't a problem because he works in PR and all his managers are female. Plus, just look at the heels on our new Prime Minister! But the fact, women are still under-represented in boardrooms, politics, the legal profession...and on and on.

It might teach Tess from Tunbridge Wells that young people are all trying to outdo the Rolling Stones in their heyday. Something must be done! Think of the children (etc.). But take a look at the stats. Rates of drinking, drug use and under-age sex are all plummeting.

This is the danger when evidence is trumped (sorry) by everyday experience and common sense. If someone thinks climate change is a hoax because it's been rather chilly up north in December, I don't want them anywhere near environmental policy. Call me elitist, but I want the best brains on the job.

Which is why the referendum was so depressing. We no longer recognise the value of experts and expertise any more. Before the vote it was shown that Leave supporters didn't trust academics, economists and businesspeople on EU membership. Ironically, you'd think it was common sense to recognise that they might have a clue what they're talking about. More so than an Average Joe like me or you. Certainly more so than those who claimed the EU is run by faceless bureaucrats because they didn't know the name of their MEP (presumably common sense doesn't extend to understanding how Google works).

It's strange though, that when people were asked about their trust in public figures, they had the common sense not to believe Joey Essex on this issue. And yet most of us probably have about as much knowledge as him on many of the big, complex issues we face. We're all Joey Essex, in a way. But we seem to trust ourselves. Maybe we shouldn't?

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