Soon after I became Leader of the House of Lords, I told a private gathering of distinguished grandees that one of the most intelligent people I know is my mother, a factory worker without a single qualification. I can still see the look of surprise on some of their faces. I thought I was stating the obvious: that theirs was not the only kind of knowledge and intelligence of value and worthy of respect.
We have a real problem in Britain today. All too often, the only people taken seriously are those who can express themselves with the intellectual self-confidence that comes from academic study at university. Going to a fancy school and being from a well-heeled family helps, but one of the benefits of social mobility is that the intellectually superior club is open to all who actually fit that bill. So this is not about class. It’s about the prevalence of high academic achievement to the exclusion of everything else among those who, because they know “more”, believe they know best.
That is what’s causing the division between “them” and “us” – along with the breakdown of some of the small things that used to bond good citizens together, regardless of our education or status.
Unexpected political events, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, are symptoms not causes of this worrying situation. Yet some highly-educated professional people still consider it perfectly acceptable to describe those who voted for either as stupid. (Unwisely, they also – and on this some leading Brexiteers do the same – dismiss young Corbyn supporters on the grounds of naivety.) Rarely do these well-credentialed professionals with some power (however big or small) consider what it is about their own attitude and behaviours that turns people off. Or why it they have been on the losing side of so many recent political debates.
In short, the people who think they know everything are the ones who don’t understand, and don’t even want to find out why other people think they are wrong. Their arrogance is their biggest enemy.
Contrary to what is patronisingly claimed about the average citizen, people don’t expect simple solutions to complex problems. They want to be confident that the people who come up with complex solutions are well-informed and driven by motives everyone can understand and share. In other words, they want to be sure that the people in charge have understood the problem in the first place. That’s how they are being let down.
How do we start to bridge this dangerous divide? How do we start to convince some of the intellectually elite in positions of power that they don’t have all the answers? And that the problem lies with their lack of empathy and respect for people who live and work beyond their own professional and social set?
First, we have to remind ourselves that common standards and behaviours are what allow people from different walks of life to rely on each other, work together, to judge each other’s motives and form bonds of trust. And we have to admit that, among far too many of us, both their importance and practise has been lost.
Re-establishing the value of fundamentals like reliability, honesty and straight-talking would be a good start. And before everyone starts pointing at £350m on the side of a bus, that was a symptom of the same disease that goes back at least as far 45 minutes until Saddam hits us with his weapons of mass destruction.
We need to actively support each other by sticking by the same rules and giving equal retribution to those who don’t (which is where people of all ages, educational attainment and political persuasion join forces again). And when it comes to the most basic manifestation of some standards – whether British customs like queuing, or behaviour we know is unacceptable but daren’t challenge, such as feet on seats or loud music in public places – we need to understand that the people trying to uphold them often feel abandoned and looked down on. If they complain they are made to feel all this is trivial, or worse, that they are motivated by prejudice if the culprits happen to be of a different colour or faith.
Our failure to take seriously experienced people who contribute so much, dismiss them as ignorant or describe them as “left behind” is not only insulting, it’s dangerously counter-productive (some might even call it “stupid”). For us to bring about massive economic change like globalisation, or get the full benefits of technology as it continues to develop, all kinds of intelligence and experience are needed to maximise its benefits and our shared success. It is arrogant to believe it’s possible to do all these things by relying only on those who have great academic qualifications but a limited perspective on the impacts of such radical change. I’ll come back some other time to the topic of better quality technical education but – with or without that – we need to work together better than we do now. That requires shared behaviours and common standards which allow us to judge and trust each other.
In the coming years, politicians and business leaders will demand to be heard, and for their views to be taken seriously before our future and fate outside of Europe is sealed. That’s right and as it should be. But let’s not forget that’s all everyone else wants too.
If we don’t proceed with greater respect for each other, by the time we leave the EU the divide between “them” and “us” will be even bigger than before. The consequences of that could make the disruption of Brexit seem like a picnic – and the arrogant among the intellectual elite will have no-one else to blame but themselves.