Brexit, Populism, and the Crisis of Authority

After about 35 years of neoliberal, anti-social-democratic economic policy, resulting in unparalleled disparities of wealth and power, politicians and other professional elites become estranged from the common people. As a consequence, politicians who wish to hold on to power become more and more desperate for popularity.  Formally, they continue to speak on behalf of the people but, materially, they no longer appear truly of the people.  They beg for assent to their policies but can no longer take the people with them because they can no longer command authority.  More and more, they resort to blandishments and buy-offs.  They seem ever more willing to sacrifice principle and better judgement for popular support.  The result is a void of professional competence and authority at the heart of our politics.

Some months ago I thought that Brexit was a tragic accident, let loose essentially by a short-term cause – by David Cameron’s reckless gamble, promising a referendum in January 2013 without ever truly needing to do so, and then being stuck with its terrible consequences.  I now think that the causes are of a far more long-term nature, having to do with a virus of populism not only inside the Conservative Party and its upstart rival on the far right, UKIP, but across the entirety of our political class – and reaching way back through the years of New Labour to the two closing decades of the last century.

There must be a deeper reason why, with the possible exception of the SNP, MPs across all parties have been so utterly supine in their response to Brexit since the vote of 23 June 2016. Only now, some 5 months on, amid the emerging tyranny of Theresa May’s regime and impending economic collapse, are they beginning to express a few little peeps of resistance.  There is now finally some talk of “hard Brexit” not being “what the people voted for”.  Yet despite being one of the most patent minority votes one could possibly imagine – 37% of the electorate – the mantra that the result of the referendum must be “respected” continues to be trotted out.  The holy cow of the 52% of votes cast still seems to be untouchable.

Perhaps, then, we must look for the reason back in June 2015 when parliament drafted the EU Referendum Bill. Could it be that parliament’s pusillanimous conduct since June 2016 is simply entirely consistent with its behaviour at that time?  Could it that MPs’ abject cowardice over the past months simply reflects a deeper, dirtier truth, namely a knowledge on their part that they collaborated in the Tories’ populist enterprise at the very start and simply allowed the Tories to get away with an Act that specified no quorum – no percentage threshold – so as not to make the task of the Europhobes too difficult, being while ingenuously confident that Remain would win anyway?

All the evidence seems to point to this conclusion.  It is not just that MPs have been timid and cowardly.  It is that they know they allowed this to happen, by signing off on an Act that was deliberately defined as “advisory” so as not to be shackled to a threshold that might have been too hard for Brexiteers to make inroads towards, while at the same time agreeing to let the Act be talked about publicly as “binding” because this is what the Tories had promised to “the people” in their election manifesto – and since the Tories won the election, their wishes, after all, had to prevail.

So perhaps MPs are suffering from a shameful sense of awareness of their own collaboration in the makings of this disaster. It wasn’t just a gamble of Cameron, it was a gamble of the entire political class, desperate not to upset the populist aggressors and the tabloid media empire – while nervously trusting that the Hydra probably wouldn’t be quite monstrous enough in the end to bring the house down when it came to polling day.

The events of the past year and a half seem to be the symptom of a profound crisis of authority in our politics. Politicians have become incapable of leading the people – only of pandering to them.  They now conduct themselves like the parents of spoilt children.  Their connection to the electorate is not strong and authentic enough for them to exercise “tough love”.  They are like parents unable to deny their children’s every wishes in the knowledge that their kids’ unconditional trust in them ought to remain no less strong.  Instead they spoil them with chocolate and junk food to buy favour.  The result is a complete inversion of the rightful relations of power and authority.

This, I think, is the situation we now find ourselves in, in UK politics. It is a complete void of parliamentary principle and judgement.  For many years past now, UK representative democracy has been threatening to collapse into a direct dictatorship of the people, and this is what it has now become – with the referendum of 2016 simply being the final event of implosion.

An immature, politically illiterate electorate becomes an obese mass of consumers of sound-bites, fed a diet of tabloid-driven populist burgers and chips – and Theresa May’s extra-parliamentary tyranny is its counterpart and enabler.  Those 17 million voters, who are mendaciously paraded as a majority – truly a “tyranny of the majority”, in every sense of the phrase intended by James Madison – meet everything that Immanuel Kant described when he spoke of the absence of Enlightenment as a condition of languishing in “self-incurred immaturity” –selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit.  People, though adult citizens, formally of voting age, behave like minors, like half-educated children dependent on the authority of others.  They behave like infantile tyrants of the family.  And yet to precisely these children are handed all the reins of power – all the power to decide over the future of a country of 65 million, for decades and generations to come.

Voters are King. And parliamentarians are their slaves.

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This was something I drafted more than two months ago but was too angry to finish and upload at the time.

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