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Why Have People “Had Enough of Experts”?

2 Jan

One of the defining moments of the EU referendum campaign was Michael Gove’s remark – directed at all the professional economists predicting a Brexit vote would produce economic disaster – that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. This is now seen to have initiated a terrible era of “post-truth” politics. For the experts themselves – many of them, my fellow academics – this is deeply disturbing, signalling the inexorable rise of irrational, fact-free political debate. But what people have had enough of is not experts or expertise, per se; rather, it is the automatic, assumed authority that experts wield over non-experts.

The rise of “experts” to positions of authority in public life is intimately connected with the decline in popular political participation over the last few decades. Society has always needed technical experts to provide advice and implement policies, but increasingly “experts” have taken a central place in decision-making itself. A burgeoning array of issues have been removed from the domain of democratic contestation and handed over to unelected technical experts to decide. In many jurisdictions, legal changes have locked in this turn to “evidence-based policymaking”. The obvious example is the rise of independent central banks. Populated by professional economists, these now control monetary policy – once a matter of intense political contestation between forces favouring inflation control (typically, capital) and those favouring full employment at the expense of some inflation (typically, organised labour). More generally, the rise of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (“quangos”), judicialised bodies, and various commissions and inquiries since the 1980s marks the depoliticisation of many areas of public policy, and the growing authority of technocrats – people whose power derives not from their popular support but their technical expertise. These technocrats have also started coordinating their work across borders, forming transnational governance networks even more remote from popular democratic control. The European Union is only the most obvious example.

There has always been a strong class basis to this shift. Relocating decision-making from representative bodies to technocratic agencies reduces popular control over policymaking while endowing skilled professionals with unprecedented authority. As David Runciman recently argued, increasing evidence of political division between highly- and poorly-educated citizens reflects this divide, with the authority-wielding professions increasingly confined to an ever-narrowing social elite. The shared social background and values of technocrats and those they often seek to regulate – and the increasingly obvious “revolving door” between them – also helps bias governance outcomes in favour of the already wealthy and powerful, rather than serving the public interest. In short, there is nothing neutral about the political rise of experts, despite its frequent presentation as such. Part of the backlash against the attack on “experts” is this class seeking to defend its own power and authority. It also reflects a Remainer fantasy that if only the public were more educated, Remain would have won – as if more mind-numbing courses on the institutional structures on the European Union could somehow magically erase all of society’s social, political and economic contradictions and conflicts.

However, this reaction is overblown: it is not the case that ordinary people have lost all faith in experts, nor have they irrationally embraced “post-truth” politics. What they are revolting against is the automatic, assumed authority of experts. Due to the long decline of political contestation, many experts have become far too accustomed to being listened to with extreme deference; they expect their expertise to translate automatically into authority. It is this assumed authority that rankles with the non-expert: the presumption that, simply because someone has a PhD in a given area, no one else is permitted to voice an opinion. The expert does not even have to explain themselves: the mere invocation of their qualifications should apparently suffice to quell all dissent.

Examples of this abound, but one recent case is the widely-reported Twitter spat between UKIP funder Aaron Banks and historian Mary Beard over whether the Roman Empire was “destroyed by immigration”. Beard slapped him down: “you all need to do a bit more reading… Facts guys! … you guys don’t know Roman history… this might be a subject on which to listen to experts!” Banks defended his view, and was quickly vilified for trying to “mansplain” Rome to the noted female classicist. But his most notable comment was: “Where’s all your counter arguments & facts then?” Notably, Beard supplied none – she just dismissed him as ignorant and asserted her expertise. As the Huffington Post aptly summarised, his crime was failure to “defer to a respected historian’s perspective”.

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But why should anyone defer to experts? There are many reasons to think they should not. Most obviously, experts are very often wrong – sometimes disastrously so. Winston Churchill’s “personal technocrat”, Dr Frederick Lindemann, advised the British government that the 1943 Bengal famine was due to overpopulation, counselling against sending relief. Six to seven million Bengalis starved to death. In the 1960s and 1970s, educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt told the government that black children were genetically less intelligent than whites, holding back the shift to non-selective schooling. In the 1990s, government scientist Dr Robert Lacey warned that, by 1997, a third of the British population would have contracted Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease from eating beef contaminated with “mad cow disease”. The much-touted rise of “evidence-based policymaking” in the 1990s – reflecting the growing depoliticisation of public life – produced swathes of “quack policy”, justifying burgeoning state interference in private decision-making in the name of “public health” or “happiness”. Policies on passive smoking, alcohol pricing, sugar taxation and so on have all been adopted following scientist-backed campaigning – despite the fact that the evidence base is often extremely weak and the policies have often failed. As an IEA review comments,  “evidence-based policymaking” has often been less about scientific rigour than a “mechanism for academic elites to impose their own values on society as a whole, showing contempt for the wishes of the public.”

This clearly extends to research around the EU referendum, where expert authorities have projected their value judgements as truth. The International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, and virtually every professional economist, made bleak predictions about the immediate economic impact of a Brexit vote, which have already been proven badly mistaken. Likewise, a study by Imran Awan of Birmingham City University and Irene Zempi of Nottingham Trent University, released by the charity Hope Not Hate, was found to have vastly exaggerated the positive reaction to the shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox during the referendum campaign. TCM has exposed similar exaggerations or distortions around Brexit by the Electoral Reform Society and #PostRefRacism, both of which had academic input. Other “research” is just openly spiteful, like the UEA academic who discovered a correlation between Leave voting and obesity (not-very-sub-text: Leave voters are stupid and fat).

Unsurprisingly, then, experts are not immune from value judgements that can powerfully shape their pronouncements. Moreover, even when they strive for objectivity, their knowledge is only ever partial. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, everything but the most basic facts is contested, because there are always many ways to interpret data. All real “experts” know this; indeed, many academics (especially those influenced by post-structuralism) have been preaching for decades that there is no such thing as objective truth – only a set of competing “truth-claims”. But many nonetheless splutter with outrage when a non-expert dares to challenge their particular truth-claim.

This is arguably the nub of the issue: the growing political inequality between the “experts” and the masses. Some clearly believe that experts do not even need to justify or explain their perspective to the less-educated; the gap between their credentials should short-circuit the need for any discussion. But in a democracy, citizens are equal. Credentials do not entitle one to a greater say or, as some now openly fantasise about, more heavily weighted votes; and nor should they. Ironically, many “experts” involved in educating students would agree that a good citizen needs to think critically, to not accept received wisdom unquestioningly, and to exercise discriminating judgement. A citizen who fails to do this is evading their responsibility, simply casting their vote on the say-so of authorities, rather than on the basis of their own reason. An expert who denies a fellow citizen the possibility of discussion and debate, and thus proper understanding of issues, therefore corrodes democracy itself.

What non-experts are rightly reasserting, then, after a long period of tightening technocracy, is their equality as political subjects. Experts still have a political role to play – but as citizens informing and participating in debate, not as automatic authorities to whom mere mortals should automatically defer.

Lee Jones

Europe and the Rise of the Plebiscitarian State

8 Dec

The defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reforms have been widely taken as yet another referendum defeat for the European Union (EU), threatening to destabilise the Italian banking system, and through it, the Eurozone itself. One wag on Twitter observed it was time to ‘have a fucking referendum on whether to ban over-confident male prime ministers from holding referendums.’ Here we have a succinct and common view from the pro-EU left of referendums in today’s Europe. Referenda are seen as brash, bold, dicey endeavours, to be expected from immature, testosterone-fuelled male politicians that risk stoking populist insurrection and ballot box revolts, in pointed contrast to the cautious matriarchal management of say, Angela Merkel. Referenda are seen as the tool of irresponsible populists and demagogues: US president-elect Donald Trump courted ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage and memorably promised a ‘Brexit-plus-plus-plus’ for his election victory, seeking to turn the US presidential elections into a referendum on the ‘Washington elite’.

Yet if referenda are the battering rams of the populist-barbarians-at-the-gates, they have become remarkably common features of the European political order over the last thirty-odd years. To name but a few, we have had the Dutch (2005, 2016), Irish (2001, 2002), French (2005), Scottish (2015), Greek (2015), Danish (1993, 2015), British (2011, 2016) and Hungarian (2016) referenda, with the possibility of more Dutch, French and Italian referenda to follow over the next few years. Why have the member states of the notoriously technocratic EU so frequently resorted to asking for direct popular mandates?

The growing frequency of referenda since the turn of the century reflects the EU’s deepening and broadening since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, European integration processes have intensified the use of referendums in those states that require direct votes under the terms of national constitutions (France, Ireland, and Denmark). The establishment of monetary union also required referenda in Denmark (2000) and Sweden (2003). On the other hand, expansion eastwards and southwards also required direct popular votes in the candidate countries. Thus the EU enlargement of 2004 saw no less than nine referenda in the aspirant member states. European reliance on referenda was further extended by the EU when it notoriously demanded repeat referenda in Ireland (2001, 2002) until the desired outcome was secured with respect to the Treaty of Nice. Remainers in the UK, still hoping to thwart Brexit, are now demanding another referendum, this time on the terms of Brexit. In short, long before Farage, Cameron, Renzi or Orban became leading political figures, the referendum had been entrenched as an archetypal tool of European governance across the continent, all under the benign guidance of Brussels. Whatever criticisms we may we wish to offer of referenda as a tool of government – and there are many – such arguments need to be directed against the EU and its supporters at least as much as against any anti-EU populist seeking to undermine the foundations of the status quo.

To be sure, not all of these referenda directly concerned any given country’s relationship with the EU. The Scottish referendum for instance, concerned whether or not Scotland would remain part of the UK. Yet even here, the EU was woven through the fabric of Scottish politics and embedded in the choice Scottish voters had to make. The EU has accelerated the process of regionalisation and decentralisation seen in European states since the 1970s, thereby systematically reducing the political risks of independence. This development has been keenly exploited by the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP), which packaged the prospect of self-determination in the protective layers offered by ‘independence … in Europe’. How likely an independent Scotland would be able to secure fast-track membership of the EU also doubtless figured in voter’s calculations as to the risks and benefits of breaking away from London.

Given all this, it seems safe to say that referenda have become a structural feature of the European political order, a characteristic of the transformation of Europe’s decayed nation-states into the member-states of the European Union. According to Chris Bickerton’s theory, the EU has blossomed in the detritus left by the decay of representative democracy at the national level. As the organic links connecting states and societies have crumbled away leaving a ‘void’ between governments and the governed, the member-states of the EU have had resort to other means in order to secure some measure of popular legitimacy. That the EU should be so reliant on a tool as characteristically authoritarian as the plebiscite should come as no surprise; the EU is after allthe form of government that has arisen as representative democracy has declined.

Referenda allow political elites to strip-mine popular legitimacy with tightly controlled questions that they devise themselves, while offering the voters limited options and avoiding the flux of ongoing contestation between and within political parties. As one-off political choices, referenda offer rich symbolic rewards: the EU could claim a popular mandate in the chain of referenda that heralded its expansion eastwards in 2004. This was despite the fact that the process of accession typically strengthened executives at the expensive of legislatures and required parliaments to swallow thousands of pages of community law – the notorious acquis – all at once, making a mockery of the very meaning of passing legislation.

The plebiscitarian state emerging in Europe represents the further decay of the EU member-state, and is the logical conclusion of the degradation of democracy. Nor should it come as any surprise that the populists have succeeded in turning the technocrats’ favoured instrument of popular legitimation against them: populism and technocracy feed off each other, consuming representative party politics. A Remainer alliance is now forming in Britain, rallying around the call for a second referendum. Led by the Liberal Democrats but extending to the SNP, rebel Tories and Labour MPs, they seek not to overturn Brexit but rather indirectly to thwart it. If they succeed, they will accomplish what the populists have not, which is to complete Britain’s transformation into a plebscitarian state: Britain will thus retain the plebiscitarian political structure of the typical member-state even as we formally break from the EU.

Philip Cunliffe

Too much of a good thing: arguments against a second referendum

6 Dec

The demand for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit seems to be gathering force. The recent by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats’ in the hitherto Tory safe seat of Richmond was widely seen as a mini-referendum on Brexit. Former Tory Prime Minister John Major has waded into the debate, with his claims that while the popular verdict on the EU should be respected, a second referendum is nonetheless justified. Even Simon Jenkins, one of the few major commentators that managed to retain his composure in the aftermath of the June referendum, has given qualified support to the idea of a second referendum. In light of the continued prevarication over Brexit, it is worth revisiting some of our broad arguments regarding referendums and representative democracy. The Brexit effect continues to reverberate through British politics: those who sneered at referendums as rabble-rousing now earnestly make the case for a second referendum – thereby risking institutionalising the referendum as a mode of governance in Brexit Britain.

It is not difficult to discern arguments for having a second referendum, not least the fact that the precedent has now been established. The terms on which Britain leaves the European Union (EU) are clearly important for the country – in terms of movement of peoples, border control, long-term trade opportunities and patterns of economic growth. If the question of membership of the EU merited consulting the public, why should the terms on which we leave the EU not merit a similar level of democratic legitimation and public engagement? It is also worth noting that debates on a second referendum cut across the ongoing tussle in the Supreme Court over managing Brexit, such as the timing and modalities of invoking Article 50. After all, regardless of when Prime Minister May triggers Article 50 and whether or not she does it with a parliamentary vote, she could still call a referendum on the outcome of negotiations with Brussels at the end of the two-year negotiating period that would follow the invocation of Article 50. In light of all this, it is worth recalling what the best arguments for holding the Brexit referendum were in the first place, and considering how they stack up against the arguments for a second referendum.

On TCM we have sought to make the political case for representative democracy – against the inter-twined threats of technocratic subversion on the one hand, and the phony politicisation of populism on the other. Despite the fact that referendums justly have a reputation as the tool of direct democracy and populist authoritarianism, and whatever David Cameron’s personal motivations for calling the referendum, I supported a referendum on Brexit. More than this, I reckoned it to be the single most important political question put before the British electorate over the last three decades. There were several reasons for holding this view.

First, approaching the referendum entailed reckoning with the parlous state of representative democracy in Britain itself. That is to say: declining rates of public engagement and political participation whether measured by compression of the ideological spectrum, declining interest in politics, collapsing membership of political parties and the long term decline in voting in general elections. With the structures of representative democracy having been so rotted through prior to the referendum, it is reasonable to supplement the process of political decision-making with direct public engagement.

Important as such factors are, these were nonetheless secondary considerations. More important was the fact that it was the nature of democracy itself that was at issue in the referendum. Should legislation be crafted and debated by elected representatives, or channelled via the executive’s prerogative over foreign policy into Brussels, to then be funnelled back to national capitals and then be rubber-stamped by national parliaments? This hollowing out of the democratic process that took place under the aegis of the EU was the strongest reason to ensure that the electorate was given a voice over membership of the Union itself. Irrespective of the outcome, the referendum energised democracy. With the Brexit vote, the possibility of restoring representative liberal democracy at the nation-state level exists. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, political elites have been put on notice by the referendum as to the fact that they can be held to account, even through the limited formal representative structures offered by the British state. Evading popular accountability has become more politically difficult since the referendum.

Yet there are also good reasons to be wary of repeat referendums. A direct national vote on the character of national democracy is a different kind of political decision than a direct national vote on the outcome of negotiations overseen by elected representatives: the latter clearly slides into plebiscitarianism. Instead of escalating plebiscitiarian rule, British political parties should take advantage of their post-Brexit boost in membership and public political engagement to rebuild democratic contestation at the national level. Doubtless opportunistic Remainers will rally behind the call for a second referendum of whatever complexion, in the hope of throwing anything they can in the way of Brexit. Yet Remainers’ criticisms of the political degradation resulting from Brexit risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for which they will be complicit: if plebiscitarianism is embedded in the functioning of the British state, then a democratic shot in the arm may end up becoming a debilitating drug.

Philip Cunliffe

Trumped: The Nadir of US Representative Democracy

17 Nov

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should. Unfortunately, too many have been quick to reach for a familiar and self-serving excuse: blame the electorate. In 2004, when George W Bush was re-elected, the Daily Mirror spoke for many in asking how 59,054,087 people could ‘be so dumb’. This time around, voters are not only being derided as ‘stupid’, but also misogynist – because they rejected a highly-qualified female candidate for a nasty, self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and also racist – since voters backed Trump either because, or in total disregard of, his intensely racist and nativist campaign rhetoric and policy pledges. But, while sexists and racists doubtless supported Trump, this does not explain how he was able to win the election. Indeed, the ‘whitelash thesis’ only distracts attention from the actual cause of his victory: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

In brief, the ‘whitelash’ thesis is that white, middle-class and especially male voters reacted against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, drawn to Trump’s racialized promise to ‘take their country back’. The thesis draws on facts like the following. 67% of white men backed Trump. His supporters prioritised the (racialized) issues of immigration and terrorism over the economy. Trump voters were not the poorest, earning under $50,000 per year (they voted mostly for Clinton); they are the middle-income workers (who in the US are generally referred to as ‘middle class’), who care more about affirmative action allowing minorities to steal jobs from whites than they care about trade offshoring jobs. So they voted Trump not out of real economic plight, but because they feel their white privilege slipping away to non-whites and, for men, to women. They felt that ‘eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough’, blaming their economic grievances on a black president instead of Ronald Reagan, whose policies actually started the rot. And they voted ‘against an economy they believed was giving women a step up’. The most subtle versions of the thesis admit that not all voters may have been motivated by such concerns, but they nonetheless ‘gave force’ to these retrograde views by endorsing Trump.

No doubt this ugly portrait describes a certain hard-core minority of American voters. Nonetheless, there is no way that this thesis can account for Trump’s victory.

The simple reason is that there was no surge for Trump, even among the white working class; on the contrary, support for the Republicans fell – it just fell much more for the Democrats. In fact, the hallmark of the 2016 presidential election is the radical disengagement of vast numbers of citizens from the democratic process.

This is obvious merely from turnout data, which is being scrupulously analysed on Facebook by Kole Kilibarda. As he puts it: in 2012, the two major parties got about 125m of 130m votes cast, while 90m eligible voters did not vote; in 2016, they got 122.5m of 130m votes cast, while 100m eligible voters (higher due to population growth) abstained.

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White voters did not support Trump significantly more than Mitt Romney in 2012: there was only a 1% swing, to 58% for Trump/37% for Clinton. That is, disproportionate white support for Republican presidential candidates is a longstanding fact (going back to Lyndon Johnson’s repudiation of the ‘Dixiecrats’), and did not substantially change in 2016. Evidence from the five ‘rust belt’ states that fell unexpectedly to Trump shows that he only picked up about 300,000 white working class votes. This makes it hard to sustain the idea of a whitelash against Obama.

Indeed, overall, Trump not only got fewer votes than Clinton but also about 400,000 fewer than Romney. He was not a popular candidate whose ideas and rhetoric enthused most Americans. He won just 47.2% of the vote, or 21.6% of the eligible electorate. Many who did vote for Trump did not like him: 57% of whites thought him untrustworthy; a quarter said he was unqualified and lacked the right temperament; and only 42% of his supporters ‘strongly favoured’ him, while 61% of citizens had an unfavourable view of Trump. Many Trump voters also disagreed with key policy positions like deporting illegal immigrants. Trump did not boost his vote with his ‘whitelash’ trash-talk – he didn’t even hold up the Republican vote from 2012. At best, he managed to rally the traditional Republican base – and little more than that.

So the question is not so much why Trump won, but why Clinton lost to such a poor opponent. The fact is that while the Republican vote declined, the Democrat vote collapsed. It fell from 69.5m in 2008 and 65.9m in 2012 to just 61.3m, despite the electorate increasing by over 18m over this period. Turnout was especially bad in states that Clinton lost. Kilibarda’s analysis of the Rustbelt-5 shows that while Trump picked up 300,000 working-class votes, Clinton lost 1.5m as voters either went for third-parties (about 500,000) or abstained. As Kilibarda puts it: ‘Trump did not “flip” these states as much as the Democrats lost them.’ Problematically for the whitelash thesis, Clinton’s collapse was worst among minority voters: compared to Obama in 2012, she was down 8 points among African-Americans and Latinos, and 11 down among Asians. Accordingly, 8% of blacks, 29% of Latinos, 29% of Asians and 37% of ‘other’ minorities voted Republican. This was particularly devastating because demographic change was supposed to work against Trump, with the white share of the electorate declining from 72% to 70% from 2012-16.

So the truth is that white and minority voters abandoned the Democrats en masse; but white voters did not rush for Trump. Far from being the gullible fools of much liberal commentary, somehow believing that the oligarchic Trump was their saviour, they refused to vote for either party, backing third candidates or simply abstaining. Indeed, the 100m citizens who did not vote are the crucial force in this election, dwarfing the voters supporting either main party. Put simply, Trump could not even maintain Republican support levels from 2012, winning thanks only to 107,000 votes in just swing three states. If Clinton had been able to mobilise just 1% of the non-voting population in key states, Trump would have lost.

Her failure to do so cannot be understood independently of racism or sexism. It is true that local laws requiring voters to show photo ID tend to affect (or indeed target) minorities more than whites, which one study suggests depresses Democrat votes more than Republican ones. We will not know their true effect until turnout data is clearer. It is also true that Clinton was down 5 points with men, including Democratic men, while gaining only 1% among women on 2012, and her big collapse among black voters was with men, not women – providing stronger support for a sexism thesis than a racism one, particularly when we consider how many voters had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, race also intersects here: as one commentator puts it, if white working class women had split 50/50 instead of 62/34 for Trump, Clinton would have won.

Nonetheless, invoking these factors as a primary explanation implicitly assumes that Clinton’s platform was good, especially relative to Trump’s, and so a lack of support can only be attributed to malign forces and motives. But actually, many people did not feel her platform was good. No more voters felt enthused by a Clinton presidency than a Trump one – just 4 in 10 for each. 44% of eligible voters viewed her unfavourably. Obama at least offered ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with big ideas on healthcare and the like – though his failure to deliver much arguably explains his waning support in 2012. But Clinton was a pale imitation. She is the quintessential establishment candidate; her sole claim to ‘change’ was to be America’s first woman president.

This may have put off some male voters, as stated above – but it clearly failed to enthuse women, too, given their tiny 1% swing towards Clinton. Some commentators have been quick to blame ‘internalised misogyny’ or female ‘sexism’, especially among whites. But perhaps – just perhaps! – women wanted a bit more and so refused, in Susan Sarandon’s words, to ‘vote with their vaginas’. They stand condemned because they refused to obey the diktat of neoliberal identity politics, preferring instead to vote on other issues.

The same goes for the so-called ‘middle class’ – not the poorest citizens, who are kept afloat by Democrat policies and vote accordingly, but middling workers who, despite working hard, are experiencing declining living standards and feel pessimistic about the future (a parallel here to Brexit). Certainly, some of their grievances may take a racialized form as they blame immigrants or minorities. But what alternative form did Clinton suggest that it take? Unlike Bernie Sanders, who promoted an explicitly class-based framework, it is impossible to say what Clinton offered these people, because she barely addressed their concerns. Clinton has been a leading figure in an increasingly technocratic political class that, since the 1980s, has largely ignored working people, abandoning them to the mercies of the free market, neoliberal trade deals, and stagnating real wages, while cosying up to Wall Street and billionaire donors. ‘Middle-class’ voters would be foolish to believe that Trump would do much differently, but nor can they reasonably have much faith that Clinton will depart from form. Her elitist disdain for Trump’s ‘basket of deplorables’ simply compounded her enormous distance from ordinary voters.

The 2016 US presidential election, then, is a sad story of the hollowing out of America’s representative democracy. The rot was halted temporarily by Obama’s promise of hope and change, but resumed quickly enough. The so-called ‘Grand Old Party’ could not generate a single serious candidate to rival a perma-tanned reality TV star, and even this wild populist could not maintain – let alone increase – Republican support. And the best the Democrat establishment could field was someone loathed by much of the electorate. A hundred million Americans felt so divorced from the political process, so unrepresented by either political party, that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. The result is a president that only a small minority of American voters actually wanted.

Of course, it may still be objected that it is all very well for white workers to abstain; thanks to their ‘white privilege’ they won’t bear the brunt of Trump’s nasty policies. While those pushing this line still struggle to explain (i.e. conveniently ignore) the millions of non-white voters supporting Trump, the more important response is this: in a democracy, a settlement that serves the interests of minorities cannot be created without simultaneously appealing to the interests of the majority. For this reason, fragmented identity politics won’t do. An inclusive socialist platform, capable of appealing to workers of all sexes and ethnicities, remains essential.

Lee Jones

The High Court Undermines Parliamentary Sovereignty

6 Nov

On 3 November, the High Court of England and Wales ruled that parliament, not the government, has the power to invoke Article 50 and trigger the UK’s departure from the European Union. This has generated glee from Remainers, and a bitter and sometimes ugly backlash from Brexiters. While the ruling is unlikely to lead to Brexit being thwarted, it is certainly a blow to democracy, one that illustrates the deep crisis of political representation that afflicts the UK.

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The ruling: undermining parliamentary sovereignty

Much Brexiter outrage focuses on the fact that three unelected judges are seen to be thwarting the democratic will of 17.4 million voters. Indeed, the Remainers who brought this case were not motivated by democratic impulses. They know that three-quarters of current Members of Parliament (MPs) are Remainers. By shifting control over Article 50 to parliament, their hope is that MPs will block Brexit, by overturning the referendum result of 23 June or, failing that, by kicking Brexit into the long grass.

The central question in the case was who has the right to repeal the legal rights and duties associated with EU membership that will necessarily follow from invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In the UK’s constitution the conduct of foreign relations, particularly the (un)making of treaties, is a matter for the ‘Crown’, whose ‘prerogative’ is exercised by the executive branch; hence, the government argued that it had the right to invoke Article 50. Remainers argued that the EU treaties are special because EU laws enacted under those treaties directly affect the rights and obligations of British citizens. Since the civil wars of the seventeenth century, only parliament has had the constitutional authority to repeal laws or make new law. Invoking Article 50 would lead to withdrawal from the EU and this will effectively repeal a wide range of laws giving British citizens various rights and obligations. Therefore, the Remainers argued, only the (the overwhelmingly Remainer) parliament has the constitutional authority to set that process in motion.

The judges sided with parliament – which may appear to be a victory for democracy. But considered in its political context, the judges’ legal argument actually subverts the democratic content of parliamentary sovereignty.

To begin with, what Remainers are ultimately in favour of is not the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty over the powers of the executive but remaining within the EU, and remaining within the EU necessitates parliament relinquishing a considerable part of its power to make law to the executive. The European Communities Act 1972 automatically enacts EU law as UK law, without requiring parliament to pass any further statutes each time EU law changes. UK ministers contribute to making EU law through their activity in the European institutions. The power that ministers are exercising when they make those EU laws is nothing other than the Crown’s prerogative to conduct international relations. The result is that Remainers who loudly claim to be upholding the sovereignty of parliament against Theresa May’s reliance on the prerogative are the same people who want parliament to continue to surrender a significant part of its law-making powers to the Crown in the form of EU law-making.

If the prime minister did use prerogative powers to implement Article 50, this would not involve the Crown taking powers away from parliament. Parliament asked the British people in the referendum whether we wanted to retain the rights associated with EU membership, and a majority voted not to. If the government invokes Article 50, it would simply be implementing a democratic decision called for by parliament itself. Moreover the government has pledged to maintain all of the legal rights and duties in domestic law that arise from EU law, allowing parliament to retain, repeal or amend them after Brexit.

Parliamentary sovereignty is threatened far more by the legal ruling than it is by Theresa May. The judges’ insistence that parliament’s sovereignty requires parliament to make the decision on Article 50 pretends that the decision has not already been made by the people that parliament is supposed to represent. The judges’ ruling therefore opposes parliamentary sovereignty to popular sovereignty. The political authority of parliament ultimately derives solely from the extent to which it represents the people. By encouraging and empowering our political representatives to set themselves against the majority decision, the ruling has the effect of undermining the true sovereignty of parliament in the name of upholding it.

The crisis of representation

The ruling underscores the deep crisis of political representation in Britain. Theresa May’s reluctance to hand the authority over Article 50 to parliament is not simply because she thinks ‘revealing our hand’ is a bad negotiating tactic. It is because she cannot trust the predominantly Remainer MPs to accept the referendum result, and can foresee disaster should they refuse to do so. A large majority of the public backed May on this, suggesting that they, too, do not trust MPs to represent them. The same sentiment is conveyed by the shrill Leaver reaction to the court’s judgement.

This is not a ‘constitutional crisis’, as some are saying; it is a crisis of political representation, expressing the disconnection of the political elite from the electorate. Parliament has been exposed as highly unrepresentative: 74% of them – and every political party bar UKIP and the Ulster Unionist parties – backed Remain, versus just 48% of the voters. Many MPs have openly expressed a desire to frustrate the outcome. This creates a situation where it is the executive branch that more accurately represents popular sentiment by pledging that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

This is hugely problematic precisely because, as TCM has repeatedly argued, open debate and participatory democratic processes are now vital to determine what Brexit actually means in practice. The majority of people favoured leaving the EU, thereby authorising the government to change the law accordingly, including by repealing rights associated with EU membership. Nevertheless, the exact nature of Brexit was never defined during the campaign; no one can seriously argue Leave voters endorsed any particular option.

From the democratic point of view, it would be good to have as wide a political debate on this question as possible. The Brexit negotiations are not a matter for secret diplomacy, still less are they a poker game. The terms of Britain’s departure concerns us all. If Brexit is going to restore representative democracy, and strengthen parliamentary sovereignty, then the process should begin with collective political debate on defining what Brexit means. This involves representing the interests of both Leavers and Remainers. The referendum produced a clear result, but 16 million people still voted to Remain. They must accept that they lost on the fundamental question of EU membership, but are fully entitled to have their concerns and interests reflected in discussions on the nature of Britain’s departure.

However, the crisis of representation is such that, although parliament should be making decisions on the form of Brexit, it is unrepresentative with respect to Brexit itself, and therefore ought not to be given a veto over Britain’s departure from the EU – which is what giving MPs a final say over Article 50 does.

The real threat to parliamentary sovereignty arises from legislators’ continuing willingness to hold Brexit hostage, which is only encouraged by the High Court’s judgement. If MPs really respected the true basis of parliamentary sovereignty – the will of the electorate – they would stop blackmailing the electorate. They would unambiguously commit themselves to respecting the referendum result and leave invoking Article 50 to the executive. They would confine themselves to debating how best to implement the judgement of those who give them their authority. As long as they refuse to do this, too many electors will not trust them to be involved and the government can correctly stake a greater claim to true representativeness and to the political authority to keep the negotiations secretive.

Will the judgement foil Brexit?

Despite Leaver anxiety, the simmering mutual antipathy between the Leave majority in the electorate and the Remain majority in parliament will probably keep the UK on course to leave the EU. Work to model the EU referendum results at constituency level shows that 421 out of 574 English and Welsh constituencies probably voted Leave, and 270 definitely did, while only 152 constituencies probably voted Remain, while only 76 definitely did so. If MPs defy the referendum result, they would face an enormous backlash and many could lose their seats.

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Theresa May understands this – which is why she has doubled down on Brexit, reiterating her intention to invoke Article 50 by March. Many Remainer MPs too are hearing the electoral message, and now say that parliament’s role is to scrutinise the government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain pursues an approach that protects British interests – from their perspective, staying in the single market. Following the ruling the Labour Party leadership has reiterated that Labour will not block Article 50, but will just ‘fight for a Brexit that works for Britain’. True, some MPs are still clinging to the idea of a second referendum on the final deal, but for reasons we have outlined previously, that is both politically unacceptable and impractical, making it very unlikely to fly in the Commons. The betrayal of the referendum result is therefore technically enabled by the High Court’s judgement, but remains politically unlikely.

If it does happen, the consequences will be unpredictable. One possibility is that Leave voters will rebel against their turncoat MPs, forcing their deselection or defecting to other parties – possibly reviving the disintegrating shambles that is now UKIP. While this revival would be a regrettable result of Remainer intransigence, it would at least have the positive outcome of disciplining the people’s representatives, showing them that they cannot continually defy the voters’ will. That might actually strengthen representative democracy. However, another possibility is that parliament’s frustration of the referendum result deepens popular cynicism towards the electoral system and the elitist Remainer parties populating it. The electorate will then increasingly look for solutions that attack and circumvent this system, making them prey to extremist populist appeals.

Although Remain MPs appear to be seeing sense, the possibility that parliament might frustrate the majority decision in the referendum is still a greater threat to democracy than giving the executive wide discretion to interpret the result, undesirable as that is.

The Supreme Court may yet dig parliament out of the mess it has got itself into by finding a way to reverse the High Court ruling when the government appeals in December, though it would be unwise to set too much store by the judges’ democratic instincts. The highly personalised attacks on the High Court judges in the Brexit-supporting media are no doubt intended to intimidate the Supreme Court. If the court does not overturn the ruling, a general election may be the only solution. Whatever the final result of the legal proceedings, parliament is at a crossroads. MPs can choose to undermine democracy further by continuing to delay or frustrate the implementation of the majority’s decision. Or they can participate in the renewal of democracy by giving up their claim to have a right to do so.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Referendum Redux?

2 Nov

A favoured Remainer strategy in the weeks and months since the Brexit vote has been to suggest essentially re-running the referendum, on the grounds that people were ‘lied to’. With the Tory government holding firm, the grounds are now shifting to disputes over the form and nature of Brexit. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is the latest to suggest that, as the nature of the Brexit deal clarifies, people will have new information about weighing up the pros and cons, and should be allowed to vote again.

Ironically, given that Brexiteers are usually the ones accused of ignorance, those pushing this idea do not seem to understand how the Article 50 process works. As we have explained previously, Article 50 was designed to make it hard for states to leave the EU, precisely to deter them from doing so, by creating a ticking time-bomb. A departing member-state must first formally tell the European Council it wishes to leave. This triggers a two-year period of negotiations with the Council on a ‘withdrawal agreement’. EU Treaties cease to apply to the departing member-state either two years after this agreement or, if no agreement is reached, two years after the initial notification.

This makes it incredibly risky even to contemplate a second referendum once Article 50 has been invoked. Leaving the EU is, as Blair himself admits, ‘complex’. It will be challenging to negotiate an agreement by the two-year deadline and, with every passing day, the Council’s leverage over Britain increases as the risk of simply dropping out of the EU without any agreement increases. What Blair and others are then proposing is that, when the agreement is finally reached – towards the end of the two-year period – we then have another vote on that agreement, whether in parliament, or in a second referendum. But what happens if the agreement is rejected? We cannot return to negotiations unless the Council agrees to prolong them beyond two years – and it is unclear why they would do so. Nor do we simply return to the status quo ante. At the two-year deadline, the EU Treaties would simply no longer apply to Britain: we would no longer be an EU member.

So the vote would not be a choice between the agreement reached and continued EU membership. It would be between the agreement struck and crashing out of the EU with nothing more than World Trade Organisation rules to govern Britain’s future relations with the Union. This is no choice at all. Indeed, the sheer unattractiveness of the latter option would probably result in an overwhelming, albeit begrudging, endorsement of the former.

Another option, Blair seems to think, is for a vote when the government’s negotiating position is finalised, prior to negotiations. However, this initial position cannot guarantee what Britain will actually get after two years of negotiations. The people would thus be asked again to vote on something whose exact outcome is uncertain – yet this is supposedly what invalidates the first referendum. Furthermore, what would happen if the people rejected the government’s position? Blair’s hope is that we would just forget the whole idea of leaving. But this leaves no space for voters to express a third view: that Britain should still leave the EU, but the government’s proposals are unsatisfactory. This would be another Hobson’s choice for Leave supporters: to defend their basic preference they would be forced to endorse a programme they dislike; or, if they think the programme is so awful, they would have to betray their initial position. Indeed, this is precisely the hope of Blair and his ilk. Clearly this would simply incentivise ‘spoilers’ to promote a bad negotiating position that will induce voters to opt to remain.

All this exposes the real limitations of referenda as an instrument of democratic governance. As Remainers are wont to note, referenda offer a simple yes/ no choice. They do not allow for nuance or qualifications. They are useful at times as a consultative mechanism, to obtain the public’s basic preferences on fundamental and/or constitutional matters that parliament feels it cannot decide. But all they do is convey that basic preference in a yes/ no form. The indispensability of representation consists in the fact that it will always be for political parties and leaders to interpret what that yes/ no response means in detailed practice.

Rejecting change is always easier to interpret, because it involves perpetuating the status quo. But embracing change is inherently open-ended. In the Scottish referendum, a ‘no’ vote meant keeping Scotland within the UK; a ‘yes’ vote meant ‘independence’ – which could mean just about anything. It was down to the Scottish National Party to define what ‘independence’ actually meant in practice. Ditto, Brexit. The trouble, as we have pointed out, is that the miserable Leave campaign failed to articulate any clear vision; hence, it fell to the government to define what Brexit meant in practice. Many people may dislike this – but it is unavoidable. Someone has to interpret what ‘yes’ means.

Clearly, a referendum is not a helpful way for people to express their views on this interpretation, because it does not allow people to disagree with the government’s interpretation without being forced to embrace an alternative that they also disagree with. This offers electors no real choice at all.

Yet, the way the government is going about interpreting Brexit is also unacceptable. Following a massive exercise in popular participation, the political process has again contracted to narrow elite manoeuvring: Theresa May consulting the leaders of the devolved regions; ministers being lobbied by elite business organisations; and intra-governmental squabbles and slap-downs, revealed by occasional leaks. This allows Brexit to be interpreted around narrow, elite interests, and whatever the deeply unpleasant Tory Party thinks will maximise its electoral advantage – including vile and idiotic nativist sloganeering designed merely to appeal to the anti-immigration segment of the Leave vote and undermine both Labour and UKIP.

What is missing is for all voters’ detailed views and aspirations to be represented in a deliberative process that can meaningfully shape the outcome. That cannot happen if government is closed or secretive, nor if people are merely offered a straight yes/no vote after a secretive process. What is required is for parliamentarians and political parties to engage in grassroots discussions with as many individuals and groups as possible, and develop the results into a broad programme for Brexit and Britain’s future. If broad consensus is impossible, parties should develop competing platforms and either debate them in parliament (as 73% of people are demanding) or put them to the people to decide through a general election. That is how representative democracy is supposed to work.

The crisis of representative democracy that makes such a basic process unlikely to happen, however, is reflected in the apparent inability of parliament to perform a constructive, deliberative role. The government’s reluctance to consult parliament on its negotiating position is not merely because it fears a Conservative split. It is also because it knows full well that 75% of MPs are Remainers and many would like to spoil Brexit. The case currently before the Supreme Court, which will determine whether parliament or the executive has the right to invoke Article 50 (incidentally, the public supports the PM), is not a struggle to shape the terms of Brexit, but a rear-guard attempt to empower parliament to stop it happening. In that sense, by refusing fundamentally to accept the referendum outcome, Remainers are denying a role for themselves – and everyone else – in shaping what Brexit really means.

Lee Jones

Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

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