Brexit and the Democratic Deficit

Dr. Sean Gabb draws parallels between today and "the People vs. the Peers" election of 1910

Dr. Sean Gabb
On 21 October 2019 07:02

 One of the more fatuous, though effective, claims of the Leaver side in the Brexit Referendum was that we should “Take back control.” The assumption behind this was that Britain before 1973 was somehow more of a democracy than in 2016, and that leaving the European Union would restore that state of affairs. The truth is, and always has been in this country, as G.K. Chesterton said more than a century ago, that “democracy has a right to answer questions, but it has no right to ask them. It is still the political aristocracy that asks the questions.” Except for perhaps two centuries in Athens, where a popular assembly, supported by juries and by ostracism and by sortation for every office where specific ability was not essential, that is how democracy has worked in all places. The idea that the people at large can have perfectly free choice about their institutions or the working of those institutions is a dream. It is also a dream, let us be honest, that both conservatives and classical liberals regard as a nightmare. Does anyone really long to be governed by the unchecked whim of his neighbours, let alone a mass of usually invisible strangers? 


Considered in itself, the European Union is a customs and regulatory union with a mild taste for political union. A customs union with our European neighbours is probably less in our economic interest than a set of free trade arrangement with the rest of the world. Many of the regulations are a nuisance, and we could make do very well with fewer of them, or with regulations more suited to our individual circumstances. The political union, so far, has been more spoken about than delivered. Why anyone should go white with anger on either side of these matters is a mystery in itself. If England has been ruined in the past half century, the ruin has been the work of our own ruling class, not of foreigners. The greatest threat to our freedom and our general ways of life is located not in Brussels, but in London. 


This being said, the Brexit debate that only began with the counting of the Referendum votes has been a valuable education. So far as it blurs the lines of accountability, membership of the European Union has been a useful entrenchment of our ruling class. It has also helped provide a mildly liberal and cosmopolitan gloss to a domestic project that has been anything but liberal. Its refusal to honour the Referendum has torn aside what remained of the democratic veil behind which power is exercised. These people are not our servants. They are a hostile elite. Their interests are not ours. They despise us. They fear us. They are determined not to give us even the shadow of what we were – perhaps unwisely – promised. 


I have given a quotation from Chesterton. I am increasingly minded of parallels between his day and ours. In 1906, the Liberals won a large and unexpected majority in the House of Commons. They set about transforming the country on the lines they had been discussing since the end of their last majority government in 1885. In doing this, they faced a wall of resistance from the old ruling class. The Conservatives controlled the Law and education and most of the administration. They possessed the greatest mass of the national wealth. Above all, they dominated the House of Lords. They used their majority here to block the Liberal Government until such time as the people could be persuaded at the next election to bring back a Conservative Government.  


Now, in that contest, I would have sided with the ruling class. I think England had a better future under the Conservatives than under the Liberals. I think most of the Liberal changes were bad. Moreover, the Conservative strategy showed some evidence of working. The Liberals lost a steady stream of by-elections – most notably Peckham in 1908. Then the Conservatives went too far. In 1909, the Liberals brought in a deliberately populist budget. The Conservatives broke more than two centuries of convention by voting this down in the Lords. This gave the Liberals their excuse. With the cry of “The People against the Peers,” they attacked the Conservatives in their most powerful stronghold. After two general elections in 1910, the Lords were stripped of their blocking veto. Of course, the Great War then changed everything. But it is reasonable to suppose that, had the Liberals won another election in 1915, most of the domestic changes that we blame on the War would have come about, if more slowly.  


The lesson is that ruling classes often make strategic mistakes. Had the Conservatives before the Great War taken a more selective approach in their opposition, they might have won an election in 1911, and carried on with their own vision of the national future. As it is, they only lost the 1910 elections because the Liberals were able to rely on Labour and Irish support in the Commons. Because they overreached themselves, they eventually lost everything. 


It may be the same now. Had our own ruling class pulled sad faces in 2016 and delivered a minimal Brexit – something like continued EEA membership and a Norwegian relationship – they might have put the issue to bed and continued riding us all to certain ruin. Instead, they went into a three-year filibuster, every so often drawing breath to suggest another referendum. The strategy appears to have failed. We may now have a more substantial Brexit than was intended. More to the point, the democratic veil has been torn aside. The continuing argument over Mr Johnson’s new Withdrawal Agreement is largely now unfinished business. The Agreement needs to be passed – but so we can go into a general election where the main issues will not be a new relationship with the European Union. These issues will be the nature and personnel of the country’s domestic government. I do not imagine that we shall become more “democratic.” But I can imagine that we shall find ourselves with a new ruling class that holds the mass of ordinary people in less vicious contempt.  


The people after Brexit will not rule in any more sense than they ruled before. But the questions put to them may be less of a choice between various species of stinking fish. 


And this will be progress. 



Dr. Sean Gabb is the former Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is presently Managing Director for the Centre for Ancient Studies.


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