Pathological British Ignorance

by Benjamin Studebaker

A new survey for the Royal Statistical Society reveals tremendous public ignorance in the United Kingdom about basic political facts. These facts are not matters of mere political trivia (i.e. “who is the current home secretary?”). They are facts the ignorance of which actively misleads British citizens into holding harmful political views, electing harmful governments, and contributing to one another’s mutual malaise.

Here are some of the things British citizens got wrong:

  • British citizens were asked to estimate how much benefit/welfare money out of every hundred pounds is claimed fraudulently. They estimated on average that  it was 24 pounds out of every 100. In reality, only 70 pence out of every hundred pounds is claimed fraudulently.
  • British citizens were asked what percentage of the British population consisted of immigrants. They answered on average that it was 31%. The correct figure is 13%.
  • On average, British citizens believe that black and Asian citizens compose 30% of the population. The correct figure is 11%. The American figure for blacks and Asians is 17%–the British believe these minorities are almost twice as common in Britain as they are in the United States, when in reality they compose a much smaller slice of the British population.
  • 58% of British citizens do not think crime is falling and 51% think the incidence of violent crime is rising. In reality, the total number of criminal and violent criminal incidents has fallen even as the British population has increased. The British crime rate is 19% lower than it was 6 years ago.
  • On average, British citizens believe that 15% of girls under the age of 16 become pregnant every year. The correct figure is 0.6%.
  • 26% of British citizens believe that foreign aid is one of the top three state expenditures. In reality, it constitutes only 1.1% of the state’s budget.
  • 29% of British citizens believe that more money is spent on unemployment benefits than is spent by the state on pensions. In reality, the state spends 15 times more on pensions than it does on unemployment benefit.

What might be the political impact of these misconceptions? These mistaken figures are all very much related to each other. If you put them together, here’s what you get:

The British believe that their country is full of non-white immigrants who commit ever-increasing amounts of violent crime and benefit fraud. They believe that these immigrants and minority groups are bringing about a collapse in public morality and that they are consuming vast amounts of state resources.

Of course, we know that none of that is true. But if you believed that, how might you respond politically? I see several policies and issues being rather important to British citizens who think in this way:

  • Reducing immigration figures
  • Reducing benefits and making it harder for people to claim them
  • Reduce British contributions to foreign organizations and countries–the EU, foreign aid, etc.
  • Increase the British state security apparatus, target law and order

What does this sound like? Broadly speaking, it sounds like some hybrid of the Conservative and UKIP manifestos. But of course, those aren’t the only parties that have responded to public opinion–even the Labour Party’s 2010 manifesto promised to reduce immigration figures and make benefit cuts. The British public are, as a group, racist and xenophobic, and their parties have become racist and xenophobic in order to appeal to them.

Afraid to alienate the public, the parties behave as though the public’s fears concerning immigrants and minorities are justified. Egged on by the parties, the public grows steadily more xenophobic and more racist. It is the proverbial “circle jerk” on a mass scale. When politicians do question this paradigm, they get chewed up by the press and by the public. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was famously slated after he called a woman who expressed anxiety about immigrants and minorities “bigoted”:

I should be clear–it’s not the British public’s fault that they’ve been so poorly informed as to the very state of the society in which they live, nor is it the fault of the British politicians who encourage them. British politics has become a feedback loop. Politicians that resist will be destroyed, and so long as the politicians are incapable of resistance, the wider public will continue to travel further down the rabbit hole.

The problem is structural and systemic, and it is not merely a British problem, it is a democratic problem. When the media needs the public to watch its news programs and buy its products and the politicians need the public to vote for them and donate to their campaigns, neither group will be capable of resisting the public’s ideology, regardless of how ignorant or ridiculous it is.

I have seen British pundits and commentators respond to this survey by putting the onus on the politicians or the press, scolding them for having done a poor job of informing the public, but these people are missing the point. The politicians and the press inform the public as poorly as they do because that’s what the public will buy and listen to, not the other way around. It is the demand that dictates what is supplied. Democracy has always been about supplying the people with whatever kind of journalism and politics they are willing to accept. In 1835 in South Carolina, that meant having newspapers and politicians who supported the enslavement of black people. Slavery was no less stupid then than it is now, and educated, well-informed people were well aware of its silliness. But because the public bought into the nonsense of racism, the press and the public offices were full to the brim with racists.

Democracy doesn’t care what’s good for the people, it only cares about what the people want, and when the people are living in an alternate universe in which crazed minority immigrant benefit scrounging youths are running bloody violent through the streets like something out of A Clockwork Orange, the parties and the policies of the day will be just as zany and irrelevant. Ignorance breeds ignorance.