The Fall and Rise of the Expert

ABSTRACT This article explores two contemporary phenomena – the financial crisis and the panel of judges on reality TV show – to explore an ambivalence about the role of the expert in contemporary British political and media culture. I want to show how these anxieties about the ‘expert’ have drawn on certain historical themes – the British cult of the amateur and concerns about over-specialisation and technologico-Benthamite civilisation on the one hand; and fears about the relation between bumbling dilettantism and national decline on the other, epitomised in the Fabian tradition – but have tied them to new understandings of the public sphere in an era of market populism. Paradoxically, while the media is increasingly sceptical of the truth claims of experts, it constantly refers to and defers to them. Far from being marginalised in public life, the ‘expert’ has become a ubiquitous and highly charged figure in popular culture.


In January 2009 the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, while being interviewed on BBC radio, suddenly became angry when the interviewee mentioned a particular word. Bragg’s response is worth quoting in full:

One of the things that’s happened in the last few weeks is a total devaluation of the word ‘expert’. It is meaningless. People come on saying they’re experts and they know absolutely nothing … experts on banking who have the gall to tell us what’s going to happen in a few months or so. The word ‘expert’ should be expunged from the dictionary until it’s been cleansed and rehabilitated.[1]

This verbal assault was clearly aimed at a particular sub-species of expert. In September 2008, the international money markets had crashed and a number of banks had failed, initiating a global recession. One of the causes of the crash was the unravelling of highly leveraged financial products – complex derivatives and securities, devised using mathematical models, which turned out to be so complicated that not even the experts were able to calculate the risks. The Queen was widely praised in the media for echoing the public mood when, opening a new building at the London School of Economics, she asked Professor Luis Garicano how this ‘awful’ financial crisis could have taken so many experts by surprise. ‘Why did nobody notice it?,’ she asked. ‘If these things were so large, how come everyone missed them?’[2] The greedy bankers may have been the folk devils of the credit crunch, but joining them in the rogues gallery were the financial experts, the clever fools who had departed so disastrously from common sense and forgotten that deficits and imbalances cannot be endlessly deferred.

In the middle of this financial crisis, a seemingly frivolous media event knocked the credit crunch off the front pages. On 19 November the former BBC political correspondent, John Sergeant, announced at a crowded press conference that he had decided to pull out of the television show, Strictly Come Dancing, after his continued participation had inspired a frenzy of media coverage. Along with similar reality TV formats, Strictly Come Dancing employed a panel of expert judges. The celebrity contestants performed routines with professional dancers which were then scored through a combination of marks registered by the judges and a phone-in vote. The two lowest-scoring pairs then went into a dance-off and the judges voted off one of these pairs. John Sergeant was a very bad ballroom dancer: on this key issue everyone, including John Sergeant, was agreed. But while he kept finishing bottom of the leader board after the judges’ scores, the public vote consistently kept him out of the bottom two. The judges’ response to Sergeant shifted gradually from gentle indulgence to exasperated censure. They complained that the show had become a ‘popularity contest’ rather than a dance competition – a view expressed most vociferously by one of the judges, Arlene Phillips, who called Sergeant a ‘dancing pig in Cuban heels’. We do not know why the public kept voting for Sergeant. He had a nice line in self-deprecating humour, and being somewhat overweight and older than the other contestants he may have had the appeal of the underdog. But the media preferred a single explanation: the angrier the judges had got, the keener the public were to keep Sergeant in the competition. He had been ‘propelled on a wave of “sod the experts” public fervour in the teeth of outraged opposition from the judges’. The narrative of the series had become ‘the People’s Hoofer v. the Dance Experts’.[3]

Ballroom dancing is a perfect symbolic battleground for this conflict between professional expertise and media populism because it is both an arcane and a democratic activity. Ever since the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing first met in 1929 to establish the ‘modern English style,’ it has been governed by formal codes compiled by experts, and the Strictly Come Dancing judges respected these codes, often admonishing contestants for improvising steps or attempting ‘illegal’ lifts and sidekicks. Yet the programme also borrowed some of its ethos from the Baz Luhrmann film, Strictly Ballroom, in which the hero triumphs by doing his own moves instead of the standard ballroom ones. As in the film, the Strictly Come Dancing judges acted as stock villains, booed by the studio audience whenever they dared to express a negative opinion and vilified in the days after Sergeant’s exit from the show. ‘They are the gang of four who ruined our Strictly,’ wrote one journalist, ‘… this is meant to be the public’s programme, a voter-led talent show which has been hijacked by four ludicrous, pantomime figures undeserving of their jobs.’[4] Another article, explicitly linking the financial crisis with the Sergeant affair and a number of other events like the tragedy of ‘Baby P’ and the apparent damp squib of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, concluded that ‘2008 was the year the experts lost the plot’.[5] If the word ‘expert’ now accommodated city analysts, particle physicists, Haringey social workers and reality show judges, perhaps Bragg was right that the word needed to be cleansed and rehabilitated. It had clearly become a repository for a range of different cultural meanings and anxieties – and perhaps the disproportionate criticism meted out to the judges on a Saturday evening light entertainment was an enactment and projection of our more general confusion about what constitutes an ‘expert’ in contemporary political and media culture.

In British culture, the term ‘expert’ is almost as underdefined, overused and fraught as ‘intellectual’ – and like this word, it has served as what Stefan Collini calls ‘a kind of place-holder for a whole collection of cultural attitudes’.[6] The word ‘expert’ only migrated from adjective to noun in the early nineteenth century in response to a perceived need for specialisation in complex, industrial societies. From the beginning, the word was at the heart of Britain’s culture wars: its cult of the amateur and fears about over-specialisation and technologico-Benthamite civilisation on the one hand; and its anxieties about the relation between bumbling dilettantism and national decline on the other. In this article, I want to show how contemporary anxieties about the ‘expert’ have drawn on these historical themes but tied them to new understandings of the public sphere in an era of market populism.

The expert in British culture

The distrust of specialist, professional intelligence, abstracted from the ‘real’ world of tradition and experience, has a long tradition in British political culture, especially within what John Stuart Mill called ‘the stupid party’. A faith in the nuances of lived habit and custom over the abstractions of externally administered expertise has been a theme of conservative philosophy from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott. ‘No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts,’ wrote the future Tory MP Lord Salisbury in 1877. ‘If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of simple common sense.’[7] The Fabian movement’s ideal of government by expert emerged in opposition to this anti-rationalist faith in the improvised natural order that it thought to be rife in Britain’s ancien regime, particularly in its mismanagement of the Boer War and its slow reform of the education system. The crusade for greater rationality in government, enlightened social reform and national renewal was to be led by Beatrice Webb’s ‘elite of unassuming experts’, Sidney Webb’s ‘nouvelle couche sociale’ of brain workers and H.G. Wells’s voluntary ruling class of samurai – all modern counterparts of Plato’s guardians.

But when experts began to appear in national media in the first half of the twentieth century, they tended to follow the model of a humane, cultivated, establishment elite rather than the highly trained specialist. Experts, usually Oxbridge dons, delivered talks on BBC radio from the early 1920s onwards, usually in the form of an uninterrupted monologue; the words ‘You are now to hear a talk by …’ were a signal for millions to switch off their wireless sets. The 1928 BBC Handbook included a pained suggestion that listeners should try to be more open-minded about the serious talks, for contrary to popular belief it was not BBC policy ‘wantonly and arbitrarily to cut the audience off in the middle of a delightful concert, and announce a talk by Professor Haxan on Prehistoric Crustaceans without any rhyme or reason’. However unscintillating these experts may have been to listen to, the idea of the this kind of Reithian cultural paternalism was anxious that they should not turn into a professional clique. Indeed, the distinctive forms and genres of radio talk began as a way of allowing ‘experts’ to distil and mediate their esoteric knowledge. The radio interview emerged as a form in the context of the search for a ‘plain man’ who could keep the expert on a level that would be ‘intelligible to the inexpert listeners’. The Brains Trust, a live discussion programme which began on radio in 1941 and had 12 million listeners at its peak, was the most successful attempt to mediate between these experts and the public, to avoid what Hilda Matheson, the BBC’s director of talks, called the ‘parsonical drone’.[8] The programme’s producer, Howard Thomas, whose background was in variety, employed a host, Donald McCullough (coining the term ‘question master’ to describe him) to mediate between the brains and the public, because he thought it essential to have ‘a link between the professors and the listeners who had never heard a professor’.[9]

The Brains Trust is now held up as a lost idyll of Reithian high seriousness and public intellectualism, but many viewed it differently at the time and it reflected considerable uncertainty about the public role of experts. The listeners’ questions ranged from the profound (‘Is knowledge essential to happiness?’) to the trivial (‘Why can’t you tickle yourself?’). There were constant arguments about whether the nation’s finest minds were gainfully employed answering such questions, and whether their off-the-cuff answers were merely, as James Agate complained, ‘an exhibition of trick thinking’.[10] The programme favoured people who could think on their feet; among the regular panellists it was C.E.M. Joad, the quick-thinking generalist and professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, who was the star, not his counterweight, the more empirical and cautious zoologist Julian Huxley. The programme cemented in the public imagination an idea of ‘the experts’ as a group of people who could pool their intellectual resources to come up with a collective solution to any problem – an idea borrowed for various other radio formats from Any Questions to Gardeners’ Question Time. ‘The B.B.C.’s parlour-games,’ argued a Times editorial in 1954, ‘have accustomed us to the idea of an intellectual fire brigade ready to solve all problems and put all controversies in perspective; its members are commonly referred to as “the experts.”’[11]

It is clear that this kind of ‘expert’ was partly a mutation of the British idealisation of the inspired amateur, the ‘rounded’ man who had imbibed the liberal, humane ideals of the ancient universities and was more than a mere specialist. The figure of the ‘TV don’, which emerged in the 1950s in the form of scholars like A.J.P. Taylor and A.J. Ayer, belonged to the same genre of the expert as sharp-witted intellectual omnivore. They made few claims for their specialisms – Taylor thought that history was just one thing after the other, a series of accidents with no underlying structure, and Ayer had similarly modest ambitions for his own discipline of philosophy, which he described a ‘second-order discipline’ concerned with the logical analysis of conceptual problems, with little to teach us about ethics, politics or society[12] – but they appeared on a wide range of programmes from In the News to Juke Box Jury. ‘We cannot live without “the experts”,’ cautioned Iris Murdoch in an essay published in 1958. ‘But the true open society in the modern world is one in which expertise is not mysterious’. Ideas, she wrote, should not be ‘the sole property of technicians’.[13] F.R. Leavis, implacably hostile to the sciences, similarly warned of the dangers of the ‘functionless purity’ of ‘pure specialisms’[14], arguing that universities should submit the ‘specialist knowledge and training’ of the expert to the guidance of ‘the humane centre’.[15]

In some ways, C.P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ argument was a distillation of this argument between this ideal of the intellectual all-rounder and the specialist expert in the 1940s and 1950s. In the organisation and planning of wartime and the immediate postwar years, a new, progressive idea of the scientific expert had emerged in, for example, the sympathetic image of the ‘backroom boys’ and ‘boffins’ who had invented RADAR and the bouncing bomb; the ‘younger sons of the bourgeoisie … technical experts … the people who feel at home in the radio and ferro-concrete age,’ whom Orwell had predicted would bring about a mild-mannered revolution[16]; and Snow’s ‘new men,’ the scientists and engineers who had such high status in the years of postwar reconstruction. These technocratic professions become the cornerstone of state planning – a voguish word in the 1940s partly because it seemed to offer the orderliness and objectivity of expertise over the economic anarchy and amateurism of the interwar years. But while the postwar Labour government placed its faith in professional managers – and its cabinet was heavy with trained economists like Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps – the Tories remained notoriously suspicious of experts. ‘In the reaction against democratic weakness men have sought safety in the technocrats,’ declared Harold Macmillan in Strasbourg in 1950, in opposition to the Schuman plan, the founding document of the European Union. ‘There is nothing new in this. It is as old as a Plato. Frankly, it is not attractive to our British point of view. We have not overthrown the divine right of Kings to fall down before the divine right of experts.’[17]

The Fabian tradition of enlightened expertise reached its political apotheosis in the figure of Harold Wilson after he became Labour leader in 1963. An Oxford-trained economist, Wilson cuttingly dismissed the Tory love of the amateur, making fun of the prime minister Alec Douglas-Home’s admission that he made sense of economics with matchsticks. At the Scarborough party conference in 1963, Wilson contrasted Labour’s enthusiasm for science and technology with the dilettanteish, gentlemanly, ‘grouse moor’ image of the Tories. Following Labour’s manifesto pledge that ‘a New Britain’ would harness ‘our national wealth in brains’,[18] the new Wilson governments recruited many scientific experts and professional economists, most notably at the new Ministry of Technology and the Department of Economic Affairs. The high status given to the expert in the Wilson era was founded on a subtle shift in the progressive ideal, a belief that the nation’s problems could be solved independently of class struggle or an assault on the economy’s commanding heights. This was, as Benedict Anderson puts it, ‘a vocabulary of bourgeois rationality calculated to appeal to both expert and egalitarian impulses’.[19] The experts would help divorce policy from politics, get rid of the messiness of the struggles between different interest groups. The experts who would help to construct the new Britain were classless, pragmatic, non-ideological.

Thatcherism and the expert

I have included this brief historical sketch in order to underline the way that Thatcherite political culture declared a kulturkampf against ‘the expert’ in both these traditional senses. On the one hand, it was hostile to a left-liberal Oxbridge elite made up of armchair theorists, members of the ‘chattering classes’ who were detached from the realities of political power; on the other hand, it was hostile to the idea of public policy or the delivery of public services being devolved to supposedly impartial professional specialists. Thatcherism’s dual assault on the expert was partly an effect of its peculiar blend of conservative social values, including elements of traditional Tory anti-intellectualism, and free-market radicalism. Early on in her leadership of the Tory Party, Thatcher identified herself with Methodist, lower-middle-class common sense and personal conviction against the fanciful, impractical ideas of intellectuals. In a Sunday Times profile in August 1978, she declared that she preferred ‘men who call spades spades’ and who didn’t ‘talk in convoluted jargon’ and she compared the stringencies of monetarism to balancing the family budget.[20] Trained as an applied chemist, Thatcher directed her anger against academic disciplines with no obvious real-world benefit like sociology or philosophy, particularly when they produced dangerous ideas that had been found wanting when tested in this real world. In 1988 Thatcher told David Frost on TV-AM that ‘Marxist Socialism was devised by academics for academics to control other people and other people do not like being controlled’.[21] One of the great government paradoxes of the Thatcher era, with its supposed return to the laissez-faire economics of the Victorian era, was Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Act, which effectively nationalised Britain’s universities, treating them, in Simon Jenkins’s words, ‘like fifteenth-century abbeys, full of corrupt priors and libidinous nuns’.[22]

Alongside this authoritarian attack on academic freedom, though, came the principle that experts should submit themselves to the ultimate judgment of the market. As Harold Perkin argues, the idea of professional experts as ‘privileged observers and benevolent neutrals’ offering a service that is ‘esoteric, evanescent and fiduciary – beyond the layman’s knowledge or judgment’ was reliant on trust and good will between professional and client, a joint willingness to step outside of or at least to defer the market relationship.[23] Thatcherism, instead, tended to mistrust those with specific expertise as a self-interested elite protecting their own privileges. A key moment was Kenneth Clarke’s 1989 white paper on the health service, Working for Patients, which opened up the NHS to clinical audit. As the Thatcherite intellectual Shirley Robin Letwin argued, this white paper was underpinned by ‘a question – To whom should experts be accountable? – which had been ignored in the discussions that had led up to the NHS. In the heyday of socialist reform it had been assumed that expertise was its own monitor. As the Webbs and Fabian pamphlets explained tirelessly, only the greed for profit distorted the truth known to experts. Remove profit, and selfishness would vanish. By the 1980s, many people knew better.’[24]

In the John Major era, this suspicion of experts lost some of its more confrontational aspects and attached itself to a more traditional conservative imagery of trusting the common sense and gut instincts of ‘middle England’. Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was not primarily a moral crusade against sexual immorality, as it came to be remembered, but an assault on expertise. Introducing the phrase in his speech at the Tory conference in October 1993, Major attacked ‘fashionable opinion’, arguing that ‘we have listened too often and too long to people whose ideas are light years away from common sense’. Using the examples of 1960s tower blocks, the decline of traditional subjects in schools and the idea that ‘criminal behaviour was society’s fault’, he argued that it was ‘time to return to core values, to get back to basics’. And he repeated his call made in the wake of the murder of James Bulger by two schoolboys that ‘we should condemn a little more and understand a little less’. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast with the Fabian faith in expertise than this active call for less understanding.[25]

This trend has continued into the New Labour era in criminal justice and many other areas of policy. The professional groups who once had influence over government agendas have been increasingly disenfranchised as policy comes to be drafted by small groups of advisers clustered around the core executive. Policy-making has become profoundly populist, directed particularly against an expert culture supposedly tainted by 1960s liberalism and the entrenched interests of those who oppose the introduction of a market-oriented culture into public services. New Labour has proved particularly dismissive of the expertise of professional specialists on issues such as school SATs, identity cards and drug policy.

It is clear, also, that this new political culture has an increasingly symbiotic relationship with media representations of ‘the experts’. The last two decades have seen the emergence of a much greater climate of scepticism towards scientific and academic experts in the media. One can detect it in the attitude of newspapers like Daily Mail, which tend to see professional expertise as a conspiracy to misinform the people of middle England; the recurrent use of the qualifiers ‘so-called’ and ‘self-proclaimed’ to describe experts, or the placing of the word in square quotes; the surly contempt with which expert witnesses are treated by the regular panellists on The Moral Maze, an updated version of The Brains Trust on BBC Radio 4; and a general mistrust about what professional scientists and statisticians say on a whole range of complex issues from the role of speed cameras in cutting road accidents to global warming.

Paradoxically, while the media is increasingly sceptical of the truth claims of experts, it constantly refers to and defers to them. Phrases like ‘scientists have discovered’, ‘research has shown’ or ‘experts say’ are routinely used as a way of giving legitimacy to a newspaper headline or the start of a story. The Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre – a medical doctor who uses his column to challenge public health scares and other examples of anti-expertise – has pointed to this apparent contradiction between the media’s antagonism towards scientific experts and its recycling of what he calls ‘sciencey-sounding’ stories. Such stories tend to be of very particular kinds, such as ‘wacky’ stories (about, for example, the scientific formula for the perfect penalty kick) which play on the public’s idea of scientists as eccentric boffins, or medical scare stories which tend to be quickly and confusingly refuted (red wine is good for you, or bad for you).[26]

Real scientific discovery, of course, rarely proceeds in terms of these spectacular advances or breakthroughs. Science is supposed to be impersonal and objective, and experts tend to gain credibility by surrendering their subjectivity to particular protocols through which certain types of knowledge are recognised as authoritative, such as norms of accreditation and accountability. But these ‘sciencey-sounding’ stories tend to be stripped of the usual paraphernalia of scientific method and evidence-gathering and they thus tend to be heavily associated with the person making them. The devaluing of any notion of credentialed, collectively agreed expertise has led to an exaggerated emphasis on the ‘expert’ as guru-like authority or brave maverick. Goldacre’s key case study is the scare over the MMR vaccine in the early 2000s, when the near-universal support for the vaccine among the medical profession failed to stem the panic about its links to autism. Andrew Wakefield, who first proposed the link, was presented as a brave refusenik standing up to a secretive medical and political establishment which was simply trotting out a party line. Paradoxically, the undervaluing of expertise has led to a foregrounding of the ‘expert’.

Some of this confusion is due to the way that news is produced. The 24-hour media feeds off and perpetuates scares and controversies. As newspapers have declined in circulation and cut their specialist staff, a generalist commentariat, writing about everything from the credit crunch to Strictly Come Dancing, has risen in prominence. According to Nick Davies, this has left an overworked news staff increasingly practising what he calls ‘churnalism’ – repackaging unchecked, second-hand wire copy and PR releases (such as ‘sciencey-sounding’ stories sponsored by companies with a vested interest in the story).[27] But while these economic and institutional factors are important, the media ambivalence about experts is clearly linked to a much more general suspicion of public goods and the public sphere in post-Thatcherite culture – an era ruled by the anti-elitist rhetoric of consumer choice and giving power to parents and ‘ordinary people’.

The return of the expert

Far from being marginalised in public life, however, the ‘expert’ has become a ubiquitous and highly charged figure in popular culture. At the 2005 National Television Awards, there was even a category for ‘most popular TV expert’, won by Sharon Osbourne, a judge on The X Factor. Since the other nominees were her fellow X Factor judge Simon Cowell, the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and the motoring broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson, this definition of ‘expert’ was clearly quite broad. There is a persistent confusion about what role these television experts are expected to perform. One popular incarnation of the TV expert, for example, arose in the property and personal makeover shows of the mid-1990s onwards, in which ordinary people restyled their appearance, or tried to make their houses more alluring to potential buyers, or did up properties for a profit. These experts, part therapists and part personal stylists, clearly fit Zygmunt Bauman’s category of the ‘identity expert,’ whose job is to steer the ordinary person through the anxiety-inducing plethora of lifestyle choices in consumer culture.[28] While the choices are still nominally made by the ordinary person on these shows, the experts offer them guidance, cajoling and criticism. Channel 4’s Property Ladder, for example, offers a perfect opportunity for audience schadenfreude, as stubborn souls ignore the advice of presenter Sarah Beeny, replace their Victorian fireplaces with MDF fakes and end up losing money.

The ‘expert’ in these property shows has a more covert role: it is to rationalise the more brutal dynamics of the housing market and the complex financial industries which have developed to lock people into these systems of debt and equity. In this climate, the housing and lifestyle markets must never be seen for what they are: the unstable amalgam of public-relations hype, guesswork and groupthink which unravelled so disastrously at the end of 2008. It must be seen as rational and predictable – an identifiable entity to which various authorities (mortgage-lenders, city analysts, television presenters) can bring their ‘professional’ expertise. In these shows, everything happens for a reason. When members of the public lose out in their search for a dream home, for example, it is because they have not done what they are told by an omniscient presenter. The market can be anticipated and interpreted but never questioned: it is uncontrollable, unstoppable and, above all, apolitical.

In the reality talent shows like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, which first emerged in the early 2000s, the role of the expert is less clear. One of the most significant innovations in popular television in the 2000s has been ‘user input’, particularly through the deployment of the red button and mobile phone as voting devices. The judges offer a second tier of judgement in this new culture of hyper-interactivity – either by giving marks, like ice-skating panels, or offering a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to auditioning hopefuls. But the relationship between these two tiers of judgement is often very confused. A common rhetorical ploy of presenters on these shows, following harsh remarks by a judge (especially if they have reduced a contestant to tears) is to assert that ‘it’s not up to the judges’ and ‘you, the public, decide’. But if the judges’ views count for so little, then why bother with them? This tension reaches its reductio ad absurdum in the BBC2 programme The Great British Menu, a cookery competition involving professional chefs in which the outcome of the early rounds is decided by a panel of undeniably expert judges – the cookery writers Prue Leith and Matthew Fort and the restaurateur Oliver Peyton – but the final winner is decided by a phone-in vote. In other words, the public are invited to pass judgement on food that they have not tasted.

The host of Strictly Come Dancing, Bruce Forsyth, continually stresses that the judges are offering their ‘professional opinion’. But the judges offer none of the usual paraphernalia of professionalism like objectivity, impersonality or fixed criteria through which to make their judgments. In this and other programmes, they are halfway between hanging judges and advocates. They offer criticism and judgment, but also advice and mentoring, and the different judges tend to be caricatured as teary champions of the underdog or outspoken critics of mediocrity. In calculated set pieces, the judges argue among themselves and occasionally have tumblers of water emptied over them by fellow judges or contestants. They are ad hoc appointees, disembodied from any codes or procedures for determining their expertise. All they have is the symbolic currency of their celebrity and, as such, they tend to inspire either blind faith or outright hostility. They are revered and reviled, booed and cheered, defined as either ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’, their judgments delivered by fiat and then flouted by the viewers. Some, like Simon Cowell, are virtual Svengalis, mobbed during touring auditions and commanding huge power on the television stations.

The celebritising of the TV expert is a reminder that the consumerism of these shows is simultaneously empowering and infantilising – the people are sovereign but can only make one, collective, simplified choice: yes or no. Outside of this, every aspect of the shows is stage-managed around the advice and criticism of the experts. The John Sergeant affair was about this fundamental ambiguity: who decides, the people or the experts? The rules of Strictly Come Dancing were straightforward – the views of the judges and the public had equal weight – and had been followed to the letter. And yet Sergeant’s continued participation in the show, and his ‘hounding’ off it, were portrayed as a war between ‘the people’ and ‘the experts’ – even though the internet message boards suggested that no such popular consensus existed, and many viewers agreed with the judges that Sergeant should go.

This points to a common thread linking the representation of the expert in the media and in political culture: in both cases, the expert is symbolically opposed to a monolithic idea of ‘the public’. Government scepticism about professional experts since the Thatcher era has been underpinned by a notion of the ‘public’ as a single, homogeneous, non-political entity. David Marquand has defined this new political culture as ‘populist centralism’ – in the sense that its view of the electorate as sovereign consumers has formed a pretext for the growing centralization of government. Populist centralism, argued Marquand, has ‘no place for the civic ideal of open debate and public engagement. In a populist polity, citizenship is hollowed out. The people are passive, not active – consumers of public policy, not participants in shaping it.’ In this supposedly direct negotiation between governments, markets and the people, there is also less room for professional expertise. While the logic of the pre-Thatcherite public sphere was fundamentally pluralist, ‘populism is monist. Populists seek to concentrate the popular will so that it flows into a single channel.’[29] The Fabian ideal of expertise was that it would neutralise the public sphere, coming between competing class and business interests. But this idea of independent, non-political expertise is now seen as outmoded and elitist in a public sphere increasingly subjected to market discipline. In this mode of populist centralism, there is no need for the mediation of professional experts because the people themselves are a depoliticised entity – a growing and largely homogeneous middle class, made up of ‘ordinary taxpayers’ and ‘hard-working families’ who can be treated as a single constituency. The antithesis of the expert is no longer the Tory gentleman-amateur but the figure that Beatrice Webb referred to condescendingly as the ‘average sensual man’.

Alongside this populist centralism has come a reworking of the notion of meritocracy. The originator of this phrase, Michael Young, meant it as a satirical take on the Fabian template of a country governed by a clique of credentialled brains – ‘a brilliant class, the five per cent of the nation who know what five per cent means’. In Young’s meritocratic dystopia of the future, educational experts use scientific principles to sift out the new experts of tomorrow and the result is a tyranny of benevolent bureaucratisation, led by a ruling class which is ‘no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism’.[30] When Tony Blair resurrected the term in the late 1990s, though, ‘meritocracy’ was purged of all its associations with expertise, becoming a more dynamic, modernising version of Major’s ‘classless society’. ‘The Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy’, Tony Blair declared soon after taking office in 1997. In January 1999, Blair reiterated that ‘the old Establishment is being replaced by a new, larger, more meritocratic middle class’.[31] New Labour inherited the Wilsonian rhetoric of modernization, with its narrative about reversing national decline after years of stagnating Tory rule, but uncoupled it from the idea of a technocratic elite.

Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, has similarly seen meritocracy as a way of unlocking the hidden talents of the people rather than creating a cadre of experts. Indeed, he sought to link this New Labourite politics of aspirational individualism with his professed enjoyment of reality talent programmes like Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, and his vision of what he has called ‘an X factor Britain’.[32] In February 2008 Brown told a BBC radio interviewer that these shows were ‘very enjoyable. It’s one of the good things about Britain that we’re trying to find the best of talent … These shows are saying to people, “Look, if you’ve got a talent you don’t have to know someone. You can just apply and we’ll have a look at what you’re like.”’[33] He used these programmes to promote the idea of unearthing untapped talent as the key theme of his government’s approach to education and skills. But how would this ‘talent’ – a more nebulous, democratic-sounding word than skill, intelligence or expertise – be nurtured, measured and judged? The government needed to redouble its efforts to ‘eradicate failure across our education system’ by replacing ‘failing schools’ and expanding the involvement of private enterprise in the academies programme in order to ‘unlock all the talents of all of the people’. Brown’s meritocratic vision, like Blair’s, involved the use of centralized state power to engineer social mobility by setting targets for schools and other bodies and employing a rigidly hierarchical model of specialist schools promoting ‘excellence’, flagship academies and elite universities.[34] It was populist centralism in action – talent would be unearthed not by a Wellsian Samurai elite welcoming the chosen few into its ranks, but by market discipline imposed by central government.

The financial crisis that broke at the end of 2008 had the potential to challenge this post-Thatcherite understanding of the role of the ‘expert’. For one thing, it should have shown that populist centralism had not simply dispensed with the need for expertise. In a speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in 1982 Thatcher had declared: ‘Some say that I preach merely the homilies of housekeeping or the parables of the parlour. But I do not repent: those parables would have saved many a financier from failure and many a country from crisis’.[35] Perhaps they would, but the free market unleashed by Thatcherism did not turn out to be a self-regulating mechanism given the occasional steer by the good husbandry of monetarism, but a political and artificial construction which had unleashed a complicated system of over-leveraged financial packages far beyond commonsense understanding.

In fact, the 2008 crisis revealed Thatcherism’s apparent war on the professional class for what it was: a battle between private sector and public sector professionals, the group that had emerged victorious out of the conflict between the entrepreneurial middle class and the aristocracy in the nineteenth century. It was, as Perkin points out, ‘a reaction of professional society upon itself, or of one set of professionals against the rest … a rounding of the private sector professionals who ran the great corporations and their academic and journalistic supporters upon the public sector professionals’.[36] In practice, the Thatcherite and New Labourite suspicion of the professional expertise of such groups as doctors, educationalists and penologists had simply created new breeds of expert: the management systems theorists, auditors and consultants who would monitor these public-service professionals; and the city analysts and hedge-fund experts who would manage the increasingly virtual and complex money markets. Just as the collapse in prestige of the public-sector professional emerged partly out of beliefs about the economic crisis of the 1970s, the contemporary financial crisis opened up the possibility of a similar reaction against the private-sector experts who had been dominant in the financial industry since the 1980s.

As the symbolic crossover between the John Sergeant affair and the credit crunch underlined, however, the media understanding of the events of 2008 was not quite so nuanced, tending to fall back on a reflex hostility towards ‘the experts’ as a homogeneous tribe. Many journalists poured indiscriminate scorn on financial experts in general, from hedge-fund managers to the Bank of England and the Treasury; others recycled the inaccurate claim that no economist had foreseen the credit crunch.[37] The crisis was thus incorporated into a prevailing, neoliberal mood of cynicism about the public sphere and the expert systems used to administer it. There was some evidence that the financial crisis had inspired a public thirst for financial knowledge, perhaps in the same way that the huge popularity of The Brains Trust was symptomatic of an appetite for autodidactism during the war and postwar crises of the 1940s. One area of book publishing not hit by the recession, for example, was the category of business and economics, in which sales rose by 8.8 per cent – higher than any other area.[38]

But those figures elevated by the media to explain this unfamiliar world of credit swaps and collateralised debt could also be read as part of this same popular hostility to expertise. The Liberal Democrat economic spokesman, Vince Cable, for example, became the ‘sage of the credit crunch’, inspiring Facebook groups and a gang of mostly female fans known as the Vincettes. His book about the crisis, The Storm, was second only to the late Jade Goody’s Forever In My Heart in the hardback bestseller lists. A former chief economist at Shell, Cable spoke with some authority and had correctly predicted many aspects of the financial crisis. But whatever the merits of his analysis, it was clear that he fitted the profile of a now familiar figure in media and political culture – the anti-expert’s expert, the maverick whose status arose from the way he could point to the folly of the ‘so-called’ experts in charge.

The financial crisis of 2008, because it seemed to necessitate coming up with collective and highly technical solutions to a problem that could not simply be solved by the market, offered an opening to rethink our cultural understanding of expertise. Instead it became part of a general war on the expert in the name of that peculiarly British obsession, ‘common sense’. While this war may have had its origins in certain persistent themes in British political culture originating as far back as the nineteenth century, it was also symptomatic of a society that had become increasingly sceptical about the value of public goods. No one would want to return to the naïve Fabian belief in an apolitical elite of experts. But without some agreed notion of what constitutes expertise, it is harder for civil society to function, and the public sphere will be dominated by government centralism and media populism.

[1] Melvyn Bragg on Michael Ball’s Sunday Brunch, BBC Radio 2, 18 January 2009.

[2] Sam Greenhill, ‘Why didn’t anyone see “awful” credit crunch coming, asks the Queen’, Daily Mail, 6 November 2008.

[3] Richard Morrison, ‘2008: the year when the experts lost the plot’, The Times, 19 November 2008; Mark Lawson, ‘Screaming Lord Sutch of the dancefloor’, Guardian, 20 November 2008.

[4] David Stephenson, ‘Strictly speaking, sack the judges’, Sunday Express, 23 November 2008.

[5] Morrison, ‘2008: the year when the experts lost the plot’.

[6] Stefan Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 4.

[7] Andrew Davies, We, The Nation: The Conservative Party and the Pursuit of Power (London: Little, Brown, 1995), 49.

[8] Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, A Social History of Broadcasting, Volume One 1922-1939 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 161, 170, 162.

[9] Paddy Scannell, ‘The Brains Trust: A Historical Study of the Management of Liveness on Radio’, in Simon Cottle (ed.), Media Organization and Production (London: Sage, 2003), 102.

[10] ‘Wrong ideas do get around …’, Daily Mirror, 18 April 1944.

[11] ‘An expert in the house’, The Times, 29 November 1954.

[12] Ben Rogers, A.J. Ayer: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), 2.

[13] Iris Murdoch, ‘A House of Theory’, in Norman Mackenzie (ed.), Conviction (London: McGibbon and Kee, 1958), cited in Collini, Absent Minds, 162-3.

[14] F.R. Leavis, Education and the University: A Sketch for an “English School” (London: Chatto and Windus, 2nd ed. 1948), p. 62.

[15] Quoted in Francis Mulhern, The Moment of “Scrutiny” (London: NLB, 1979), 108-9.

[16] George Orwell, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 2: My Country Right or Left 1940-1943, eds Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 126.

[17] ‘Anglo-French split widens over the Schuman plan’, Manchester Guardian, 16 August 1950.

[18] F.W.S. Craig, British General Election Manifestos, 1900-1974 (London: Macmillan, 1975), 260.

[19] Perry Anderson, English Questions (London: Verso, 1992), 169.

[20] Heather Nunn, Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy: The Political Culture of Gender and Nation (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2002), 47, citing P. Peters, ‘The tidy mind of Margaret Thatcher’, Sunday Times, 20 August 1978.

[21] Margaret Thatcher, TV Interview for TV-AM, 30 December 1988, in Christopher Collins (ed.), Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements on CD-ROM (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[22] Simon Jenkins, Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts (London: Allen Lane, 2006), 123.

[23] Harold Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (London: Routledge, 1989), 117.

[24] Shirley Robin Letwin, The Anatomy of Thatcherism (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993), 220.

[25] John Major, Conservative Party conference speech 1993, at (accessed 25 April 2009).

[26] Ben Goldacre, Bad Science (London: HarperPerennial, 2009), x, 225.

[27] Nick Davies, Flat Earth News (London: Chatto and Windus, 2008), 59.

[28] Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodernity and its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), 178-9.

[29] David Marquand, Decline of the Public (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), 128, 103.

[30] Michael Young, the Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1958] 1961), 103, 106.

[31] Francis Wheen, ‘Satirical fiction is becoming Blair’s reality’, Guardian, 14 February 2001.

[32] Ned Temko, ‘Brown outlines his vision for an “X Factor” Britain’, Observer, 5 November 2006.

[33] Jonathan Freedland, ‘Inspired by TV, Brown gets the X factor’, Guardian, 13 February 2008.

[34] Gordon Brown, ‘We’ll use our schools to break down class barriers’, Observer, 10 February 2008.

[35] Margaret Thatcher, Speech at Lord Mayor’s Banquet, 15 November 1982, in Collins (ed.), Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements.

[36] Perkin, Rise of Professional Society, 473.

[37] Simon Jenkins, ‘It’s not only the Queen. We’re all screaming for an answer’, Guardian, 12 November 2008.

[38] Jonathan Russell, ‘Turning the page on the crisis’, Daily Telegraph, 11 May 2009.

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