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January 04th 2017 print

John O’Sullivan

Curses Be Upon the Sweaty Masses

One glaring characteristic of many Remain bitter-enders is their imagined superiority to Leave voters, some some thinking themselves cleverer, others more cosmopolitan. That self-confidence contrasts with the modest intellectual quality of their arguments

remain stickerIn 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.
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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.

Comments [11]

  1. Bwana Neusi says:

    An excellent article John O’Sullivan. It begs the question as to where (and when) Australia take a similar path to the UK and USA.

    We have numerous institutions, like the AHRC and the courts that bestow upon themselves powers and authority that they were never given,

    • Jody says:

      With regard to your final sentence, I think we need to understand that these organizations are invested with power FROM government and effectively are agents of that government which are effectively used against the people. Were this not the case these organizations would be abolished because of the damage, or potential damage, they do to individuals and freedom of speech. Government’s tentacles spread too far and are too intrusive through its agencies such as the AHRC and others.

      • Warty says:

        I believe the Hawk Government ushered in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, which later became the AHRC. Unfortunately there are too many like wets like Senator Brandis, who’d oppose getting rid of the AHRC or 18C for that matter. We will need our own conservative revolution to clean it all up.

  2. Warty says:

    For most of us, regardless of how apparently insignificant, we want to believe that life has some meaning and we have some place in the scheme of things. Governments have an unfailing way of making such sentiments seem vainly delusional. But much of every day life seems to becoming increasingly impersonal: pensioners dealing with Centrelink; consumers trying to get service from increasingly automated customer services, and eventually the sheer indignity of low budget retirement homes.
    Little wonder people become agitated. Goodness, I think I need a drink after all that.

  3. en passant says:

    John,
    On 1st July 2016 I posted ‘Seven Ways the Elite will use to Thwart BREXIT’. No. 4 was …

    4. The pseudo-BREXIT will continue to drag on seeing more and more difficulties and will grind to a halt. Democracy will have been thwarted.

    This is happening now.

    No. 3 was a Court challenge that would say the democratic vote was not binding – and that has already happened.

    I concluded: “So let me make another 5-year prediction: IF the UK succeeds in leaving the EU concentration camp (and the elitist guards will find every underhand means to resist the will of the people) the UK will thrive. If it is found to be all too hard, the UK will become another failed ‘great nation’ in the dustbin of history.”

    Might I suggest that if the latter happens, then the UK and Venezuela can conclude a treaty to sell themselves and their children into muslim bondage, so they never have to worry again about making decisions or looking after themselves.

    • gardner.peter.d says:

      The way things are going there will be no need for a sale into Muslim bondage. The Islamists know full well that not only will they dominate but be paid to do so, earning masses from legal claims and welfare, recycling of Middle eastern oil money into European mosques etc etc.. Germany has legalised child marriage for Muslims, Sharia is accepted by authorities widely in Germany, Sweden and UK, several countries have accepted polygamy, prosecutions of FGM are extremely rare, halal slaughter is common, French manufacturing plants close down because Muslim time out for religious activities makes them uncompetitive. Even in Australia I know of at least one instance of the several wives of a Muslim each living with their children in public housing.

  4. Jody says:

    There urgently needs to be an Equal Opportunity Responsibility Commission. NOW.

  5. Alan Dinsmore says:

    The vexing of Lot, we were robbed of our “brexit” when the political class chose to schuttle the plebiscite.

  6. gardner.peter.d says:

    The story told by Conor Cruise O’Brien reminds me of my professor’s story when I started a PhD in cybernetics many years ago. He told me he had been hired by the MoDUK to improve their policy and procurement decision making. He completed an analysis of decisions and outcomes and presented it to the then Admiralty Board with the recommendation to disband the committees and throw a dice instead as this would raise the decision ‘correctness a posteriori’ score from 35 to 50%. He was immediately sacked but his theories proved so successful in horse racing he retired early a wealthy man.