Categorized | Europe, UK News, US, World

Britain’s EU Referendum Demonstrates the Volatility of Populist Politics. Is the US Listening?


In trying to puzzle through the populism animating the right and left after the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2015 European migrant crisis, we can draw a worrying parallel between the UK referenda and social and economic populism in the US. As in the US presidential race, the UK’s Remain/Leave debate is complex: it is not simply about economic and border security, but concerns the vision of a country and the attempt to seize a future that one wants to live in. If the UK leaves the EU, it may be because national pride is ultimately thought to coincide with pocketbook concerns, as the Rule Britannia advocates argue. But it is more likely that Britain’s distinctively liberal tradition keeps it in rather than pushes it out. If this occurs, US political analysts should look to the UK to see which arguments succeeded or failed in their own attempt to shape the debate surrounding the most aggressive American populism and demagoguery.

Lord Norman Tebbit, in a private session at parliament on Tuesday, argued that Britain’s distinctively liberal history will result in Brexit. England’s brand of negative liberty protects individual independence by imposing strict limits on the power of the state. In contrast, Brussels’ push for open borders, broader regulatory powers, a common foreign policy, and a common army tacitly represents an approach to government that commands citizens to act, and prohibits everything else. Not just a clash between differing juridical approaches, this is a two cultures argument, where the English art of politics collides with the bureaucrat’s science of government. But it must be said that Tebbit’s and the Bow Group’s vision of a grassroots conservative revolution is in the short term unlikely to appear in the aftermath of a repudiation of the EU. Instead, it is more likely that that we’ll see a shift in who controls the conservative party, rather than substantive political change. The reason is that populism makes a poor, fidgety bedfellow for ideological clarity.

The UK may be just a few days away from “independence day.” But it is important not to exaggerate the stability of the alliance between conservatives and liberals in the Leave camp. The Remain party may well argue that David Owen’s sense of “disillusionment” and “detachment” from Brussels is a pathology of UK politics, rather than a genuine reflection of the EU’s dangerous abstractness. But, thus far, Brexiters have been surprisingly successful in painting Brussels as the architect of a steady march toward a United States of Europe.

A Brexit may leave a unified and strengthened EU that almost unanimously agrees on a common currency. It will still have structural problems that will require further unification and more transfer payments, which Brexiters want to avoid. Alternatively, Brexit may substantially weaken the EU by re-emphasizing Germany’s dominant role in the EU’s economic austerity program. Domestically, a Brexit may also transform UK conservatives under the Eurosceptic flag, and strengthen Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s National Front. All this is quite unclear from the vantage of June 2016.

In the remaining week before the referendum, UK voters will see a last substantive push to change minds. While there is surely a right answer to the policy questions, the switch from substantive argumentation to mobilization efforts is already underway. Expect to hear less about the abstruse economic predictions and complicated statutory matters and more about economic security, border security, history, tradition, and national greatness.

If there is this sort of rhetorical pivot, expect this to hurt the Leave vote, as voters decide that continued membership in the EU is the legitimate child, and not the parricide, of English liberty. The Remain vote should make up lost ground precisely by pressing the argument for European community and comity against nationalism, and by successfully making the argument for incremental rather than immediate and unilateral changes. In both cases, the core values of Brexiters, security and independence are likely to lose ground, stymied by the bad fit between these conservative values and revolutionary change. But that prediction may be foiled by the volatility of populist politics, and here the parallels between the situations in the UK and in the US should be readily understandable to a US political audience. The basic similarity between the UK and US debate is this: “Let’s take back control” and “there should be less control/regulation” do not abide together comfortably in one party. With no stable and coherent way of unifying positions, referendum politics becomes a high-variance gamble that can be decided by an apt simile or a powerful image rather than by the force of the better argument. This was true before the horrific murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, and it is even more correct and more important to speak about this in the days afterwards.

If the Remain position prevails, US political analysts should undertake a post-mortem to find out how economic and social populism lost out to incremental change. At University College London, Alan Renwick has engaged in a large-n study of just this sort of constitutional change. It is important to use these resources better to understand the volatility of referenda, and to analyze the typical shift towards the status quo ante in the period immediately prior to the vote.

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About Chris Barker

Chris Barker teaches political thought at Southwestern College. He has previously held positions at Ohio University, Boston College, and Harvard University. He recently completed his first book manuscript on John Stuart Mill’s liberalism. He has published articles on demagoguery, protest speech, masses and elites, ancient and modern democratic theory, and art history. He also occasionally blogs about politics, law, and culture.

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