In a recent New York Times magazine article, Ian Buruma, author of several books on Britain and its cultural links with other countries, lamented the end of the Anglo-American liberal world order as exemplified by Brexit and the Trump phenomenon. Both represented a narrower and less open politics. But he noted very fairly that many of his English friends and some experts resisted the comparison between Trumpism and Brexit:
In London, the distinguished conservative historian Noel Malcolm told me that his heart sank when I compared the two. Brexit, he said, was all about sovereignty. British democracy, in his view, would be undermined if the British had to abide by laws passed by foreigners they didn’t vote for. (He was referring to the European Union.) The Brexit vote, he maintained, had little to do with globalization or immigration or working-class people feeling left behind by the elites. It was primarily a matter of democratic principle.
Malcolm seemed to think that Brexit voters, including former industrial workers in Britain’s rust-belt cities, were moved by the same high-minded principles that had made him a convinced Brexiteer. I had my doubts.
May I reassure Mr Buruma? As someone whose northern English working-class family—long since scattered across both the country and its class system—is composed mainly but not overwhelmingly of Leave voters, I found that their strongest and most frequent explanation for their votes was “we want to govern ourselves”. Friends who went door to door in working-class areas of London told me they met exactly the same response.
Certainly both sides in this battle, as in most elections, had multiple reasons for choosing as they did. Most of my Remain relatives (and friends) voted to avert the economic disasters that they were told would descend upon an “isolated” UK. But if industrial workers feared low-wage competition from Polish immigrants under EU rules, as Mr Buruma speculates, so perhaps lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians feared the loss of high-salary job opportunities in Brussels and across Europe after Brexit.
When all these personal interests cancel each other out, though, we are left with a simple choice between two claims: ensuring prosperity versus recovering democratic sovereignty. The polls made this plain: thus 53 per cent of Leavers, like my relatives, voted so to “govern themselves”. And that was the choice that most voters made.
This essay appears in Quadrant‘s January double issue.
Click here to subscribe
I felt throughout the campaign that the Remainers were awkwardly aware of the power of the argument from democratic sovereignty. They had no good answer to it. They did their best to move the debate onto different ground. At some level they seemed to sense they were on the wrong side of an important moral and political divide. And since the result six months ago, my instinct has been confirmed in the most paradoxical way: democracy and sovereignty have become matters of public controversy in themselves.
One section of the Remainers reacted to their referendum defeat by venturing into open anti-democratic politics, arguing that the voters were too old, too ignorant and too misled by campaign arguments to cast a valid ballot. An opposite section has crossed the floor to support the Brexit vote, some saying they do so because they are disgusted by these open expressions of hostility to democracy from Remain’s bitter-enders.
One glaring and sometimes candid characteristic of the Remain bitter-enders is that they think themselves superior in some way to Leave voters, some claiming to be cleverer, others thinking themselves more cosmopolitan. That self-confidence contrasts with the anti-democratic arguments they employ which are of a distinctly modest intellectual quality.
Set aside such claims as that the referendum was flawed because too many old people voted (mainly Leave) and too few young ones voted (mainly Remain). Once such nostrums had been discarded, Remain anti-democrats were left with the much-repeated claim that “experts know best”. That horse too falls down at every fence. First, experts differ. Almost any cause can find an expert to support it—which means that the rest of us can choose between different experts on the same topic, as when we seek a second medical opinion. Second, experts often get it wrong. Niall Ferguson, the distinguished historian, recently listed the EU’s major policies, all supported by many experts, that had proved disastrous: “monetary union, foreign policy, migration policy, and policy on radical Islam”. That’s a lot to have got wrong, and it is ordinary voters—such as unemployed Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese—who suffer the consequences. Third, no one can be an expert on some topics because they simply contain too many sub-topics, each of which requires its own expertise. Britain’s overall well-being outside the EU is just such a complex matter. Fourth, even when people agree on all the facts of some question, they may still make different choices on grounds of taste or morals. Experts are little or no help to us in making such choices. And, fifth, experts may lack such qualities as good judgment, common sense, moderation and balance which may not correlate with expertise and which may even be blocked by an expert’s understandable over-estimate of his own specialty’s importance.
Conor Cruise O’Brien tells a story in his book The Siege that sums up this fallacy. The first King Abdullah of Jordan asked a goatherd in the desert if he should wage war on the Israelis. When the goatherd advised him not to attack Israel because it was then stronger than Jordan, the King replied: “I think so too. But my Cabinet, which is full of graduates from Harvard and Oxford, believes I should go to war.” Dr O’Brien suggested that the British Foreign Office, in the light of its manifest Middle East failures, should perhaps have sought out a simple goatherd for advice on diplomacy.
Maybe a simple goatherd should also be on hand to advise Remain bitter-enders and other sceptics on democracy. For since the decision of the High Court that Brexit could not go ahead without an additional parliamentary endorsement, there has been a further explosion of anti-democratic sentiments not only in social media, but increasingly in law courts, the serious op-eds, and current affairs programming.
As the defection of some “soft” Remainers to the Leave side illustrates, this is shocking to most people, but especially to older people. Following the Second World War there was almost universal national pride that Britain, like Australia and the US, had not only fought for democracy but also fought in a democratic way, holding elections and by-elections throughout the worst days. And democracy had been further justified by victory. This sentiment softened our political disagreements, making political defeats tolerable and the challenging of election results unthinkable. So strong was this consensus that even extremist parties whose real attachment to democracy was dubious, usually communists or fascists, had to pledge allegiance to the democratic idea. That still strikes me as the case in Australia. And it has been a nasty surprise to most English people to discover that for others respect for democracy comes second to getting their way.
How has that happened? The answer seems to be that there has always been a tension in liberal democracy between democracy and liberalism—between elections intended to produce a governing majority and institutions such as courts and treaties designed to restrain a majority government from abusing its authority. That worked pretty well until in recent years power began to drain from elected bodies like parliaments to non-accountable institutions such as courts. As they became more powerful, the non-accountable liberal institutions became more ambitious, not merely restraining the majority but increasingly dictating law and policy to it on everything from same-sex marriage to multiculturalism.
That was possible because liberal-minded elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power and largely sympathised with the policies it promoted. Though Left and Right elites differed with each other on some policies, usually taxing and spending ones, they agreed on others such as migration and Euro-integration. If the voters disagreed on such issues, the party leaderships kept them out of politics by simply not discussing them. It was tacitly understood that these were matters unsuited to democratic decision-making by mass electorates. Voters determined to raise these issues switched their support to new parties of Left and Right.
As the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde pointed out: “populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation.” The result is the spread of “populist” uprisings across the advanced world in the last year—the tectonic political shifts mentioned on our cover.
Language has now caught up with the shift of power. Until yesterday we all spoke well of democracy, but it was impossible not to notice that the word majoritarian was almost always a pejorative in op-eds and ministerial speeches. And when the voters rejected something the elites really valued, they let it all hang out and cursed the masses in their sweaty nightcaps.
It won’t be the last time.