Brexit: Three Thoughts

July 4, 2016

On one level I was suprised by the result of the Brexit referendum – I expected the torrent of doom laden projections – to achieve their intended effect.  On another level the result was not surprising at all.  Having lived for nearly a quarter of a century in Yorkshire it was extremely obvious how strongly scepticism both about the Westminster political class and the EU are well entrenched.

Brexit has spawned a mountain of commentary and I’ve been a bit hesitant to add to it.  Gary Rawnsley has pointed to some public diplomacy implications but I wanted to make three broader points about how to interpret the vote.  I want to comment on nature of democracy, the problem of elites and publics in the EU and the issue of history versus politics that haven’t been widely aired.

Firstly,  much of the reaction to Brexit has pointed to the defects of the campaigns and in particular of the voters who are seen as ill qualified to pronounce on such complex matters.  This is understandable if you see democracy as a process of producing a rational consensus in the Habermasian mode.  Personally, I’ve always been persuaded by a more realist view of democracy as a blunt instrument

In The Phantom Public Walter Lippmann (1927) offers the following

In disputes between nations, between sectional interests, between town and county, between churches, the rules of adjustment are lacking and the argument about them is lost in a fog of propaganda.

Yet it is controversies of this kind, the hardest controversies to disentangle, that the public is called in to judge.  Where the facts are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is compelled to make its most important decisions.  The hardest problems are those which institutions cannot handle.  They are the public’s problems.

For Lippmann government is a function of experts and institutions but expertise and institutions are domain specific which is why it is the job of the public to resolve the issues that cut across them.

Secondly, this division between public and elites is one of the basic problems of contemporary politics: elites think that they know best and the public is sceptical.  Although this a problem that is found in many countries it is one that has a particular resonance in the EU.  The French political philosopher Pierre Manent argues that the EU has detached democracy from the demos and the result is a bloodless “democratic governance“, an administration of things, detached from any real political community (2001, 2007).  The political scientist,  Christopher Bickerton makes a similar poin: the polities that make up the EU are member states rather than nation states in that their legitimacy comes from their membership in international organizations and adherence to international standards not the claim to represent the people.  The consequence is a gap between the executive, on one hand, and the legislature and public on the other, indeed the characteristic line of cleavage in European politics is not between left and right but between “technocrats” and “populism” (2012 and here).  Neither Manent or Bickerton would claim that that these issues stem only from membership of the European Union but they provide a useful lens to view Brexit.

Schattschneider (1960) argues that in any political system some lines of cleavage are institutionalized (“organized in”) by the party structure while other are “organized out” – divisions exist but the institutional structure obstructs their expression and mobilization around them.  The traditional party structure in England consisted of two parties that were lukewarm on Europe and the Liberal Democrats who were more enthusiastic.  Europe was largely organized out because it was an issue that cut across Labour and Conservative parties – but this did not mean that there were not groups, particularly in the Conservative Party who were concerned with it.  David Cameron’s attempt to manage this issue in his party by promising a referendum allowed mobilization around Europe.  It also allowed a class mobilization against the elite, particularly in the traditional Labour supporting post industrial areas.  Essentially people who were excluded from any significant political voice by the combination of the electoral system and professionalized political campaigning mobilized to support – and if we follow the Manent/Bickerton analysis did so on perfectly rational grounds –  their argument being  “we are being ignored and part of the reason we are being ignored is because of the EU” (eg see here).  We want leaders who respond to us not Brussels or 27 other countries.

Thirdly, much commentary on Brexit is posited in on the inevitability of globalization and thus the perversity of the vote.  Hence the British vote is a vote against history.  I suspect that for some people nostalgia played a role but I think history is being used here as a way of emphasizing the lack of alternatives.  This is noticeable in the way that some American commentary lays out the rejection of globalization by ‘the left behind’ but then demeans them and fails to offer any alternatives beyond a vague hope of ‘better policies’ or ‘global governance’.   To my mind this implies a double failure of the liberal political imagination, in the inability to imagine any different policies but more seriously in the unquestioned acceptance of the liberal teleology.

The classic Clinton Administration/New Labour policy synthesis was globalization plus better training and education for those affected.  This has not worked in practice and the task now is to find new ways of balancing openness and protection.  Although most countries have undergone a degree of opening in the last three decades they extent to which this has happened has varied – which suggests that policy retains a role to play (eg Mann 2013).  Policy matters and British politics needs new approaches.  The claim that there is no alternative is a political one not a statement of fact.

This leads to the broader question. Although Frances Fukuyama was derided for his writing on the end of history all he was doing was giving voice to the teleology of liberalism that the world is on a path to an inevitable domination of secular liberal rationalism.  This is a belief that is deeply embedded in the history of liberal thought (eg Koselleck 1988) it is one that reappears in different forms whether modernization theory or the belief in technology (Gilman 2003, Morozov 2011).  The problem is that it leads to an exaggerated belief in the capacity of international action to change the world and thus to repeated policy failures.  Just as with communism liberalism displaces political responsibility onto history, it justifies the failure of European elites to listen to their people.  The irony is that the EU is more unpopular in France than in the UK but I don’t think that we can expect a referendum there any time soon.

Overall, people in the UK made a political choice: that they would rather be out than in.  As far as I can see it was based on an acceptance of risks not on guarantees and now it is up to the political elites to make something of this.  Whether they can do this is another matter, it will require both sustained pressure from below and an effort to remake the assumptions and skills of policy makers and given recent assessments of the capacity of British governments to think five minutes into the future will not be easy.

Bickerton, Chris J. 2012. European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Gilman, Nils 2003. Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Koselleck, Reinhart. 1988. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Lippmann, Walter. 1927. The Phantom Public. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers.
Manent, Pierre. 2006. A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State. Translated by Marc LePain. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Manent, Pierre. 2007. Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. Translated by Paul Seaton. Wilmington DE: ISI.
Mann, Michael. 2013. The Sources of Social Power, Volume IV: Globalizations, 1945-2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morozov, Evgeny 2011. The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Allen Lane.
Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt,R.& W.

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