For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.-H. L. Mencken
From long before we can walk or talk, form clear arguments or consider implications we’re told stories that hinge on a simple answer to a complex problem. The ability to cut through the noise and find a simple solution becomes our benchmark of wisdom. ‘Cutting through’ is sometimes even literally the answer; Solomon (with the wisdom of Solomon) threatens to cut through the baby, Alexander the Great cuts through the Gordian Knot (wisdom often involves swords as well).
We learn those stories at such a young age that we never think to go back and critique them. Was Solomon so wise? Would the baby’s true mother be the first to relinquish her claim? What if both mothers had shouted out at the same time? Or neither?
Solomon got lucky.
Fast forward a few two and a bit millennia and we have the inspiration for a thousand student socialist; Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. There are two views on that story – one that it’s noble and uplifting, and one, from those who’ve thought about it, that it’s crooked as shit. Ok, the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ tags are just stand-ins for ‘obnoxious’ and ‘deserving’, respectively, but just how was Robin doling out other people’s hard earned money. Was he only giving it to people that he knew personally were both very poor and also virtuous? Did some poor people lose out on a hand-out because they weren’t in Robin’s circle of friends? Just how poor did you have to be to qualify for the Sherwood stealer’s largess? Was there a check? Was he really Robin Hood and his band of merry means-testers? What about the rich – did they desert Nottingham, crippling its economy and plunging more people into hardship? Did they become more virtuous to spare them from Robin’s wrath? Did they come up with ways to hide how wealthy they were, in an early attacks-avoidance scheme?
Don’t imagine that we grow out of this nonsense, our fondness for the sudden moment of clarity, the simple solution that only the genius can see. It’s there in Sherlock or Jonathan Creek, in the police procedurals and the medical malevolence of House. Our brains seem hard-wired to give us a little buzz when somebody finds the way through the mud. Even on social media we share and re-share the memes that seem to offer an easy solution, or distil the complex into the simple. Even wordy pieces, such as the ones that suggest prisoners and the elderly in care swapping places, or giving everybody in the UK aged over 50 £1,000,000 to retire, get passed around and hailed as genius.
Yet our entire journey out of childhood is one of discovering that answers we thought were simple are complex. Every educational step we take teaches us that the step before presented us with a dumbed-down solution. We come to see understanding subtlety and nuance as signs of learning and intelligence. The scholarly articles, the well-written blogs also get passed around and appreciated…perhaps not in the same volume, or at the same rate, as their trite counterparts, but still it happens.
And then we go and have a referendum.
The Robin Hood story is split into those who wholeheartedly support Robin, and those who completely oppose him. The person who suggests that a more measured and managed approach to wealth redistribution doesn’t get a mention. You’re either for “Stealing from the rich to give to the poor” or you support “The rule of law and order”. In the Robin Hood/Sheriff of Nottingham vote there’s no space for, “Actually, both sides have some merit.”
So it is with the EU referendum. The Leave campaign always had to be based around easy answers that would grip the popular imagination like an octopus on a beach-ball. That was always their only hope to shake up the status quo.
People believe they want justice and wise government but, in fact, what they really want is an assurance that tomorrow will be very much like today.– Terry Pratchett
Likewise the Remain campaign was always doomed to use the fear of economic uncertainty to win votes, because the alternative is inspiring slogans such as “Steady as she goes!” or “Actually, it’s a bit more complex than that.”
The course of this campaign could have been mapped from day 1, as sure as we can be sure that the pro-Robin Hood camp will not emphasise that their wealth redistribution is haphazard and arbitrary or that they’re shitting into the stream of Sherwood forest, and the pro-Sheriff campaign will play down the unbearable tax burden he imposes and his putting to death anybody who complains about same.
What was, perhaps, less foreseeable is how this referendum would take people from, “Wearing tights and camping with a load of other men isn’t my thing, but if it’s his then good luck to him,” or ,”Some of the Sheriff’s policies seem a bit harsh, but I’m still glad I don’t have to do his job” into, “VOTING FOR ROBIN IS VOTING FOR CRIMINALS!” and, “THE SHERIFF IS WORSE THAN HITLER…WILL BE!”
For what have we polarised a nation? Ultimately it’s for the politician’s simple answer to a complex issue; leave the choice to the electorate. Like Pontius Pilate (another person bitten in the arse by the simple solution) they wash their hands of the decision and the outcome. Whatever the result of tomorrow’s vote we can be sure that we, the electorate, will be holding each accountable for its effects for years to come. We’ve had a civil war without the fighting, we’ve plundered our own rich diversity and given it up for a poor binary nation. Whatever happens in the voting booths tomorrow we’re all less wealthy than we were.
Ironically, I find myself wishing there was a simple solution to that.