Not Going Gentle into That Good Night:
A Review of Two Books on Brexit, Part Two
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
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Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin, & Paul Whiteley
Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017
Brexit, subtitled very blandly (the book is written by academics) Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union, is the production of a scholarly trio and is as dry and academic as Shipman’s work is brash and journalistic. The book purports to examine the forces which led to the result, and does so by surveys, tables, and statistics. Whereas Shipman cannot always hide his sympathies, for example his admiration for Dominic Cummings, these three writers practice a rigid code of scientific objectivity. In place of Shipman’s “events, dear boy, events,” we have “facts, Watson, facts.” At times the writing sounds like that of a schoolmaster’s report: “Regardless of the outcome, the rival campaigns could not be faulted for not trying” (p. 57).
A significant argument of the book is that public shifts in opinion build up over time, and that what seems to be a sudden public mood swing has a background, a narrative. The writers stress the valence theory of voting decisions. The term valence was introduced, according to the writers, by David Stokes, a co-author of Political Change in Britain. Essentially, the principle is based on the notion that there are certain subjects upon which there is strong consensus on desirability, for example economic growth or freedom from crime.
The referendum campaign was conducted in a certain sense extremely superficially, since debates hardly questioned consensus on any issue. This is an interesting point. There is a huge difference between accusing a government or system of failing to be “up to the mark” in relation to a valence issue, such as let us say ensuring growth and full employment, and trying to argue that society should have another valence-based term of reference, say the observance of religious piety or ensuring the sustainability of farmland. The Brexit referendum was focussed, as the writers point out, on very few and well-defined valence criteria. The arguments on both sides were limited to a discussion of the success or lack of success of the EU in achieving a number of objectives. There is a certain artificiality about such a debate, but the artificiality could be defended on the best democratic grounds.
The valence principle could be presented like this: “People are shown to be worried about immigration, but not race, therefore we talk about immigration, but not about race, because there we have common ground on which to argue, namely that almost everyone wants to control immigration.” The writers note that recent European immigration was discussed because at least in Britain (not in every country?) it had been established by statisticians and researchers, probably similar in nature to the writers of Brexit, that like it or leave it, immigration had since Maastricht become a valence issue for the general public. So few people welcomed uncontrolled immigration that even politicians in favor of no limits could not say they were in favor of no limits, not at least during the referendum campaign. This wrong-footed Remainers, because the EU was seen as welcoming immigrants from all over the world, and once established somewhere within the EU, such immigrants enjoyed a right to settle in Britain, in addition to the free flow of workers within the EU itself. The writers put it simply:
Immigration is a valence issue in the UK because an overwhelming majority of voters think that the British government should be able to control immigration and there is a consensus that successive British governments have failed to do so. (p. 70)
The significant conclusion a reader may infer is that a radical movement – and in one respect the campaign to take Britain out of the EU was radical – must, so far as possible, both understand what valence issues currently prevail and what valence systems need to be developed in order to assist a cause. Only when a valence issue is widely settled can arguments effectively begin which refer to the failure of a system or government to fulfill what are seen as its obligations in respect of the objectives required by that valence issue. Put simply, if there is a consensus that racial differences are only skin deep, arguments against specifically-colored immigration will be mostly quite fruitless. They will be seen as cruelly discriminatory, deeply unfair, and beside the point.
The same can be said of national freedom. If the valence system includes the destruction of barriers as in itself desirable, then the argument that the EU destroys national sovereignty will be ineffective, even meaningless. It seems to me – and this is not noted by the authors, although they do point to the extremely variable nature of voters in relation to the perceived fulfilment or lack thereof of perceived objectives in a valence system – that it will also be necessary for a radical movement to work towards the nurturing of new valence terms of reference to achieve a radical break with an old order. That subject takes us beyond the purview of an essay on two books on Brexit, but it is worth mentioning here that in the case of the Brexit debate, the referendum took place at a time when the valence issue of security was shifting from national identity to individual identity in a very significant way, which makes it especially interesting as a subject of study. The referendum broke in upon British national consciousness at a time when a valence system was changing. The Brexit movement can be seen as a radical revolt to halt that shift. In other times, such a dilemma could only have been resolved by bloody civil war.
One chapter of the book is devoted to the gathering by the “Stronger In” campaign of experts to induce the public to vote to Remain. The list of experts, consultants, captains of industry, and businesses is astonishing. They warn of the dire fate that will await the country should a majority vote for Leave. The question arises, and not just in this context: how far are “doom and gloom” warnings earnest and honestly-intended prognoses of a grim future, and to what extent are they inverted fantasies? That is to say, one should be aware that those who predict a dire outcome from taking certain courses of action without being mendacious in any way may deceive by stressing the importance of precisely that evidence suited to enhancing their argument. This is a temptation to employ hyperbole to raise the stakes of the argument. Hyperbole has the unwelcome side effect that it may well make those who wield it seem “cranky,” “fringy,” and which is more damaging still, melodramatic or clownish. Cameron’s speech held in the British Museum (!), in which he appeared to hint that a failure to vote to Remain might nudge Europe towards war, is an example of this. The Club of Rome’s prediction in 1968 that the world oil supply would soon be exhausted is another. Hyperbole can also lead one day to a “Peter and the Wolf” situation and reduce popular acceptance of very real risks because those risks had been exaggerated in the past.
This book also offers a warning that threats and blackmail may be counterproductive. The reader learns that the managements of Siemens and Rolls-Royce sent letters to their employees advising them of the potentially damaging consequences of voting Leave. A warning letter from Airbus, as reported by Rob Davis in The Guardian on April 4, 2016, includes this polite threat: “All of us need to keep in the back of our minds that future investments depend very much on the economic environment in which the company operates.”
Here again, we have the dilemma of all pessimistic prognoses in distinguishing between objective and biased projections of evidence. Pessimistic evidence reinforces a belief in a negative outcome, which increases the evidence to interpret evidence in a negative light, creating a kind of vicious circle of pessimism. In the chapter entitled “Will Brexit be a One-Off?” the writers make a very important point indeed:
The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 was a turning point in this process [the writers mean leaving decisions about integration and independence to the experts] when a vote by the Danes against ratifying the treaty in a referendum held in 1993 awakened decision-makers to the fact that the opinions of ordinary voters did matter when it came to furthering the integration project. The fact that in 1992 the French, who were founding members of the Maastricht Treaty, also had nearly rejected the Maastricht Treaty, signalled that things had really changed. It was around this time that the permissive consensus gave way to what became known as a constraining dissensus in Europe. Put simply, public attitudes across Europe were starting to act as a brake on the ambitions of the Euro-federalists. The people could no longer be ignored.
Brexit may well have changed this “constraining dissensus” further into a public veto, in the sense that electorates in a number of EU member states may opt to stop any further integration occurring in the future or to roll back existing agreements. Certainly, the rapid collapse of the Schengen Agreement providing border-free travel inside the EU after the upsurge of immigration from the Middle East and Africa was largely driven by alarmed public opinion. The process of the public becoming more and more important in debates about the future of the EU has grown stronger over time. (p. 216)
In other words, the more that people become active, the more their activity is relevant to the direction of public debate. The writers of both Brexit and All Out War interpret public policy as being more event-driven than the usual radical notion of public policy directed only by lobbies or by a sinister “hidden hand.” Seen in this light, activity and involvement creates its own momentum, which is not to say that there will not be immense efforts to discourage, dissuade, and destroy challengers to the one-world narrative. A better argument against passivity I cannot conceive.
In a passive, popularity-driven voting system, which is what Western democracy essentially is, the more confidently public opinion is manifested and accepted, the more politicians seeking election are inclined to shift their opinion in the direction of whatever issue seems to be important. Both sides in the referendum campaign were acutely aware of the importance of capturing headlines and giving an impression of what were the important issues of the day. The Brexit campaign showed that successful activism is much harder work than just declaiming or demonstrating in the streets. In the Western democracies, especially in recent years, there is little encouragement for the people to become involved in politics, except as a career option, in much the same way as taking holy orders was regarded as a career option in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Referenda relating to major valence issues awaken interest in politics among the public. The stark nature of a stark choice converts people to politics.
The turnout for the EU referendum was higher than in British general elections. A referendum debate divides people and forces them, however obliquely and for whatever reasons, to confront not persons alone, but political issues. To be sure, as I have already noted, personalities play a considerable role in decision-making even at a referendum, but the referendum does by its nature bring the merits of a course of action to the fore rather than the merits or lack thereof of a team of politicians or political leader to deal with issues. The difference is hugely significant. The referendum is not controllable in the way that elections are. It is no wonder that supporters of the EU are for the most part very hostile towards the use of a referendum to instruct public policy.
After the referendum, Britain seemed to divide again, this time between the mass of voters for whom political life was a return to largely passive membership in the standard two parties, although a decidedly populist mood does seem to have entered the soul of the Labour Party, undoubtedly influenced by the mood created by the referendum. UKIP was tossed aside by the voters in the general election of 2016 with the same callousness which the electorate showed in the general election of 1945, in which they rejected Churchill in a Labour landslide.
On the other hand, there have been the as yet ongoing attempts, amounting to treachery, of leading Remainers to overturn the result, coupled with the bungling of Leave campaigners in the face of a result which took them as much by surprise as anyone. The Cameron government had no Plan B and simply had not calculated for defeat, whilst Leave campaigners seem not to have considered for a moment what they would do if they proved victorious against the odds. The result of the referendum was therefore widespread chaos and bumbling. Joe Public, meanwhile, returned to “business as normal” politics, the old party loyalties of Labour and Conservative, as though nothing much had happened.
It would appear from looking at the referendum and the general election which soon followed it that Joe Public can be inspired to defy an establishment with one gesture, but is not prepared to maintain a stance of political revolt over a long period of time. Prolonged defiance is the duty of the activist. As Tony Benn, himself a euroskeptic from the first EU referendum, put it bluntly, “The electorate are primarily concerned with the issues which affect their lives: education, peace, jobs, security.”
Nobody during the course of the campaign breathed a word of the great subtext, which was race, but the intelligent and the insider knew well enough that voting Leave, while not of course a vote for ethnic separation, was a vote for the prerequisite for such separation, namely national autarchy. The European Union is part of a global project to forcibly integrate, mix, and finally destroy differences between races and peoples and replace them with a Utopian brotherhood of man. Did the main campaigners in the referendum know what was a stake? Opinions will differ about that, but I cannot help thinking that the impudent court jester of the European Parliament, Nigel Farage, knew what he was doing when he unveiled that anti-migrant poster “Breaking Point,” and his enemies surely knew what he was doing, too, more than cynically playing “the race card,” which is why he was reported to the police and the do-gooders howled “racist!”
And how uncanny, then, the event that seemed to “show what happens when you go down that sorry road,” namely the murder of Jo Cox, which followed within hours of the posters going up. When the Leave campaign talked of “winning back control,” it was a head raised above the parapet. Others may interpret it differently. Maybe the entire referendum campaign should be taken at face value after all, the valence issues followed more or less blindly by all and sundry, and maybe the Leave campaign really did not in any way intend to evoke old dreams of ethnic homogeneity, but was simply presenting the case for economic self-determination. Maybe. However, of one thing I am sure, and that is that the referendum result had not appeared in the projections of the world’s most powerful. It was not part of the One World Plan. “Events, dear boy, events.”
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