Updated: Mar 22
A liberating event for many, the end of the Berlin Wall and European division came as a shock to Western security elites. As did what happened next.
When Conservative politician Michael Gove stated, "I think the people in this country have had enough of experts," he was referring to the use of technocratic opinion by the Remain campaign during the UK EU referendum in 2016.
In its full context, what Gove said, in a debate with Faisal Islam on Sky News was as follows:
Gove: I think the people in this country have had enough of experts, with organizations from acronyms, saying -
Islam: They've had enough of experts? The people have had enough of experts? What do you mean by that?
Gove: People from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.
Islam: The people of this country have had enough of experts?
Gove: Because these people are the same ones who got consistently wrong what was happening.
Islam: This is proper Trump politics this, isn’t it?
Gove: No it’s actually a faith in the -
Islam: It’s Oxbridge Trump.
Gove: It’s a faith, Faisal, in the British people to make the right decision.
Interview with Faisal Islam on Sky News (3 June 2016)
Gove’s reaction to the (by this point of the campaign) almost daily claims by various "experts" that leaving the EU would be disastrous for the British economy, people and the country’s standing in the world was seized upon by supporters of both Leave and Remain campaigns. For the supporters of Leave, Gove was championed for stating openly what was then becoming a commonly held view. For supporters of the Remain campaign, Gove was accused of siding with the wave of populism sweeping the West (and particularly Europe).
What Gove brought into focus, in his Sky News interview, was what had become one of the key dividing lines in contemporary politics - between a university-educated, tightly networked and politically powerful elite (the "experts") in opposition to the majority of the population that was none of these things. In Gove’s Britain or Trump’s America, in Salvini’s Italy and Le Pen’s France, this line cut its way between classes and was seized-upon, when needed, by politicians on the rise, usually from the Right.
In 1989, in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, western experts and their advice went generally unchallenged, riding the crest of a Cold War wave that had consistently washed against western shores. In US intelligence circles and within what had become termed 'the beltway' (that part of Washington where influential political, analytical and intelligence personnel circulated, winning friends and influencing the right kind of people) such experts shaped policy towards the Communist East and mapped out such policy over the immediate existential horizon.
At its pinnacle (or centre, depending on your point of view), George H. W. Bush occupied the White House, after serving as Vice President to Ronald Reagan and, before that, head of the CIA. In many ways, at this time and place in history, Bush was the epitome of "the expert" as (he and she) had become established in western politics, commerce and culture; informed in the commonly accepted way, knowing the right people and sharing their view on the world. Bush was, by this point, the expert’s expert. He was the King of the Expert People, holding court at the centre of a network at the height of its power at that point; unchallenged by the democratic and disruptive forces about to be unleashed by the internet, and proven right by the recent movements of history.
November 1989 would be the turning point for the King of the Experts and for the credibility of the entire expert class when the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed that the world to be not as it had been held up to be and that the world order was as fragile, in all its certainty, as it had probably always been. Slightly surprisingly to everyone concerned, Western Capitalism was about to abruptly exhaust Eastern Communism, end the Cold War and tilt the course of history rapidly into an erratic direction that few in the West had foreseen, or indeed was prepared for.
In September 1989, British Prime Minister (herself moving towards the end of her premiership) told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, according to Anatoly Chernyaev, that Great Britain and Western Europe "are not interested in the unification of Germany" as this "would undermine the stability of the entire international system". Indeed, she went on to say that this view was shared by the US President George H. W. Bush who, Thatcher stated, had asked that she convey this message to the Soviet leader.
Further speculation, as events in Eastern Europe unfolded, as to what form such changes would take and what the role of the Soviet Union would be in such circumstances, then continued between East and West. In 1990 Gorbachev even signalled to the West that, in the event of concerted moves towards independence on the part of Eastern Bloc countries, his government would not intervene. Whether both leaderships believed such changes would happen so quickly, leading in turn to the collapse of the entire Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union in the process is another matter.
It would also be repeated as a strategic misstep again, in September 2001, when Al-Qaeda attacked the US, in an assault which western intelligence failed to see coming and which had a similar dampening effect on the confidence and credibility of an already battered American intelligence and security community.
Then there was the financial crisis of 2008, which the world's financial and economic elite failed to see coming. So, perhaps Michael Gove was onto something bigger than even he anticipated when he claimed that “people have had enough of experts”.