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Gilets jaunes where are you when we need you?


Of all the mad viruses that recently infected British culture, the wisdom-of-crowds was the most ludicrous. It bit the dust in June 2016 and we won't hear any more of it. Until the next time.

If you do the lazy journalist’s trick and google search ‘the wisdom of crowds’, you get 18.5 million results, about a million more than all those who voted to leave the European Union. I’d stake quite a bit on most of those results deriving from pre-23 June 2016 – the date of the British Referendum on the EU. My guess is that from 24 June 2016 this type of wisdom – or at least the dumb mechanical assertion of its importance – went into a kind of gentle decline, rather like the Spitfire’s descent into the Channel in Dunkirk, that oddly pro-Brexit movie that appeared in 2017.

The belief that crowd-wisdom comes up with better answers than individuals owes much to the American journalist James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, which was published in 2004. Surowiecki crested a trend, luckily for his publishers. His book spawned hundreds of copycat texts (the superior wisdom of crowds, better crowd wisdom, crowd wisdom for mobs, etc etc) and boosted the drive towards crowdfunding. But it was actually no more than dressing up old ideas in a trendy new suit. Aristotle was probably the first to articulate crowd wisdom in his Politics. According to him “it is possible that the many, though not individually good men, yet when they come together may be better, not individually but collectively, than those who are so, just as public dinners to which many contribute are better than those supplied at one man’s cost.”

Anyone who thought that mixture would produce intelligence was remarkably unintelligent

Surowiecki’s book appeared 14 years ago, at a time when the world seemed a much better, richer, more optimistic place – before the Great Financial Crash, before Donald Trump, before Brexit, before the glassy-eyed rictus smile of Emmanuel Macron, before Angela Merkel had a senior moment and threw open Germany’s borders without thinking, before Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, before Xi Jinping became Mao Tse-tung Mark II…It was a time when we could believe in the intelligence of the mass, and that the mass would make a much better judgement – because, presumably, the crazed view of individual nutters would be drowned out by the many. It was a time when, in the words (from The Observer of September 2005) of the social commentator Will Hutton: “To be wise, though, the crowd’s judgment has to include everyone’s – the expert, the stupid, the allegedly commonsensical, the wild, the analytic, the hunch.” Anyone who thought that mixture would produce intelligence was remarkably unintelligent, if courageously democratic.

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And then came 23 June 2016. In the UK, this meant The Referendum. In which 17.4 million voters said they wanted to leave the European Union. It was a clear if narrow result: 52% favouring Leave, 48% voting to Remain. This was an astonishing result and one that surprised just about everyone – the crowd wasn’t wise after all, but incredibly stupid! It ignored the dire prediction by George Osborne, the Chancellor at the time, that 500,000 jobs would immediately disappear (the unemployment rate is currently the lowest since 1975). Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said a vote to leave would mean “the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety” (last time I looked civilisation seems as fine as it ever was). Prime Minister David Cameron hinted that there might be a third world war; well, that’s not to be ruled out forever, but a vote to leave the EU does not seem a good trigger for a shooting war in which there will be few survivors. Mind you, David Cameron is as much a liar as Theresa May – he said he would stay on as PM if the vote was won by the Leave campaign, only to resign hours after the result. May promised that Parliament would be voting in ‘her’ exit deal right up to the moment she changed her mind and dumped it. I hear that Cameron’s ‘memoirs’, for which he has had a six-figure advance, are subtitled: ‘how I cocked things up but escaped scot-free’.

As we have moved beyond that Age – or Blip at least – of Optimism and returned to the status quo, a kind of relentless grey gloominess, it’s only natural that the days of Surowiecki are over, and those of Charles Mackay are with us once more. Mackay it was who published (in 1841) Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a book largely about financial bubbles such as the 17th century’s tulip mania, or the 18th century’s South Sea Bubble, yet which was notable for its own delusions – Mackay lived through several great investment manias in the 19th century yet ignores all of them in his book. He tackles the witch-burning craze of Western Europe, the mania for alchemy, the absurdities of the Crusades, and much else besides. His obiter dicta seem remarkably on the money: “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.” Which sums up the world of celebrity, fashion, ‘news’ reporting and much else rather well. Remember Syria? People are still starving in Yemen. The war is still going on in Ukraine. Our media has a very short attention span.

If Emmanuel Macron can get thousands out on the streets burning and pillaging, surely Theresa May can do so too?

Against that, there has been enough hot-air commentary about The Referendum of 2016 to sink the Titanic, and perhaps there is one dominant emotion about it today – fatigue. People are tired of hearing about it, listening to others talk about it, and many understandably just want it all to go away. But we have not yet hit our gilets jaunes moment in Britain, which is truly astonishing, given how our political class is now universally despised as liars, cheats, self-interested thieves. If Emmanuel Macron can get thousands out on the streets burning and pillaging, surely Theresa May can do so too?

I do not know why Switzerland can manage to peacefully stage hundreds of referendums each year without acres of belly-aching, but the UK cannot achieve even one. I do not understand the sheer stubborn resistance of all the liberal left, all those who loved Surowiecki’s book and its crowd-loving thesis, to accept The Referendum’s result. Had it gone the other way, and the Leavers had opposed it so ferociously, I am sure many of them would have been locked away by now as insane. It took a single day for the bien pensants to cease their adoration of the wisdom of crowds and start regarding them as ignorant, manipulated canaille. I doubt the voters of Boston, Lincolnshire – which voted more than 75% to Leave – are happy about being classified as dim-witted yokels.

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So this is about the death of balance, of the acceptance of the result of a vote, of, in a way, reason as a governing principle of public affairs. To believe that reason underpinned the decisions of politicians was the crassest mistake and I deeply apologise for that. It turns out that I was deluded, and that I only imagined, or perhaps I should say hoped, that it did. I placed my faith in the decision – the wisdom – of the crowd. Big mistake, because there’s a big crowd who don’t want to place their faith in that way, but who seem determined to run the vote all over again. Which will really heal the national divisions. I need to withdraw, and remind myself once more of the wisdom of Jonathan Swift, who said: “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals…principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.”