Review: The People vs Democracy

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - does liberal democracy have a future

“The People vs Democracy” goes further than many other books which claim to “explain” Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, showing that it takes both sides – outraged establishment centrists as well as populist insurgents – to successfully undermine liberal democracy. Political renewal depends on the former group finally accepting responsibility for some of the failings which brought us to this divisive moment

Introspection has been in short supply since the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Both sides are at fault – supporters of Brexit and Trump, well used to being the insurgent political outsiders, have frequently struggled to adapt to the fact that they now set the agenda (at least in part) and share responsibility for tangible outcomes affecting everybody. Meanwhile, dispossessed leftists and centrists, largely content with the old status quo and fearful about the speed and extent to which their worldview was repudiated at the ballot box, are so enraged at developments that they refuse to even consider how their actions and errors led to the present situation.

A new book by Yascha Mounk’s, “The People vs Democracy”, attempts to shake both sides out of their complacency while warning that doubling down on current behaviours – with populists displaying impatient contempt for norms and institutions which stand in their way, and establishment centrists concluding that even more areas of policy need to be lifted out of the “risk” of democratic influence – risk fatally undermining liberal democracy, which turns out to be a far less stable and inevitable system of government than we have all tended to believe.

The book was apparently conceived before either Trump or Brexit, but inevitably it has been seized upon by a political and media class who are overwhelmingly sceptical of (and often hostile to) both developments as a kind of guide book for how to avoid ever again losing control of the political narrative. Unfortunately, these audiences seem far more interested in analysing and condemning the supposed pathologies of voters who support populist leaders and initiatives rather than looking honestly at their own manifold failings. In an otherwise excellent interview and Q&A with the American author and journalist EJ Dionne, establishment centrist failings are barely considered at all, and certainly do not receive top billing.

Media organisations with an agenda to push have consistently portrayed the book as an analysis of the means by which “populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy”, but this is disingenuous. Such deceptive portrayals begin in media res, assuming that populist uprisings begin spontaneously and unpredictably like forest wildfires rather than as a direct result of the failures of the increasingly antidemocratic pseudo-liberalism they champion in the form of institutions like the European Union and continuity politicians such as Hillary Clinton.

In reality, any intellectually honest observer must now concede that populists do not spring spontaneously from the earth, and that the ground must be fertilised with the arrogance and failure of establishment politicians and institutions before populism can take root and pose any systemic danger to democracy. Mounk himself acknowledges as much in his book, which is refreshing, but the biases of his target audience mean that this side of the story is consistently downplayed, both in the book and in many reviews.

Yascha Mounk begins with an overview of the West’s current political landscape, looking at factors which are common between countries:

Then there are those short years in which everything changes all at once. Political newcomers storm the stage. Voters clamor for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social tensions that had long simmered under the surface erupt into terrifying explosions. A system of government that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart.

This description of increased political division also describe periods of discontinuity and the difficult, contentious process of forming a new political consensus from the ashes of an older, failing one:

There are ordinary times, when political decisions influence the lives of millions of people in ways both big and small, but the basic features of a country’s collective life are not at stake. Despite deep disagreements, partisans on both sides of the political battle line endorse the rules of play. They agree to settle their differences on the basis of free and fair elections, are committed to the basic norms of the political system, and accept that a loss at the ballot box makes it legitimate for their political opponent to take a turn at running the country.

[..] Then there are extraordinary times, when the basic contours of politics and society are being renegotiated. In such times, the disagreements between partisans on both sides grow so deep and nasty that they no longer agree on the rules of the game.

[..] As a result, the denizens of extraordinary times start to regard the stakes of politics as existential. In a system whose rules are deeply contested, they have good reason to fear that a victory at the polls may turn out to be forever; that a loss in one political battle may rob them of the ability to wage the larger war; and that progress defeated today may turn out to set the country on a path toward perennial injustice.

This could very easily describe the post-war socialist consensus which prevailed almost uncontested in Britain from 1945 to 1979, or the subsequent supranational and technocratic (or “neoliberal”) consensus which followed. The difference this time is that it is not the coal miners or those whose lives were made more precarious by globalisation protesting and striking, but rather members of the political and economic elite raging that their judgment as to what is best of the country has been second-guessed by other, less educated or refined people.

While Mounk plants his flag quite clearly on the “liberal” side of the argument, he is refreshingly willing to examine the flaws and missteps of his own side as they increasingly work toward a future of rights without democracy:

The rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, is but one side of politics in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For even as ordinary people have grown sceptical of liberal practices and institutions, political elites have tried to insulate themselves from their anger. The world is complicated, they insist – and they have worked hard to find the right answers. If the people should grow so restive as to ignore the sage advice proffered by elites, they need to be educated, ignored or bullied into submission.

Mounk uses the example of Greece and the Euro crisis as his example, but he could just as easily have taken any of the EU’s dealings with recalcitrant member states, or the economic and social consensus adopted in most Western countries.

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

In democracies around the world, two seemingly distinct developments are playing out. On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy, the two core elements of our political system, are starting to come into conflict.

[..] Democracies can be illiberal. This is especially likely to happen in places where most people favour subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike. Conversely, liberal regimes can become undemocratic despite having regular, competitive elections. This is especially likely to happen where the political system is so skewed in favour of the elite that elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

This is absolutely correct but it is important to note that democracy has atrophied much faster and further than liberalism thus far in countries such as Britain and the United States. This may seem incorrect to bewildered centrists who tended to believe that everything was marvellous (or at least on a positive path toward progress) until Trump and Brexit appeared like bolts from the blue, but it is true nonetheless.

Much of the rising anti-liberalism has thus far been confined to rhetoric only, and has not yet rooted itself in public policy, while anti-democratic practices and the effective disenfranchisement of those who hold the “wrong” views have been flourishing for years and even decades. It is also the case that many policies now considered intolerably illiberal by many opinion setters (such as aggressive immigration enforcement under the Clinton or Obama administrations in America) were accepted or even positively encouraged by so-called liberals not long ago, raising the question to what extent the current fear of “illiberal” policymaking is primarily the result of goalpost-moving by those on the progressive left determined to find evil in present policy for cultural reasons and cynical political advantage-seeking. Yes, we must absolutely tackle both sides of the equation, but we can only do so when we recognise the extent of democratic corrosion compared to real-world illiberal infringements.

And of course this is a self-perpetuating cycle – more and more areas of policy being lifted free of responsive democratic control inevitably increases support for populists and assorted dissenters, which (from the perspective of elites) only validates their belief that the people are unqualified and untrustworthy of making key decisions for themselves.

Ultimately, Mounk correctly diagnoses the burning issue of the age:

Rights without democracy need not prove to be more stable [than democracy without rights]: once the political system turns into a playground for billionaires and technocrats, the temptation to exclude the people from more and more important decisions will keep on growing.

A large part of Mounk’s criticism of populist movements (and one of the main criticisms in general) is the idea that populist politicians offer glib and simple solutions to inherently complex problems, and in doing so perpetrate a fraud on the gullible people who vote for them. Citing Donald Trump and Nigel Farage as examples, Mounk writes that populists:

…all claim that the solutions to the most pressing problems of our time are much more straightforward than the political establishment would have us believe, and that the great mass of ordinary people instinctively knows what to do. At bottom, they see politics as a very simple matter.

Yes and no. It is certainly true that the complicated technology and regulation required to make the global economy hang together does necessitate a growing technocracy and makes politics far more complicated, but at times the populists are surely reacting with righteous and justified indignation to a bipartisan or consensus view to lift decisions out of democratic control. As Mounk later goes on to admit, there is no good reason why the citizens of a country should not be heard through the ballot box when it comes to immigration levels. The complex cost/benefit analysis of different types and scales of immigration may well be hugely complex, but the principle currently being violated in many Western countries is starkly clear, hence the stark (and supposedly simplistic) solution of returning some decision-making around immigration to the electorate.

Yet for most of the book, Mounk seems happy to dismiss this causal factor, rhetorically asking:

If the political problems of our time are so easy to fix, who do they persist?

Some of these problems are really entrenched and lack a simple solution, contrary to the populist claims. But at other times, the issue is simply that centrist consensus politics – or what those on the Left might denounce as peak neoliberalism – simply will not countenance the obvious and ready solutions.

Mounk rightly warns that the willingness of populist leaders to advocate the sidestepping or abolition of various institutional roadblocks – whether through earnest impatience or more malevolent intentions – is contrary to the spirit of liberal democracy. And indeed, in Britain we have seen this play out with attacks on the judiciary and now the House of Lords because of their interpretation of law or procedural foot-dragging. Mounk correctly expresses the ideal, and warns of the danger:

Liberal democracies are full of checks and balances that are meant to stop any one party from amassing too much power and to reconcile the interests of different groups. But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption.

Quite so. But we cannot level this criticism against populism unless we acknowledge that many of these cherished, long-standing institutions have thus far seemingly offered no defence against an effective cartel whereby both (or in some countries, all) the main political parties implement the same policies and pursue the same basic worldview without offering meaningful choice to the electorate. In such a case – as with EU membership and New Labour era mass immigration in Britain – it is not unreasonable to complain that the institutions or checks and balances currently in place are not fit for purpose, and require urgent reform at the very least.

Despite moments of real clarity, there are other occasions when for whole sections at a time, Mounk lapses into the kind of lazy, almost arrogant view of his political opponents which has for too long infected the media and mainstream opinion-setting public figures:

So much of the angry energy that fuelled [protests against Angela Merkel’s lax and permissive immigration policies  in Germany] had been on display in the streets of Dresden that I could not help interpreting the events of 2016 an 2017 in light of what I saw there: the hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities; the mistrust of the press and the spread of fake news; the conviction that the silent majority had finally found its voice; and, perhaps more than anything else, the hankering for somebody who would speak in the name of the people.

Have journalists and academics really no alternative way to think about and describe opposition to mass migration than “hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities”? This is half the problem – the determination of many opinion-setters to read the worst possible motives into popular protests, thus making it even harder for politicians to take those legitimate concerns seriously lest they be accused of “pandering”.

In fact, the best refutation to Mounk’s assertion is the story of the far right in Britain. While Mounk meticulously documents the rise of populist hard or far-right political parties in many European countries, he is conspicuously silent about the fate of the British National Party in the UK. Early on in the era of mass migration to Britain, in the early 2000s, the BNP secured a stunning series of victories in local and European elections, seeing their vote share climb and jostle for position with other more established and respectable smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. The BNP prospered in a climate where none of the major political parties promised to seriously grapple with the issue of mass migration, and rising support for the BNP was taken and portrayed by the commentariat as rising support for the BNP’s worst and most racist tendencies. However, the rise of the UK Independence Party, a staunchly Eurosceptic party lacking the racist baggage of the far right, saw the BNP quickly fade back into obscurity. In subsequent elections, the BNP lost almost all of their local council seats and entered a period of organisational dysfunction from which it has not yet emerged.

This shows that when the subjects of race and immigration are separated (as they were when voters were offered a clear choice between the BNP and UKIP), voters are far less racist and prejudiced than many establishment commentators give them credit for. The triumph of UKIP over the BNP proved as definitively as possible that concerns about mass immigration implemented without democratic consent were not primarily ethnicity based – why else would voters eschew the party which was more willing to make race and ethnicity an issue? Yet political and media elites continually over-conflate the issues of immigration and race, partly because of a soft bias which leads them to instinctively favour higher immigration and look down on those who equivocate, but also, one suspects, because they know that accusations of racism are the best way to discredit an otherwise legitimate policy argument.

The lazy charge of racism is not the only instance where Mounk unfortunately lapses into comforting establishment dogma. In this paragraph he effectively ventriloquises the sense of entitlement felt by displaced establishment politicians throughout the West, from displayed centre leftists in denial about their newly diminished position in Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left Labour Party to identity politics-worshipping Democrats who now want to double down on the divisive rhetoric of racial or gender-based grievance:

Populist leaders’ willingness to offer solutions that are so simple they can never work is very dangerous. Once they are in power, their policies are likely to exacerbate the problems that drove public anger in the first place. It would be tempting to assume that voters, suitably chastened by the ensuing chaos, would then return their trust to establishment politician.

Tempting? Chastened? Yascha Mounk is clearly an intelligent and conscientious writer, but these words reveal the extent to which he and other opinion-setters marinade in a very ideologically and culturally homogenous environment. “Tempting” suggests that it would be good if voters returned power to the same unrepentant establishment politicians that Mounk has elsewhere conceded to have led us into our current difficulties, and “chastened” suggests an establishment view of the electorate as spoiled children to be either indulged or reprimanded at various times, but never given full agency over their own lives. Mounk may not have intended it to come across this way, but there are few other ways of reading this paragraph, which itself is very reflective of prevailing opinion within the political bubble.

Throughout the book, generally the most extreme degrees of anti-establishment or populist argument are analysed, with the more moderate positions whose continued stonewalling led to a populist revolt in the first place are frustratingly avoided. We see this again here:

The major political problems of the day, populists claim, can be easily solved. All it takes is common sense. If jobs are moving abroad, you have to ban other countries from selling their products. If immigrants are flooding the country, you have to build a wall. And if terrorists attack you in the name of Islam, you have to ban all the Muslims.

On one hand it is quite right and proper to note the glib simplicity and unpleasant tone of these policies, particularly since Donald Trump did come to office promising to implement them all in one form or another. But taking potshots at the obvious impracticality of Trump’s proposals is easy. What is much harder – and would have made the book even stronger – is a more consistent and rigorous introspection as to why the continued downplaying of these issues (job displacement due to globalization and poorly enforced immigration laws with tacit acceptance of illegal immigration) by previously ruling elites led to their downfall in the first place. An understanding that continually crying “racism!” in the face of sober minded and reasonable policy proposals ultimately led to the emergence of someone with far catchier but less workable policies – the kind of introspection shown in Mark Lilla’s book “The Once And Future Liberal” – would have rounded out “The People vs Democracy” and made it a less frustrating read for moderate conservatives who agree with Mounk’s diagnosis but marvel at his inability to keep a fixed gaze on the root cause.

Too often, Mounk gives a free pass to the media, whose manifold failings also contributed enormously to this populist moment:

Critical media outlets cover protests against the populist leader. They report on his government’s failings and give voice to his prominent critics. They tell sympathetic stories about his victims.

All well and good, exactly as it should be. But where was this brave and critical media during previous administrations? Where are the equivalent stories about the victims of policies pursued through the establishment consensus? Yes, many news outlets, dazed and confused after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, urgently dispatched reporters to far flung parts of their countries in a bid to speak with and understand the motivations of people who voted for populist options – and to be fair, there has been some good and incisive reporting as a result. But why were those journalists not always rooted in these communities, reporting sympathetically on the struggles taking place there? Why did so few media outlets or opinion-setters correctly predict the two most shocking electoral events of the century? The answer can only be that the media was and remains utterly unfit for purpose, thinking and reporting almost exclusively from one side of an emergent divide while having few authentic connections to – and zero credibility with – the other.

We should absolutely celebrate and defend a free press and reward good reporting and analysis wherever it is produced. But we delude ourselves if we hold up the existing media class as plucky heroes and defenders of democracy when their collective failure did as much as anything else to ensure that populist concerns were not fully heard until they exploded into the open with the election of Donald Trump.

Mounk is also sometimes too forgiving towards other institutions which have historically been part of the problem rather than the solution:

Attacks on the free press are but the first step. In the next step, the war on independent institutions frequently targets foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

Populists realize how dangerous intermediary institutions with a real claim to representing the views and interests of large segments of society are to the fiction that they, and they alone, speak for the people. They therefore work hard to discredit such institutions as tools of old elites or outside interests.

Again, Mounk’s basic warning is a fair and important one. But focusing only on the attacks which these institutions are now attracting from populists and largely ignoring their significant failures makes it much harder to successfully argue for needed reform, or to reach a bipartisan compromise which might help rebuild trust in the various institutions while cleansing them of any existing bias or corruption. For example, many Brexiteers are wrong to propose the total abolition of the House of Lords due to the assembly’s scrutiny of the Brexit process and defeat of government motions, but those defending the institution are too willing to overlook the lopsided, unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the Lords. And in America, defending the free press against the outrageous tweets and bluster emanating from Donald Trump’s White House risks overlooking the deep flaws and blind spots which run through many news organizations which consider themselves strictly objective and impartial.

Mounk also fails to consider other reasons why populist leaders may seek institutional or systemic change in addition to implementing their own policies, confidently asserting:

The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norm is in part tactical: Whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo.

Fair enough, but one cannot offer this cynical explanation without offering the far more reasonable corollary – that if the existing political system and institutions had successfully kept his own worldview and preferred policies at the political margins despite significant public support, then he too might have just cause to believe that a deeper bias exists and that institutions really do need comprehensive reform or abolition.

“The People vs Democracy” is strong where it analyses the economic forces behind populism, going further than issuing the usual misleading banalities uneducated working class citizens voting against their own interests:

The most straightforward markers of economic well-being do not predict whether somebody voted for Trump or for Clinton. Whereas Americans who saw Trump favourably had a mean household income of nearly $82,000, for example, those who viewed him unfavourably had a household income of a little over $77,000. Similarly, Trump supporters are “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than other people in the sample. In short, the popular media narrative according to which Trump primarily appealed o the poor and the lowly just doesn’t hold up.

[..] But when we turn our attention from the attributes of particular voters to the places in which they live and the fates they likely face, it becomes clear that economic factors do mater. For one, voters who favour Trump are much less likely to hold a college degree or to have a professional job – which implies that they have a much better reason to fear that their economic fortunes might decline because of globalization and automation.

Mounk perceptively concludes that at present, countries like Britain and America are vulnerable to populism because they “can no longer offer their citizens a real sense of momentum.” This is prime Stepping Stones territory – only a comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing developed countries (and the complex linkages between them) can hope to restore the kind of positive national momentum which is needed to maintain widespread faith in liberal democracy. Piecemeal efforts to solve discrete issues (or, more realistically, to avoid bad headlines in the media) will always be insufficient. If one acknowledges that the global economy, financial and regulatory environment is so complex as to require a significant technocracy to aid good policymaking then it is ludicrous to believe that the democratic nation state can continue to prosper without any kind of forensically strategic analysis of a country’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Yet far too many governments – Britain’s being one of the most dismally prominent examples – are stuck in neutral, focused on irrelevancies or fighting for political survival rather than maintaining a strategic outlook. And so the key questions raised by Mounk continue to go unanswered:

What do liberal democracies need to do to extend their remarkable record of past stability? Is it enough for them to afford their citizens a decent life? Or do they need to be able to cash in on the old promise, implicitly issued in the long decades of rapidly growing plenty, that each generation will do much better than the one that came before?

How indeed. We will never find out unless our politicians and governments lift their gaze from their navels and initiate a conversation about these pressing questions and the policy solutions required to confront them.

Where Yascha Mounk does offer proposed solutions, they tend to be quite sensible (if sometimes overly hopeful). Much like Mark Lilla, Mounk writes very much from the perspective of a US “liberal” writing for the consumption of other liberals, but he does not spare criticism of his own side. Citing the example of Poland, Mounk warns that splits in the opposition to an authoritarian regime can be instrumental in helping it to cement long-term control, a lesson that many Democratic Party activists might want to consider heeding, given the endless identity politics purity wars roiling the party and pushing them ever further to the left. Mounk’s counsel for liberals to tone down the public mockery of those they disagree with is also sound advice, for nothing shuts down debate and eliminates the possibility of persuasion than a dose of finger-wagging mockery – and this is as true for pro-EU activists in Britain who love to scoff at “uneducated” Brexiteers and deploy their new, racially-tinged “gammon” insult as it is of American leftists who demonise average Trump supporters.

Mounk also writes about the importance of constructing a rival, positive narrative to compete against the populist vision, rather than simply protesting or mocking the populists. At present, far too many of those people connected with the #Resistance in America or the anti-Brexit #FBPE collective in Britain visibly project an image of simply wanting to roll the clock back to the moment before the 2016 presidential election or EU referendum. The ongoing prominence of Democratic Party grandees like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and even the public utterances of Hillary Clinton herself, project an air of aggrieved entitlement rather than contrition or introspection for their role in bringing us to this point. New, fresh faces are needed, people with charisma, yes, but also the political vision and policy know-how to offer a viable, appealing alternative. As Mounk points out:

To rival the narrative according to which only they can fix the nation’s problems, defenders of liberal democracy have to put forward realistic promises of their own.

[..] the defenders of liberal democracy will not vanquish the populists as long as they seem wedded to the status quo.

[..] To avoid the mistake Clinton made in 2016, defenders of liberal democracy must demonstrate that they take the problems voters face seriously, and seek to effect real change. While they don’t need to emulate the simplistic solutions or pander to the worst values of the populists, they urgently need to develop a bold plan for a better future.

One of the most valuable contributions of “The People vs Democracy” to our discourse is its searching consideration of whether the growing identity politics movement and political activism within academia are truly helping the fight for equality or undermining the basic trust in the institutions of democracy which is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic nation state.

The net effect of he deliberate failure to inculcate respect and reverence for democracy among young people (and to corrode whatever attachment to democracy does exist) is stark:

Millennials in countries like Great Britain or the United States [..] barely experienced the Cold War ad may not even know anybody who fought fascism. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defense?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticizing the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

Mounk also inveighs against the current hysteria over “cultural appropriation”:

Far from celebrating the way in which different cultures can take inspiration from each other, the opponents of cultural appropriation implicitly assume that cultures are pure; that they are forever owned by particular groups; and that there should be strict limits on the degree to which they influence each other. In other words, they ultimately think of the culture of particular identity groups in much the same way as right-wing xenophobes who are continually on guard against foreign influences on their national cultures.

Mounk also possesses a more realistic take on nationalism and the nation state than is now common among academia and much of the elite, who tend to see patriotism as outdated and embarrassing at best, and inherently harmful at worst:

The energy on today’s left, by contrast, is increasingly directed toward a radical rejection of the nation and all its trappings: This is the left that delights in 4th of July op-eds entitled “The Making of a Non-patriot”. It is the left that chants “No Trump, No Wall, No USA at all!” And it is also the left that, not content with acknowledging the copious failings of the Founding Fathers, refuses to recognize that they might be defined by anything other than their moral faults.

Mounk, by contrast, favours “domesticating nationalism” and calls for both elites and the Left to embrace a more expansive form of patriotism instead of attacking and ridiculing the symbols and institutions which bind societies together. This sounds good in theory but is hard in practice, given the extreme to which the Democratic Party has moved in America and many activists have moved in Britain.

At its core, “The People v Democracy” identifies many of the same developments, trade-offs and challenges that several others have noted – solving international problems versus defending national sovereignty, the need for technocratic bodies vs the need for democratic input and accountability, for example. Many of these I have also laid out several times in my agitation for a new Stepping Stones Report – a document which, like the original 1977 report which Margaret Thatcher brought with her into 10 Downing Street and was used to help navigate the last great period of discontinuity in Britain – updated to identify and tackle the new challenges of the 21st century.

Yascha Mounk’s book is ultimately a call for people – particularly disaffected leftists and centrists – not to give up on all of the goodness inherent in the liberal democratic nation state just because some of the institutions of government have been temporarily captured by populists. Amy Chua made a similar point at the end of her excellent book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations”, quoting from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free….
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

Mounk closes by referencing the end of the Roman Republic as a warning example, casting the populists of today as the heirs to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus:

The brand of politics propagated by the Gracchi and perpetuated by their opponents shaped the Roman Republic long after they themselves had left the scene. Every dozen or so years, a new follower was able to capture power. Each time, the norms and rules of the Roman Republic were a little less capable of containing the assault.

There was no one breaking point, no clear moment at which contemporaries realized that their political institutions had become obsolete. And yet, over the course of a tumultuous century, the Roman Republic slowly withered. As the old norms of restraint crumbled, violence spiraled out of control. By the time ordinary Romans recognized that they had lost the freedom to rule themselves, the republic had long been lost.

A prescient warning indeed, particularly because it acknowledges that it often takes two sides to degrade institutions and norms of behaviour. After all, today’s establishment would be the Roman Senate and patricians in this analogy, groups which hardly covered themselves in glory during the period.

Much prevailing opinion still holds that the establishment holds a near-monopoly on wisdom and morality, and that the populist insurgencies we now witness are entirely the result of low-information, uncultured voters being preyed upon by opportunistic leaders with ulterior motives. There is a widespread, arrogant assumption that voter dissatisfaction is somehow displaced, that people do not understand the real causes of their own unhappiness and that elites should be allowed to continue governing as they see fit, explaining to the people why they are wrong rather than adapting to their will. Mounk’s book shows that establishment centrists are every bit as much to blame for our present crisis than the populists they fear.

The danger is that these establishment centrists, driven mad by their sudden fall from power and influence, react not by examining their own flaws and failings but rather by lashing out at their opponents and continuing the loss of faith in democracy whose consequences form the root of their present situation. There is such anger among elites – often (though not always) out of proportion to any so-called populist policy which has yet been proposed or enacted – that many establishment politician and activists will accept nothing less than total defeat of every populist initiative, regardless of merit, which then only confirms the populists’ suspicion of an open conspiracy against them.

Democracy without rights versus rights without democracy. The populists have been heavily scrutinised and fairly criticised for their sometimes cavalier attitude to rights, norms and institutions. When will establishment politicians be held to account for their cavalier attitude toward democracy?

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

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Why I Am Glad To Be Leaving Britain

Statue of Liberty

[As I continue to wend my way through Southeast Asia en route from London to my new home in the United States, below are some reflections on leaving Britain which have been percolating in my mind. Regular political commentary to resume once our travel itinerary calms down a bit and I reach a country with more reliable internet connectivity.]

I’d like to say that it has been a pleasure…

Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.

Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).

I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.

The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.

Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?

For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.

This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.

This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.

In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.

When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.

A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.

Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.

However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.

Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.

Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?

Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.

None of this is to say that things are significantly better in the United States. Lord knows that my new adopted home has not got everything all figured out just yet; America is also idling in neutral to a large degree, an unpredictable and vastly underqualified new president at the helm, his own worst enemy, and an opposition party which has sold its soul to the false god of identity politics rather than offering any uniting, uplifting alternate platform. But at least the big issues are still debated in America, however crudely may sometimes be the case.

As I wrote last year when lamenting the decline in British political rhetoric:

Maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world.

Despite having every opportunity to take the lead, Britain seems determined to be a follower – either cowering fearfully within the EU or attempting to roll back the clock to a time when economic integration, regulatory alignment and international just-in-time supply chains didn’t make a mockery of the Tory Right’s hard Brexit fantasies. We even import our social movements these days, with British universities racing to copy their American counterparts in capitulating to the censorious cult of identity politics and organisations like Black Lives Matter UK springing up despite lacking any of the context or triggers which prompted the formation of the original.

I have very little desire to spend my time engaged in the minutiae of political debate in a country which stubbornly refuses to lift its gaze above its own navel, whose activists have enough spare time on their hands to worry about non-issues or capriciously import social movements from abroad yet no time to agitate for universal reform, true egalitarianism or issues which do not immediately benefit their own wallets. America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

Only on the question of national identity and societal cohesiveness is the political debate more interesting and pressing in the UK and Europe than in the United States, and even then only because years of bad and arrogantly-imposed policy have bequeathed Europe with significant subpopulations which feel little loyalty to or affinity with the countries which give them life and liberty, thus making it an existential issue. It is now fashionable among many elites to bemoan the decline of liberal democratic values, yet there is precious little introspection as to how policies which deliberately undermine the nation state and erode a common sense of identity accepting of liberal values might have played a part in their demise.

America is presently less far down this destructive path, and thus freer from the risk of the kind of societal unrest and breakdown which would make other policy experimentation impossible. In other words, if you don’t have to continually fight to justify your country’s existence (either from plotting euro-federalists on one side or unintegrated subpopulations and post-patriotic citizens of the world on the other) then one can comfortably think about other policy concerns, but if national survival underpinning essential liberal values is not assured then everything else becomes largely irrelevant.

So why this long, somewhat bitter screed as I depart the United Kingdom? After all, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter at all. I’m not a genius, a policy wunderkind or a charismatic future political leader, so me quitting these shores to make my mark in the United States is no great loss for Britain. But if even people like me survey the state of British politics and civic life and feel overwhelmed by a feeling of resigned ennui, how must those individuals blessed with real talent and inspiration feel? You think they are going to stick around to watch Owen Jones, Ian Dunt and EU Supergirl slog it out with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox, or feel compelled to step forward and offer their leadership skills to a country which itself has no desire to lead?

Britain can survive me flouncing off across the Atlantic; indeed, the country may well be much the better for it. But the pathetic state of British politics and civic life that I have described here is not only repulsive to me; it alienates talent and discourages innovation at nearly every level.

When British politics becomes little more than a technocratic debate about making the trains run on time or ensuring by national decree that hospital waiting times hit a certain target, we are thinking far too small.

When British political debate is more about desperately ignoring obvious truths (the unsustainability of the NHS, the failure of unmitigated multiculturalism, our broken welfare state) than tackling those problems head-on, we are being far too cowardly.

And when the desire and capacity of British elites to confront and overcome 21st century challenges gives way to a sense of resigned powerlessness and a petulant impatience for somebody else to do the difficult work, I can’t muster much sorrow to be taking a step away from that dismal stage.

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

And Lord knows I am looking forward to that change of scenery.

 

Sign at Plymouh Rock - landing place of the pilgrims - 1620

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We Need To Constrain Unchecked Government Power, For The Sake Of Brexit And Our Future Democracy

Dr Phillip Lee MP - Tory government minister - reverse Brexit based on economic forecasts

Does the UK government have the unilateral right to ignore instructions from the electorate if it finds them to be “harmful” based on narrowly subjective criteria? And if so, shouldn’t we do something to constrain that power?

A couple of days ago I mused that the most fundamental question facing both Britain and America right now is that of whether or not the people should be permitted to make mistakes as they participate in the democratic process.

Regardless of whether one thinks that electing Donald Trump and voting for Brexit were “mistakes” or not (and I strongly believe that Trump was a mistake and that Brexit is not), it is a question we must ask ourselves because of the nature of the opposition to both. In both countries, large parts of the opposition are not content to let events play out and then capitalise at the next election; rather, many want to thwart these unwelcome electoral decisions altogether.

This is best encapsulated by the #Resistance movement in America and by the #FBPE (follow-back pro-European) social media movement in Britain – people convinced that their nation has made the wrong choice, and unwilling to wait for the “regular order” of the normal democratic process to reverse what they see as an existential mistake made by the voters.

Yesterday I wrote:

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

I also wrote that politicians rarely if ever explicitly come out and actually say that they reserve the right to overturn or ignore a decision made by the people and expressed through the political system if they happen to dislike it. Rather, they obfuscate and couch this point (or threat, depending on how you interpret it) with grave warnings about the dangers of populism – some of which are valid, but which are never accompanied by an explicit statement of the precise circumstances under which the political class reserves the right to reject an electoral decision made by the people.

But no sooner had I published these thoughts than I came across a story in the Huffington Post reporting that Conservative junior government minister – Dr. Phillip Lee MP – last night made the following statement in a short burst of posts on Twitter:

The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too. 1/3

But if these figures turn out to be anywhere near right, there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging. This shows the PM’s challenge…2/3

The PM has been dealt some tough cards and I support her mission to make the best of them. It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way. We must act for our country’s best interests, not ideology & populism, or history will judge us harshly. Our country deserves no less 3/3

My emphasis in bold. Phillip Lee is stating here what most politicians are only willing to tiptoe around – the fact that the government and the political class reserves the absolute right to ignore an instruction from the electorate if an ill-defined process of “rational consideration” of a certain pool of “evidence” that they themselves select means they think that it would be unwise to do so.

Still we get no specifics about just how potentially damaging a scenario would have to be or what form the damage would have to take for this antidemocratic override of elitist salvation to kick in, but here we have an admission in plain English, from the mouth of a government minister, that senior politicians think in this way. But if government ministers are going to publicly claim the prerogative to ignore an instruction from the electorate if they happen to dislike it, at the very least the people have a right to know the precise circumstances and criteria under which this might happen, both now relating to Brexit and in the future relating to the many other important national decisions that we will have to make in coming decades.

And as I wrote yesterday, this is just further evidence that Britain needs to debate and ratify a written constitution for the United Kingdom, one which “upgrades” the patchwork of our unwritten constitution and augments or replaces large parts of it with a document which clearly sets out the limits on government, the rights of the people, electoral and judicial processes and more, all in a language which people have a fighting chance of understanding.

But in the short term, for Brexit’s sake if nothing else, we also need to challenge Dr. Phillip Lee’s casual but totally unproven assertion that “evidence and rational consideration” might give the government legitimate grounds to ignore the result of the EU referendum. Phillips is clearly talking here only about the economic case – he references the leaked Brexit Impact Report. But by restricting his focus on the reasons for Brexit to such a narrow point he is saying that either the non-economic reasons for voting to leave the European Union don’t exist, or that they do exist but are outweighed by the economic reasons to remain.

This is a considerable feat of omission by Phillip Lee, one which is best illustrated with an example.

Imagine – and I acknowledge that this is an extreme example to which I draw no direct parallel, though it clearly illustrates my point – that one were to take Dr. Phillip Lee back to the Britain of 1939 as war loomed, or in 1940 after Dunkirk. Would he have counselled appeasement of Germany on the same grounds? After all, if one considers only the economic metric, the Second World War was always going to be utterly ruinous for Britain. Aside from the military and civilian casualties our cities were levelled, our industry appropriated by the government (and in some cases not returned to private hands for decades), food and clothing were rationed, arts and science were overshadowed and our footprint on the world stage shrank in every conceivable way.

Surely, then, the right course of action would have been to make a deal with Hitler, no? Peace at any costs? After all, we are only considering the economic metric here, because we are “rational” and look only at Approved Facts. After all, life under a puppet Westminster government wouldn’t have been so bad for most of us. Who really needs self-determination so long as the occupying power is delivering the many fruits of a non war-ravaged economy? And hey, who knows, maybe the Nazi war machine might even have helped modernise British industry, which was already falling behind our competitors at the time. On every front, things would have been better had Britain stayed out of the war. Loved ones would have lived and families remained intact. Our major cities would not have been pockmarked with bomb damage. Coventry Cathedral would not be a burned out shell (though I mean no disrespect to its replacement).

Now, the decision to go to war in 1939 is not the same as the decision to leave the European Union. But it was Phillip Lee, not me, who proposed a vague, ethereal set of criteria under which the government might claim the right to overrule the people in the event that politicians think they know better on a key national issue. I am simply showing one reasonable endpoint of applying the very framework that he proposes.

In reality I do Phillip Lee the courtesy of assuming that he would not have been an appeaser, that his intellect and moral code would have compelled him to risk immense short-term harm – not just to Britain’s economy but to our very continued existence as a country – in service of a higher goal, namely freedom. Further, I am convinced that Phillip Lee would not have had to sit down for a second weighing the risks and creating economic forecasts before arriving at his decision. Because Dr. Lee knows as well as I do that cold hard numbers do not encapsulate the value of this country or the dignity, resilience and potential of her people.

And yet Dr. Lee is quite happy to pretend – again, I do him the courtesy of presuming that he is intelligent enough to actually understand that other very valid and serious arguments were in play during the EU referendum but simply chooses to ignore them to bolster his argument – that the entire decision should be based on a government cost-benefit analysis or the output of an Excel spreadsheet on a Whitehall computer.

We see this again and again from Remainers – this steadfast, stubborn, furious refusal to look at the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union in anything other than their own chosen short-term economic terms. People doubtless have their own reasons for thus deliberately restricting their peripheral vision, but at this late stage none of those reasons can be deemed honourable or respectable. Dr. Lee knows full well that whether one agrees with them or not, there were very valid arguments about sovereignty, self-determination, trade relationships, immigration and national identity which together with the economic warnings formed the complex backdrop against which every single one of us cast our vote on 23 June, 2016.

To pretend that the sudden discovery of “new evidence” (as if the publication of a new economic forecast can be called “evidence”, given their consistent record of alarmism and inaccuracy) constitutes anywhere near sufficient reason to overturn a national plebiscite which was based on a multitude – a multitude – of factors, is deeply disingenuous and really an affront to any notion of democracy.

Furthermore, it is a total fallacy to talk piously about the need to respect “evidence and rational consideration” when deliberately focusing only on the evidence you want to see, and simply pretending that no other evidence and no other rational arguments exist for the opposing side.

Even if you are an ardent Remainer, this should concern you. Because after the government uses this get-out clause to avoid following the direction given to them by the EU referendum, what’s not to stop them from starting to disregard other, future directives from the electorate? After all, we have no written constitution to constrain the government or make our rights and the separation of powers crystal clear.

I think that Dr. Phillip Lee knows all of this. I believe he is a good person simply trying to win the argument for his side, or perhaps just blinded against other perspectives after years of percolating inside a bubble where the very idea of life outside a supranational government of Europe seems absurd. But he his also spinning a falsehood. Remainers in general are spinning a pernicious falsehood, and have been doing so since the referendum campaign began. And now that this falsehood threatens the integrity not only of the EU referendum vote but of our wobbly, unwritten constitutional settlement it needs to be confronted and stopped.

If Dr. Phillip Lee genuinely thinks that the government has the authority to unilaterally disregard the result of a referendum in which it committed in its own propaganda to obey, let him clearly state the case. Let him publicly outline first the legal and then the moral basis on which such an act might be justified, and provide other examples of when such a code might apply.

And then let’s have another talk about that boring old campaign for a written constitution.

 

Update – 31 January

Reports suggest that Dr. Phillip Lee MP has now been slapped down by Downing Street and told to “air his views in private” rather than on Twitter in future. However, the government has not explicitly repudiated Lee’s argument. Whether this is due to their continuing incompetence, internal division or secret agreement remains to be seen.

 

Political System of the United Kingdom - Britain - UK

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Don’t Expect Better Political Outcomes In Britain Until We Change The System

Brexit - EU protesters - Breverse

Upset by how Brexit is being prosecuted by the government, overseen by Parliament and reported on by the media? It’s time to stop lamenting the symptoms and fixing the underlying issues with our constitution and system of government

Of the sum total of British political discourse at all levels, a good 95 percent is probably spent whining about events with just 5 percent devoted to thinking about the systemic issues which all but ensure that our political system continually throws up results we don’t like or believe to be illegitimate, over and over again.

I was musing on this the other day, and started a rambling Twitter thread on the state of British democracy which I thought was worth spinning into a slightly longer blog post, if for no other reason than to prevent the words being buried deep in the dusty archives of Twitter. And so here are those same words, expanded and transplanted to the even dustier archive of this blog instead.

The great question before us in these challenging times is this: Should the people, as they participate in the democratic process, be permitted to make mistakes? This is the underlying but often obscured contention behind some of the most contentious issues in British and American politics right now, namely Donald Trump and the “resistance” to his presidency in the United States, and the effort to undermine or reverse Brexit here in the UK.

Rightly or wrongly, the political classes of both countries, as a whole, object both to the policy initiatives of Trump and Brexit as well as the tone and context in which these events transpired. Parliament may have voted convincingly for Britain to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and commence the process of secession from the European Union, but few MPs believed that it was a good idea and many only voted to do so under duress. In America, most Republican politicians have either chosen to circle the wagons around Donald Trump or study feigned ignorance of his unsuitability for high office, in both cases because they see him as a useful idiot and an automatic pen with which to sign their own policy priorities. Yet hardly any of these Republican politicians are firmly aboard the Trump Train.

Whether it is Republican politicians using illegal immigration as an issue to get themselves elected in opposition only to blanch at the idea of illegal immigration actually being significantly impeded or reversed now they are in power, or Tory MPs building entire careers on moaning about Britain being ruled by a nascent European superstate only to fall in line with David Cameron and the Remain campaign during the referendum, there is a deep and unpleasant hypocrisy at work – a hypocrisy which needs to be acknowledged and confronted whether or not one agrees with the policies in question.

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

A degree of catastrophisation is required to pull off this argument, given how odious and undemocratic it sounds when stated plainly. And so we hear wildly overwrought tales about how Donald Trump represents a near-physical threat to designated minority groups, or that Brexit will see the UK economy returned to the stone ages.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

Yet rarely do the decisions thus normally kept out of the reach of the people rise to this level of irreversible calamity. Take immigration. If throttling illegal immigration would harm the economy, do politicians have the right to override electoral wishes, even if the decision could be reversed? How great would the economic harm have to be, how would it be measured and how would it be balanced against any other factors?

Secession from the EU is rather more complicated, since reversal would likely involve the UK returning to the bloc on worse-than-current membership terms and therefore only ever be partially complete. But again, it could be done. So should politicians have the right to prevent the people from making only semi-reversible decisions? And if so, what are the criteria which should be met in order for politicians to step in and ignore popular opinion in order to effectively prevent the public from potentially scraping their knees?

Sometimes, though, the argument becomes more distasteful. Many polls have suggested that the British public would back the restoration of the death penalty given a straight-up referendum. Should politicians allow people to make that “mistake” too, and if not, what clearly written and easy for laymen to understand justification is there or should there be for thwarting such an odious policy change?

I am not (yet) a constitutional lawyer and I don’t have answers to all of these conundrums, but it seems clear that the current processes (if you can even call flying by the seat of your pants and making it up as you go along a “process”) that we in Britain have in place to adjudicate questions of vital importance are wholly inadequate to the decisions now before us.

When should referenda be offered, and when should they not? If they are to be offered, when should they be advisory and when should they be binding? When should blanket decisions be made at the national, supranational or local levels, and are exemptions ever to be allowed, and under what circumstances? What recourse should the public have when repeatedly rebuffed on a subject by politicians?

Many of these questions could be foreseen & mitigated through a well-written constitution which clearly prescribes the powers reserved by the people and those which are lent to local, national and supranational government. If we abandoned the Traditional British Fudge in favour of a written constitution, no longer could we so plausibly claim that we didn’t know what we were doing or that the outcome of any constitutionally legitimate process was unfair.

Of course a written constitution would not be a cure-all. Much would depend on the process of drafting such a document, who could participate and whether the process was taken seriously or simply used by special interests as an excuse to shoehorn every last entitlement onto the statute books as a “corporate necessity” or “human right”.

Britain’s constitutional monarchy is another complication, being one of those institutions which nobody would think to invent today but which arguably serves its purpose well enough and is part of the rich cultural fabric of our country that cannot be measured and summed up in an Excel spreadsheet. Embarking on any kind of constitutional convention would immediately generate enormous friction with the monarchy and its strongest supporters, which is one of the key reasons why such a movement has never properly gotten off the ground (with some honourable near-exceptions).

But unless we bite the bullet and physically write down a code of governance under which we are all willing to live, we are going to keep coming up against political elites of one faction or another assuming a divine right to attempt to implement their own worldview, wholesale, over the objections of others.

It’s worth noting too that such a national conversation was neither realistically possible nor worthwhile so long as Britain was bound to remain a member state of the European Union. When you are busy being slowly subsumed into a supranational government of Europe with its own ideas of federalism and subsidiarity, tinkering around with a little old national domestic constitution is almost laughably pointless, comparable to an animal grooming itself in ignorance of its surroundings while a much bigger predator sneaks up from behind.

It is only now that we have taken the first (hesitant and often erroneous) steps toward undoing the error – or great national act of settling for second best – that was our EU membership that we more fully realise the flaws in our own system and have the opportunity for a serious discussion about what comes next.

So what would such a constitutional document look like? That is a big question best left to a separate blog post but at the highest level I believe that any law or treaty which threatens to impinge on the life, liberty or property of other citizens – things like the death penalty or confiscation of property – should, *if* ever put to a referendum, require such a super-majority that the process is not easily abused by demagogues.

Other decisions, though, should be put within much readier reach of the hands of the people – such as whether successive UK governments are authorised to freely give up vast areas of sovereignty, wholesale, without sufficient oversight or realistic chance of painless future revocation.

I am open, for example, to the argument that the EU referendum should have required a certain threshold of victory to achieve quorum and passage, but then so every significant EU treaty signed by successive UK governments should have been put to the British people – the most recent of which would certainly not have been approved and ratified. But we are where we are and there is very little point crying over spilt milk – the best we can do is fix the system for the future.

At present there are virtually no meaningful checks and balances in our democracy. Victory goes who whoever can summon the loudest and most vociferous outrage, either on the pages of the tabloids or (far more effectively, though curiously less controversial) at the dinner parties & papers of those in the governing class.

By all means, we can keep blundering on as we are, lurching from crisis to crisis, failing to tackle our problems in a systemic way and then just working ourselves into a spittle-flecked outrage each time our broken system throws up a result we don’t like. That’s Option 1. Option 2 involves stepping back a bit and thinking about what kind of constitutional, governmental processes are most likely to yield outcomes which we can all get behind.

Option 2 is far more boring and requires more work, and lacks the appeal of being a meme-worthy MP, smug newspaper editor or shouty TV news talking head. But that’s what we need to do at this point, because given the period of discontinuity we have entered (one which affects many other countries too), there will be other hugely consequential decisions to make down the line, and we need to handle them a hell of a lot better than we are currently handling Brexit.

As a country, our capacity to competently govern ourselves has atrophied and withered during our 4+ decades of EU membership. That membership, combined with a bipartisan but increasingly broken centrist consensus, succeeded in masking the extent of the rot for some time, but no longer. Now the rot has been revealed and the full horror of the decay is clear to us, effecting every branch and level of government from the town council to 10 Downing Street.

If, as a side benefit, a period of serious reflection on how we govern ourselves as a country (whether or not that leads to a constitutional convention) further exposes just how ill equipped many of our institutions and present leaders are to navigate these national challenges, so much the better.

Sunlight can often be the best disinfectant.

 

Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States - Howard Chandler Christy - Hamilton musical - Brexit

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The False Allure Of A Second EU Referendum

Anti Brexit Pro EU protester holding Second Referendum banner

Beguiled by the irresistible prospect of overturning Brexit before it even happens, many Remainers are even more oblivious to the consequences of forcing and winning a second referendum than Brexiteers were to the fallout from victory in the first

What would actually happen in the event that there was a second EU referendum? Unforgiving timescales mean that the prospect of a second vote may be more remote than ever before, despite much salivating on the Left and in the media, but the question is still worth asking because it reveals a pathology within the Remain side which not only mirrors but now exceeds that of the most unlettered Brexit Ultras.

Whether any future second referendum offered voters a choice between accepting the government’s secession deal or remaining in the EU on current terms, or if it posed a choice between the government deal and having to apply for re-entry on likely punitive terms, the argument put forward by establishment Remainers like Chukka Umunna is that “new facts” which “we could not know at the time” would inevitably swing the vote the other way.

Why do they think this? Because the intellectual leaders (though such a term may be too grand) of the Remain movement still refuse – either on principle or through basic incompetence – to empathise with the Brexit case. They live in a world of tenuous economic forecasts and financial charts designed to portray immediate economic ruin but refuse to acknowledge, let alone properly engage with, the democratic or self-deterministic case for leaving the European Union.

Even now, the idea that someone might reasonably vote for a cause which does not personally line their pockets or send perks and opportunities flowing their way is unfathomable to many Remainers (though of course there are Remainers of good conscience who do “get” the democratic argument while disagreeing with it). So on the whole, Remainers are no better equipped to fight any putative Referendum Take Two than they were the first time round.

But it gets worse. At the same time as they failed to update their overall case for Remain (for example by finally producing a forthright and unassailable case for European political union as a valid or exclusive solution to the problems we face), there has also metastasised within the Remain camp a very ugly and shrill Cultural Remain narrative which is openly hostile to Brexiteers as people, not just because of their vote.

This much is evident in that the cultural figureheads of Brexit are people like AC Grayling, Ian Dunt, Gina Miller and other polarising types who make no visible effort to see the argument from the other side (the first rule of persuasion), as to thus engage with “evil” would offend their delicate sensibilities.

Rather than outreach and understanding, there has been a constant hum of outraged, self-entitled contempt emanating from Camp Remain, and a seething hatred of Brexit voters which does not even attempt to mask itself. This is most clearly shown in the way that some Remainers publicly console one another at the prospect of elderly Leave voters dying, while others actively salivate at the prospect:

(The “wall of gammon” is a derogatory reference to white men of middle age and upwards, for whose deaths it is now perfectly acceptable to openly pine on social media and be blessed by the imprimatur of a Twitter verified tick).

So when the starting gun is fired on any second EU referendum, the pent-up cultural anger from this angry subgroup of Remainers will produce a banshee-type wail of fury and hatred toward the 52% that all but guarantees they alienate more swing voters than they are able to win over.

But we must also consider the dynamics of the public backlash. I wrote immediately following the June 2016 referendum how unprepared I was for the extent of the anti-Brexit backlash – partly because I fully expected the Leave side to lose the referendum and so had not mentally prepared for victory, but also because Brexiteers were so used to being the instigators of populist revolt that we neither saw the Remain backlash coming nor had any experience in defending against such a wave.

What should have been obvious to us then is that given the Remain side consists of the vast majority of politicians, academia and the cultural scene, their capacity to generate and sustain a backlash (or huge public tantrum) was always infinitely greater than a disorganised, squabbling band of Brexiteers who had wanting to leave the EU (in one form or another) in common with one another, but little else.

If Nigel Farage and UKIP were able to create a lot of noise and help dictate the UK political agenda in the years leading up to the referendum – and do so on a shoestring budget while riven with factional infighting, dogged by unforced errors and PR disasters – how much louder and more persuasive would the screams of self-entitled outrage be when they emanated from nearly every artist, celebrity, teacher, professor, public sector worker and a phalanx of journalists and commentators? Most Brexiteers, myself included, completely underestimated that part.

But if the establishment’s ongoing howl of outrage about Brexit is deafening, it would be nothing at all compared to the reaction of Brexiteers to having their decision called into question and the vote re-run in the hopes of getting a different answer. Rightly or wrongly, the resulting social and political conflagration would make AC Grayling’s Twitter feed look like a mellifluous, level-headed stream of soothing wisdom.

I say “rightly or wrongly” because I have no personal hostility toward a second referendum on principle, only that we only seem to be having this discussion because the Remain side lost. Ideally, guided by a written constitution rather than machinations behind closed doors, the terms EU referendum and the consequences of each result would have been more carefully considered, and the potential need for public ratification of any secession deal built into the process. But this did not happen.

On the contrary, the expensive pro-EU government propaganda inflicted on every British household made it absolutely plain that the UK government would implement whatever result was decided in the first and only referendum, despite their strong preference for keeping the status quo. And given the uncharitable way with which they would doubtless be dealing with Leave voters had the result gone the other way, their case is not a tremendously strong one, logically or morally.

Remainers should, however, learn from the harsh experience of Leave voters following our unexpected victory in 2016. Back then, Brexiteers were so keen on winning a “Leave” vote that we didn’t think through the extent of cultural opposition we would face between the referendum and secession day. And now many Remainers are so fixated on overturning Brexit they can’t think past the daydream of a “Remain” vote in a Referendum Take Two.

We hear much wailing about how Brexit has supposedly “divided our country”. This is mostly nonsense – the country was always divided over the EU, it’s just that the side who were used to having their way for 40 years suddenly find themselves unable to call all the shots, often for the first time in their living memory. The balance of divisiveness now tilts the other way.

But the divisiveness of a second EU referendum would make the first seem like good-natured banter between best friends – and having forced a replay, the Remain side would emerge neither victorious nor with their reputation intact. They would be responsible, in the worst case, for a rending of our social and democratic fabric which would likely prove impossible to repair. And even in the very best case scenario, the price of overturning the referendum would be millions of British citizens, half the country, effectively giving up on democracy and returning to a state of resigned indifference, a toxic and self-fulfilling belief that they have neither the right nor the ability to influence national events according to their values.

Remainers, who often consider themselves enlightened and progressive, would ordinarily recoil in horror from any course of action which threatened such toxic side-effects. They just can’t think clearly right now because the (unattainable) prize of scrapping Brexit and rendering the past two years little more than a centrist’s bad dream is so desperately shiny and alluring.

Protester placard at parliament - Europe We Demand A Vote - Second EU referendum - Remainers

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