In the last, frantic days of campaigning before Britons vote in a referendum on Thursday to decide if they will remain in the European Union or leave, there seem to be Nazis everywhere — at least, that is, in the imaginations and rhetoric of those dreaming of a British exit.
The tone was set last month, when Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who hopes a triumph of the Leave campaign will help him to depose Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Remain camp, told The Telegraph that the ultimate aim of the European project was to unite Europe under a single government, a dream with dark historical resonances. “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” Johnson said. “The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.”
Nazis also appeared to be troubling the mind of a voter who confronted the prime minister on Sunday, asking him how his attempts to negotiate a better deal for Britain from its European partners were different from a predecessor’s failed attempts to appease Hitler. “Are you really a 21st-century Neville Chamberlain?” the voter demanded. “Waving a piece of paper in the air, saying to the public, this is what I have, ‘I have this promise, where a dictatorship in Europe can overrule it.’”
Things reached something of a peak late Tuesday, when Michael Gove, the justice secretary and a leader of the Leave campaign, was asked during a radio interview why voters should trust him instead of a host of leading experts on the economy, including 10 Nobel Prize winners, who have warned that stepping out of the common market and into the unknown could severely damage the British economy and tip the country into recession.
“The key thing here is to interrogate the assumptions that are made and to ask if these arguments are good,” Gove said. “I mean we have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong, and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish.”
“They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong,” Gove continued, “and Einstein said, ‘Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.’”
Gove was referring, imprecisely, to an anti-Einstein book published in Germany in 1931, 100 Authors Against Einstein, which was not a publication of the Nazi government that came to power two years later but did include contributions from a number of Nazi sympathizers.
Although Gove apologized for the analogy on Wednesday — while standing in front of a bus displaying a false statistic about Britain’s financial contribution to the EU — the Conservative politician’s remarks were important for two reasons. First, because they showed how much a complex debate over economic and social policy has devolved into something more like an argument in an online comments thread, where Godwin’s Law always applies. Second, because Gove himself has spent the last days of the campaign urging voters to ignore a chorus of experts who argue that the benefits of continued EU membership outweigh the costs to Britain and to trust instead their own instinct that there is something fishy about a project the Germans are so keen on.
Gove has been making this case openly for the past three weeks, since he stunned the politics editor of Sky News, Faisal Islam, by saying, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
“‘The people of this country have had enough of experts?’ What do you mean by that?” a shocked Islam asked. Shaking his head, he added that this strain of anti-intellectualism sounded like an import from the United States. “This is proper Trump politics, this, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s actually a faith,” Gove replied, “a faith, Faisal, in the British people … to make the right decision.”
“Blind faith,” Islam observed.
That exchange seemed to reveal a divide in Britain’s political culture that is familiar to Americans, between politicians who deploy facts and reason to try to convince voters of the wisdom of their policies and those, like Donald Trump, who make emotional appeals many of their supporters find more satisfying.
The depth of that cultural divide in Britain was affirmed by polling that followed Gove’s attack on expertise. According to research done last week by the British pollsters YouGov, while half of the voters who want the United Kingdom to remain part of the European Union say expert opinion matters on such a complex issue, an overwhelming majority of those who want to leave, 68 percent, agreed that it is “wrong to rely too much on so-called experts,” and “it’s often better to rely on the wisdom of ordinary people and a bit of common sense.”
As Faisal Islam noted, the same survey found that supporters of the Remain campaign said they would listen to academics, economists, people from well-known businesses, charities, the Bank of England, and international organizations, while supporters of the Leave campaign said they trusted, essentially, no one.
A measure of how great the appetite is on the other side for reasoned argument can be seen in the unlikely viral success of a lecture on just how European law affects Britain delivered recently by an expert in the field, Professor Michael Dougan.
Dougan’s talk, which runs to 25 minutes, debunks many of the main arguments made by the Leave camp without flashy graphics or illustrations of any kind, but it has been viewed more than 5.6 million times since it was posted on the University of Liverpool’s Facebook page last week.
Before setting about destroying most of what the British public has been told about how the European Union holds Britain in legal bondage, Dougan, who is from Northern Ireland (where a border with the Republic of Ireland would have to be erected and patrolled again should the U.K. leave the EU), explained that he was moved to speak out because “although the Remain campaign haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory, at points, with their use of dodgy statistics, I think the Leave campaign has degenerated into dishonesty, really, on an industrial scale.”