Among those clinging to the increasingly ragged coat-tails of the status quo, this certainty that there is a causal link between populism and a rise in measles cases is matched, ironically enough, only by Wakefield’s own certainty that there is a causal link between the MMR jab and autism. Just like Wakefield, they do not seem to understand the difference between correlation and causation. Their assertive syntax brooks no doubt. ‘[The rise in measles cases] is about populism, anti-establishment anger, suspicion of authority, the questioning of science and rejection of the whole idea of the good of the community’, writes the Guardian’s health editor. ‘This is an era’, she continues, ‘in which the individual is king, mistrust of authority is rife and vaccine-preventable diseases may well be making a major comeback’. Or consider this editorial in The Times: ‘One policy serves as metaphor for this rejectionist movement that despises elites and experts: the backing of a debunked health conspiracy theory that endangers all our children.’

But this great elite fallacy is just that: fallacious. What millions of people rejected in recent years was not the authority of experts in general, but the ideology of expertise, of managerialism: a technocratic conception of politics in which governmental decisions and judgements were authorised not by the public, but by experts. This new politics was evident in then UK chancellor Gordon Brown’s decision in 1997 to pass responsibility for monetary policymaking (and, with it, a degree of economic control) from the hands of democratically accountable politicians into the hands of the democratically unaccountable Bank of England. Just as it was evident in the transformation of environmental science into the all-purpose justification for energy policymaking. The effect is the same: citizens are bypassed.

Central to this managerial mode of governing was never really expertise, but the authority of expertise. It allowed political elites to continue to rule in the absence of the historical source of their authority – the support of the electorate. The ‘expert’, then, was being used to answer not a practical problem, but a profoundly political problem: the crisis of legitimacy, brought about by the withdrawal of citizens from the contracting political field, and the resulting retraction of citizens’ traditional medium of democratic participation – the political party – into the machinery of the state itself.

The inevitable problem with this technocratic governance is that it is always in the process of undermining the very authority of expertise on which it rests. This is because the expert – be it the climate scientist, or the economist, or the doctor – is forever being asked to exercise his or her authority beyond the field in which it applies. Namely, in the political or even moral realm. A climate expert can tell us about the complex interaction of sea and air temperatures, but they cannot tell us which energy policies should be pursued. An economist can tell us about falling levels of productivity, but they cannot tell us to stay in the EU. A doctor can tell us that smoking is bad for our lungs, but they cannot tell us how we ought to live.

And this is what people are revolting against. Not the authority of the expert in his or her field of expertise – even Michael Gove would defer to a cardiologist if he was having a heart attack. No, they are revolting against the political exploitation of expert authority in order to short-circuit and decide in advance what ought to be debated and judged by us, the citizenry. This is why there is no necessary link between the populist rejection of the technocratic consensus and a minority in Italy and France refusing to let their children have the MMR injection. Refusing to defer to the medical establishment on the question of the minimum pricing of alcohol is very different to refusing to defer to the medical establishment on the question of immunisation. Doctors have no moral authority in the domain of our consumption choices, but they do have medical authority when it comes to the direct prevention and treatment of illness and disease.

Those who continue to traduce populism as a rejection of experts, even a rejection of the truth itself, are refusing to recognise it for what it really is: a rejection of the political exploitation of expertise. We are not rejecting the truth; we are rejecting their self-styled truth.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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