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A People’s Vote won’t heal Brexit divisions – we need a People’s Debate

A TV debate would solve nothing, and claims about “the will of the people” are vapid. We need to find a way to hold a meaningful debate.

lead Screenshot: the seven-way BBC election debate, May 2017. YouTube.

This is Part Two of 'The rest and the West: thoughts on Brexit and Migration.'

“I don’t think there is a silver bullet, but the market-place of ideas is at the heart of democracy. We all bring ideas and opinions into that market-place and we talk and discuss, and we argue, but we bargain and we compromise. That is what is collapsing.”  Matthew Goodwin on preventing the rage of the US parcel-bomber from spreading, BBC2 Newsnight, October 26, 2018

“The debates where the politicians are squabbling amongst themselves don’t do anything for the process of electioneering”, said Theresa May after ducking out of the televised seven-way general election debate of 2017. That won her a reputation for ‘not doing debate’. The Brexit TV debate she proposed for December 9 – in front of millions of viewers who will have no say in the outcome – was “consuming Westminster’s political advisers and the nation’s broadcasters” four days ago, but now seems unlikely to happen. Caroline Lucas, calling for another public vote on Brexit, argued that any debate "must be cross-party, featuring a diverse range of voices representing every nation, as well as every stance on this deal and our relationship with the EU". The BBC version of plurality appeared to be “10 prominent supporters of May’s deal and 10 opponents who would have the chance to ask questions”, described as “messy” by Labour, since the opposition would precisely be seen as squabbling among themselves. But as Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director of communications put it, a TV debate is not a debate: “It becomes a basic method of message delivery rather than a real debate.”

Meanwhile, the real debate with which Theresa May has not engaged during her lonely tour of duty in one-way persuasion, is surely the one at the heart of a liberal democracy: democratic debate leading to compromise between legitimate political adversaries. Setting aside her preference for conducting the Brexit process as a secretive Whitehall operation, everything May has done since inheriting the binary referendum result on the UK’s future relationship to the EU has been an avoidance of debate, from the resistance of the UK government to seeking parliamentary approval for Article 50 or to a “meaningful debate” on the final deal, to the ministerial power grab over the Withdrawal Bill and secretive plans for trade deals, the marginalisation of the devolved nations, the refusal of plan-B discussions, and the insistence that “Brexit means Brexit” through months and years in which it has become increasingly clear that no-one really knows what Brexit means.

Yesterday like the proverbial worm, the despised and marginalised ‘squabbling politicians’, turned, aided by carefully timed advice from the advocate general to the European Court of Justice. This was the first mention of anyone officially involved in the negotiations that Britain might change its mind. Faced by no-deal, a member state could change its intention to withdraw from the EU and revoke Article 50, since Article 50 is invoked in the first place “to notify the European Council of ‘its intention’– and not of its decision – to withdraw, and such an intention may change.” Not only this, but in accordance with our parliamentary sovereignty, and, as the advocate general adds, in the interests of European integration, the decision indeed rests with the squabbling politicians of a member state to choose to “reverse its initial decision.”

Today, May’s ‘triple defeat’ by Parliament has elicited a warning from the leading Brexit-backing cabinet minister, Liam Fox, that Remainer MPs are trying to “steal Brexit from the British people” which he describes as a “democratic affront”. But the truth is that MP’s supporting the legal action in Luxembourg, like Caroline Lucas and Chris Bryant, in their campaign for a second referendum, have been fighting a valiant battle against the odds and May's Government, to give the British people a say. Under the desert conditions for democracy created by those conducting the Brexit negotiations, they are the ones who have insisted on keeping some sort of public space open and ticking. Bryant’s response to the legal advice was to express the hope that the final say on Brexit would be handed back to the public, “because only the people of the United Kingdom can sort this out.” It is being argued that the advocate general’s opinion, by the same token, gives the EU every reason to extend Article 50 for such an outcome, since a choice to remain made by the people might well be considered a stronger mandate than a decision to remain made by MPs alone.

But whether Brexit is to be stolen from the British people or sorted out by them, the invocation of a unitary people’s will in both cases should raise alarm bells. Just how should a large and diverse, not to mention increasingly polarised people 'change its mind' or 'have a say'? Albert Weale’s pithy answer to the question, "Can 'a people' have 'a will' "? is decisively in the negative There is no singular will of the people emerging from a plurality of peopleThere is no one super-individual – the people – that has changed its mindThere is no will of the people independently of the rules used to combine different opinions”. He reminds us that a people does not change its mind, but that in a democracy, under a set of rules chosen in a decision that is supremely political, people do. Whatever the outcome to the roller coaster on which we are now riding and even at this late and bewildering stage, we can only begin to “take back control” to the extent that our voices can finally be heard in a way that can persuade and effect meaningful change. The question, for both Parliament and people, is what is a “meaningful debate”?

All selective versions of a Brexit debate proliferate enemy images. We see only too well the cumulative dehumanising impact on ‘migrants’ when they are only ever spoken about, and, in the Windrush case for example, how shocking the effect when we finally hear directly from them. The speed at which “Europeans” began to be sucked into the “hostile environment” for migrants created by Theresa May as home secretary came as another, more recent shock. Don’t we need a debate that can “out”, identify and encompass all these points of view, one that brings Leavers and Remainers, ordinary and elite, face to face across all the boundaries and borders so far erected by the multiple toxic polarisations of the issue? 

This would be a public debate at least as ambitious and inclusive as the Scottish referendum debate was at its best. One that included the 16 to 18 year olds who were included in that process, and not in the EU referendum, on the grounds that this is their future we are talking about. A debate that welcomes the voices of the many migrants and fellow-Europeans in our midst, elite and ordinary as well. But above all, voices open to each other in all their diversity, willing to listen, even to care, and yes, even to change their minds.

What is a 'meaningful debate' ?

Only a comprehensive, extended and inclusive People’s Debate can effect this process of citizen empowerment. Anthony Barnett’s ‘open letter to Remainers’ this June on openDemocracy was the first sign of movement towards the kind of listening that would be involved. By September, Neal Lawson was on this platform warning supporters of the People’s Vote to be careful what they wished for, and extending Barnett’s argument in the direction of a four-point agenda for democratising the process that included citizens’ assemblies, a constitutional convention for the UK and a new policy agenda for Europe. Lawson also demanded a “systemic domestic policy response to the causes of Brexit”. Recently, as the Brexit deadlines threatened, another breakthrough moment was Caroline Lucas’s closing contribution to the Channel 4 Big Brexit Debate: What does the UK really think? as a key proponent of the People’s Vote:

“ What we need to be doing is recognising as well that many of the people who voted ‘leave’ have very legitimate grievances that need to be tackled. So the People’s Vote campaign isn’t just saying  – ‘Let’s just swap and see if we can get a vote like this that changes the balance…’. It’s massively important that the People’s Vote campaign and all of us who want to seize the opportunity for people to have a say, recognise that this is not about turning the clock back two years, but about saying let us make sure that we address those underlying reasons that drove so many people to feel that the only solution was to leave the EU, when in fact leaving the EU will make things worse for them.”

Fellow People’s Vote advocate and openDemocracy columnist, Mary Kaldor, reiterated this point in her advice to the Labour Party: “if we are to address the real concerns of the leave voters we need to be inside the EU campaigning for a change of rules.” But she also called for “a genuine constitutional debate throughout the country – a debate about the kind of society we want to live in and how to tackle the deep-seated problems linked to jobs, housing, health, and, above all, democracy that led to the howl of anguish represented by the Brexit vote.”

But it took Gordon Brown, as former UK prime minister, to go further in thinking about what is needed over and above any second public vote or even beyond a general election, if we are to have a democratic Brexit process at last. Divisions could “merely worsen” in an already “bitterly divided country”, since “at least two and possibly many more years of acrimonious EU negotiations still lie ahead”, he warned, ("To calm the Brexit storm, we must listen to the UK’s views again", Financial Times,16 November).

Because “the deadlock in parliament seems unlikely to be broken by MPs alone”, Brown proposes bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few hundred citizens, together constituting a “platform to allow discussion of important issues such as immigration, sovereignty, the state of our industrial towns and regions. Through it, by exploring both the causes and consequences of Brexit, we can see whether any consensus can be forged.”

Brown proposes the creation of a “new kind of royal commission” in order to be credible, authoritative and impartial. But I would argue instead for parliamentarians to become joint custodians of this new politics of persuasion in a constitution that devolved their most precious function to the citizens ­– what Albert Weale calls the “institutionalised debate in which competing views are expressed within a set of rules”. Citizens already have voices in ways without parallel before the internet era. Becoming the guarantors and enablers of such an inclusive, pluralist debate could be the best way to rescue democratic representation from its ‘gatekeeping’ crisis, with a useful knock-on effect on an overweening media.

All it would take is the simple acknowledgement that who picks the subjects and frames the debate is the democratic crux of the matter, as the political theorist Stuart White pointed out on openDemocracy three years ago in his survey of constitutional conventions:

“If we are in a constitutional moment, then it is not appropriate to let the key questions be settled just through the processes of ‘normal’ politics. Democratic theory says that this is a time when ‘We the people’ have a right to settle what happens precisely because what is at stake is a set of very basic questions about how we are ruled. A constitutional convention (CC) is potentially one way of giving ‘We the people’ this leading role…  If a convention is to be genuinely ‘people-led’ mustn’t its agenda be responsive to the people? Allowing the convention a wide remit, or allowing it to identify issues for itself, gives us all an opportunity to campaign to the convention to address issues we think important. It draws us all into the discussion and thereby helps to create a democratic constitutional moment… A key principle here is that devolution and decentralisation ought to be bottom-up processes with real accountability to local people.”

White had an encouraging message for us when it came to Labour and the Greens:

“First, as I think Labour (and the Greens) already accept, membership of the convention – or conventions – should be drawn largely from members of the general public, chosen by lot but in a way that is designed to be broadly representative of the population. (Exactly which population? The standard assumption is that the relevant population consists of UK citizens, but David Owen argues forcefully that non-citizen residents and non-residents should also have representation in a CC.)”

Gordon Brown’s choice of subjects for his debating platform, ought he thinks to “particularly examine those contentious issues where the situation has changed significantly since 2016”, citing both “national identity” and freedom of movement. Yet if Brown acknowledges the evidence of shifting opinions on the latter, Theresa May certainly does not.  We learn that she rejects any Norway-style compromise deal with the Labour party. Why? On the grounds that ending freedom of movement is the hardest of the prime minister’s red lines. Again why? – we don’t know. Maybe it is for the same reason that Kramp-Karrenbauer, hailed as the most Merkel-like of her successor candidates, has announced that she would be much “stricter” on migration than Merkel.

But can’t we do better than that? Couldn’t we hope instead, taking inspiration from Ada Colau’s PAH movement, that one advantage of a People’s Debate over a People’s Vote is the chance to include non-citizen residents and non-residents in this inclusive, empowering national debate? And that those pluralist encounters might similarly lead in a mutually enabling direction?

Brown’s proposal is a breakthrough, first and foremost, in the recognition that Brexit is a historic process in which people need to have a say. It pays the referendum due respect for being a democratic prompt for a “unique consultation”, a multi-faceted process of exchange that “by opening a dialogue across the country and engaging in a constructive, outward-looking conversation about our future” might help us discover “a road back to a more cohesive country, reuniting around shared values and rediscovered common interests.”

How not to frame a democratic debate

“So we need to think about what institutions, what mechanisms can we put in place that support that market-place of ideas. And that means mixing our friendship groups and our social networks – it means having better political leadership – it means starting early at university and at school level and making sure people are exposed to different perspectives…” Matthew Goodwin on preventing the rage of the US parcel-bomber from spreading, BBC2 Newsnight, October 26, 2018

If this is what is needed then one way not to frame that People’s Debate is highlighted by the interesting spat that recently broke out on openDemocracy among other places, between academics protesting at a panel debate billed for December 6 by Claire Fox’s Academy of Ideas and UnHerd.

A number of academics, journalists and commentators are planning to take part in a ‘debate’ originally titled and intended to answer the question: “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?”. Speakers include Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann, Claire Fox, Trevor Phillips and David Aaronovitch. (The title has now changed.)

Their critics accuse them of framing diversity as a threat, when it is perfectly possible to “discuss far right language without using it yourself”.  Their open letter protests that: "This debate shuts itself down, as no other alternative factor or scenario is identified as a ‘threat’, and it is hard to recognise much in the way of a diversity of opinion on a panel where most of the speakers are on the record as blaming immigration and multiculturalism for complex and multi-faceted social problems ". In the comment spaces of openDemocracy, the ongoing argument soon arrives at the key issue of democratic debate: “The people hosting this debate, so narrowly framed in such a way, seemingly provide a platform for arguments that can only draw one possible and predefined conclusion. So. Not much of a 'debate' then...”,“To reiterate, we are not seeking to shut down debate or evade difficult arguments – these issues are widely discussed in academia and in public fora. We are simply asking that we do not give yet more ground to those who seek to shift the blame for systemic failures onto communities who are already subject to oppression and hostility, and legitimise hate and scapegoating as if that is analysis.”

Critics of the critics, for their part, are determined to defend free speech, “Because in order to think we have to be free to speak. Freedom of thought and freedom of speech is a dialectical process in which we express and explore ideas, and as a society how we reach solutions for complex issues. Having to tolerate ideas that you do not agree with is the cost of freedom of speech.”

A dialectical process is one in which both sides cross boundaries, and a third term emerges which goes beyond them, into new territory. It's certainly what is needed. But how exactly can this take place? With polling indicating a widening gulf between Remain voters determined to ‘stop Brexit’ and Leave voters reconciling themselves to crashing out, what can stop this runaway process of polarisation?

Some of us have been asking this for some time.

On openDemocracy the indefatigable journalists, Adam Ramsay, Peter Geoghegan and others, who have for many months been investigating questions about the funding and the political influences behind the Leave campaigns, have recently secured the grim satisfaction of the Electoral Commission belatedly referring Aaron Banks to the National Crime Agency for investigation. Whatever the outcome – and Laura Kuenssberg told us on the same day that this was “unlikely to affect the Brexit process” – it is precisely at this point that we need to remind ourselves of the article Adam Ramsay wrote a year ago, to say, “Remainers: don’t use our investigations as an excuse”– an excuse, that is, not to ask much deeper questions about why they lost the EU referendum to 17 million voters in the first place.

One of the speakers participating in the Academy of Ideas/UnHerd debate, Matthew Goodwin, has been making exactly the same important point. Goodwin complained this August about “a clear and concerted attempt to try and delegitimize the result by implying that either voters were duped or that the Leave campaign was crooked; and absolutely no engagement whatsoever with the growing pile of evidence that we now have on why people actually voted for Brexit.” At the time he concluded, “To many on the liberal left – Brexit is to be opposed not understood.”

Goodwin is an expert in the deep roots of English euroscepticism, the rise of UKIP and the Brexit result. His disappointment that the referendum didn't pave the way for a long-overdue national debate focused on addressing the divides, inequalities and grievances that had led to this moment is palpable and surely justified. What better candidate might one seek for framing a Brexit People’s Debate, particularly as together with Roger Eatwell, Goodwin has just published a new book entitled National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, promoted  as a “compelling case for serious, respectful engagement with the supporters and ideas of national populism.”

The signs were promising. Here were authors willing to challenge the longue durée of  “the deep-rooted suspicion of the ‘masses’ which lies at the heart of liberal democracy”.  Here we have not only the expertise and the research base, but the manifest concern for the people they were studying and commitment to reversing their political disenfranchisement. Roger Eatwell’s The rising tide of national populism: we need to talk seriously about immigration, summarises the key democracy argument that runs through the book for openDemocracy, and urges a braver generation of politicians to embark on “serious talk about immigration”. Matthew Goodwin, publishing his overview on UnHerd on October 23, ends with a refreshing call for “more room for deliberation and input from across society through devolution, the roll-out of citizens initiatives or making greater use of referendums at the local level.”

On that same day, however, openDemocracy published the open letter citing Goodwin as one of the speakers and organisers of the debate planned for December 6 and originally billed, “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?” Could it really be that at this critical conjuncture, some of our best intellectuals, commentators and journalists, including those most alert to ‘national populist’ alienation, were seemingly absorbed in another round of “How can we play with xenophobia without being xenophobic ?”

Is an answer to be found in Goodwin and Eatwell’s accounts of National Populism. Or might they instead give us just what we need to frame our inclusive, national, People’s Debate on Brexit and migration?

‘National populism’ – what is going on?

James Meek  in the October 11 issue of the LRB had raised his own concerns over Goodwin’s framing of the Brexit debate. Pointing out that his reading of Brexit tended to oppose “ordinary Leave voters against an arrogant Remainer elite as if those were the two sides at issue”, Meek argued that in doing this, Goodwin not only overlooked, “ordinary Remain voters, many of whom, though typically younger and better educated, feel as powerless, angry and betrayed as their counterparts on the other side”, but also ignored “an arrogant Leave elite, the Brexiteers”.  Every day brings further revelations about their motivation, role and reach at work in British politics and its decision-making processes. Surely, for example, it is important for the British public, and not them alone, to be alert to the foreign and domestic backers of Tommy Robinson as well as to his plans?

But looking more closely at Goodwin’s argument in UnHerd, there is one additional strand in his framing of the Brexit debate here which sure enough leads him inexorably to “Diversity [as] a Threat”, despite the fact that as a filter, it can only be self-defeating with regard to the very “deliberation and input from across society” which Goodwin and Eatwell seek. It is an argument that by the same token plunges us back into the increasingly stark choice of our times between horizontal empowerment and the monocultural National Us with which my argument began.

The strand begins by narrowing in on a particular definition of the UK’s excluded and unrepresented:

“ you will see record numbers of women and ethnic minorities in the corridors of power. This should be applauded. But when it comes to others in society, who have also been the most likely to vote for national populists ­– the working-class and non-graduates – it is an entirely different story.”

These are the people that Trump, Farage, Salvini and Le Pen claim to speak for, and Goodwin says that they “have a point.” However it is a rather selective point, if we consider the strange Leaver coalition which actually spatched together genuine victims of austerity and internationalisation with much more affluent leavers in the southern counties nostalgic for a Greater Britain. This is then accompanied by an equally selective definition of the defining opposition:

“As those with advanced qualifications have acquired more representation and power, governments have over time become more empathetic toward their desires and shaped more around ‘cosmopolitan standards’.”

Soon we are presented with the European elites, including those in the UK, backing everyone but their own working class and non-graduates, due to their ‘cosmopolitan standards’. This makes a certain sense, given that:

“ while 57% of elites across Europe felt that immigration had been good for their respective country only 25% of voters felt the same way. Political, business and media elites were far more likely to feel they had benefited from being in the EU, to back further integration and support refugees and the role of Islam in Europe.”

Education plays a crucial role in this division. But the role that it plays has nothing to do with the way that a technocratic political class hand in hand with their media might manipulate the fears of the less educated to consolidate their power, leaving only the better educated relatively unscathed. Instead, Goodwin quotes Boven and Wille approvingly, whose study of ‘diploma democracy’ in the Netherlands (2011), was broadened to cover Europe in 2017. Their concern is that education is exclusionary at the level of political debate:

“In a diploma democracy the well-educated voice resonates much more strongly at the ballot box; in deliberative sessions and expert meetings; in parliaments and cabinets”.

and their conclusion that the educated can moreover, be narrowly self-interested:

“Yet whereas Plato’s idealised ruling class was an ascetic brotherhood working for the common good in small city states, today’s rulers are increasingly cosmopolitan, insular and at times self-serving.”

There are many reasons why political representation is in crisis today, and an inability to serve the common good must be a dominant factor. But can a cosmopolitan tendency really bear the explanatory weight that it is given here? It is a convenient descriptive, to be sure, since a sense of relative ease with ‘the other’ is perhaps the sole factor seeming to unite the advantage of EU membership with further European integration, welcoming refugees and being happy to live side by side with people of the Muslim faith. Moreover, in itself, the consequent willingness to accept change provides a ready if not obviously irresponsible point of contrast to the “socially conservative views” that Eatwell informs us are “common” among national populist supporters and “deeply held”.

However, for researchers so alert to homogenising biases and stereotypes, this choice of unifying trait seems hasty, if only and in particular because everything we might assume about the self-serving nature of political élites today suggests a marked inability to empathise with another ‘other’ – namely the very people whom Goodwin and Eatwell have committed themselves to understanding, caring about and empowering. Why draw the ‘cosmopolitan’ line at them?

Yet this is where Goodwin’s argument ends, in a quotation carefully chosen to urge an opponent that by now is a curious amalgam of European élites and ‘the liberal left’, to “reflect on” the “pluralist heaven” of the former and their distance from the real people:

“The academic E.E. Schattschneider once observed that a key risk that faces democracies is that they become dominated by the privileged and ignore the less well off. “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent”, he wrote. Today, the heavenly chorus might sing with a middle-class accent, but its members are now holding degree certificates.”

Goodwin’s preoccupation with education and representation gives this choice of antagonists a particular twist, but the framing underlying this strand of argument is familiar enough. It is the opposition between rooted Somewhere people and rootless Anywhere people packaged by David Goodhart, and chosen as Book of the Year for 2017 by The Guardian and the Economist, just in time to be coopted into Theresa May’s campaign to become prime minister as her own personal brand of patriotism: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

The Road to Somewhere, as Jon Bloomfield points out in his highly critical openDemocracy review, relies on a similar “mixture of selective facts and figures” to construct Goodhart’s particular version of a divided society, in which the working class is pitted against an “Anywheres” category that lumps together “everyone from those who go on to do low grade office and administrative work through to hedge fund managers and senior executives” via three years at university which are “apparently sufficiently formative to mould all these diverse people into one homogenous bloc”.

Here too, an “unbridgeable gulf between the working and professional classes” takes centre stage, moving neoliberal globalisation, financial crisis, the concerted austerity drive and forty years of changing attitudes conveniently to one side, while it invokes a timeless “bedrock” and yes, the unitary National Us.

Here too Jon Bloomfield finds the far right being treated with “kid gloves” in the process. Goodwin and Eatwell are eager to abjure words such as ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ to describe UKIP members, the far right and populism in general, though they may not have anticipated UKIP’s most recent ‘metamorphosis into an outright, unapologetic far-right party’ at the advice of the Bannonite ‘Tommy Robinson’, now explicitly aiming to head up an aggrieved majoritarian movement in response to what he calls the ‘Great Brexit Betrayal’. Goodhart, before them, had designated UKIP, Trump and Le Pen alike “decent populists”, arguing that “UKIP and the Front National have been dragged sharply to the left in recent years” and that Trump is no “white supremacist”.

But the selective concern with some dangers and not with others is not the only problem with this approach. When it comes to democratic debate, foregrounding “pluralist heaven” as a no-go-area can only lead to a series of missed opportunities.

The immigration debate

Take Roger Eatwell’s call for a “bottom-up” conversation “about immigration and how best to live together.”

In his attempt to persuade us that “the vast majority of British people are ‘balancers’ who recognise the rights of genuine asylum seekers and need for migration”, Eatwell is surely right to ask his readers not to assume that racism is at play among the “many voters” for whom immigration is indeed “a major concern” and to seek to understand what is. One example we are asked to give a sympathetic hearing to is that national populist supporters think immigrants “should be expected to assimilate into the dominant culture, which many people still strongly identify with (though their conceptions of Britishness often differ).” The closing qualification here is a mere aside, the postscript of a scrupulous researcher. But isn’t Eatwell neglecting a more interesting line of inquiry? Looked at another way, conceptions of Britishness in the plural pose challenging questions about how coherent the ‘dominant culture’ is in our ‘hyper-diverse’ modern societies; questions about who is to decide which Britishness should dominate; and about who decides, if at all, who should assimilate to what?

Furthermore, if we admit that the plurality here is a reality and not a cosmopolitan indulgence, couldn’t this recognition precisely take us in the direction of a mutually vulnerable, inclusive debate, open to ‘the other’ – in which even migrants or Europeans might have something to contribute to our changing perceptions of who British people are?

Eatwell, in fact, agrees. His article concludes with an “urgent” call for a serious “bottom-up” conversation about “a new and more inclusive conception of national identity” that can “combine old aspects of British identity with the new realities of migration and multicultural communities”. But much more effort goes into urging educated readers to understand assumptions about assimilation, than goes into exploring what it would take in a democracy to have such a serious conversation that could change people’s minds. Which brings us back to the whole question of  ‘contact’.

This missed opportunity occurs when Eatwell is mapping concerns over immigration. He explains that “Concerns are often greatest in areas where people have recently arrived, or where there are fears about such an influx”, or where, as in a South Wales former mining village, “The only foreigners were inside the Daily Mail”.  He moves on to the apparent anomaly that “the Brexit vote was often lowest in parts of Britain, like London which have relatively large ethnic minorities”, and provides one possible explanation, nodding to “social-psychological ‘contact theory” which “holds that over time people from different ethnic groups accommodate to each other through direct interaction.”

But again, wouldn’t we do well to linger? Isn’t the contrast at work here the same one that underpins the choice between two ways of building community with which I began my argument: on the one hand the horizontal empowerment of direct citizen involvement as a contact sport, working across borders and boundaries over time; and on the other, the rapid balloonings of the imagined monocultural National Us, under sudden threat from some imagined but never quite encountered enemy? If it is true that ‘contact’ makes such a difference, and bearing in mind for example, how every partial and selective version of the Brexit debate proliferates its own lethal enemy images, then mustn’t this be one priority for the proactively implemented “suite of packages” that Goodwin calls for, adding to his emphasis on what the populists get right, an accompanying emphasis on the need to be “exposed to different perspectives” that is pretty well indistinguishable from “cosmopolitan standards.”

Goodwin and Eatwell are always worth reading, because their work contains so many of the relevant facts. Take for example, Goodwin’s scrupulous qualification to his proposal for “making greater use of local referendums”, that “Such initiatives would not necessarily halt populism, as countries like Switzerland with its long tradition of direct democracy show.” So what advance on local referenda is conducive to the “meaningful discussion among citizens about political reform” that Goodwin seeks, that might respond to the “lack of voice” and sense of “distant elites that united many Leave voters”?

Turn your back on pluralist encounter, or fail to question “assimilation” and are you really helping anybody? Isn’t it at least worth wondering what would happen if we dropped the Somewhere: Anywhere binary, and thought instead about a deeply polarised but hugely diverse society, divided between people like the leavers and remainers brought together in the Citizens Assembly on Brexit in Manchester last September, who were relieved to hear each other out, able to change their minds, and honoured to have the opportunity to think about the interests of the country as a whole; and those who are determined neither to persuade or to be persuaded, for whom reliance on force of number, a strong man, crashing out of the EU, or failing these, the lurking possibility of violence, seem the only hope?

If that is truer to the reality in which we live, as I believe, then a framing of debate that pits those who are privileged by dint of their sheer capacity for debate against those who are not, perversely leaves national populist supporters with little to fall back on but stubborn silence and a gathering sense of betrayal. Eatwell asks us not to “ignore the views of national populist voters who have relatively low levels of education, and are not greatly interested in politics” – fair enough as far as it goes. But in this reductive straitjacket of a stand-off, don’t we begin to ask ourselves what is cause and what is effect? Framing the immigration debate in a way that assumes assimilation is the name of the game can only exacerbate the unpreparedness and fears of people panicking at the prospect of further, disempowering change. “Brexit means Brexit” is such a counterproductive dictum of majority reassurance precisely because it promises that you won’t have to change your mind. “Stopping Brexit”, reversing it or getting it over and done with plays exactly to the same humiliations and sense of powerlessness. So why should people be interested in politics, or democracy, when it only offers further loss of control over their lives?

Cas Mudde writes this week on this platform that, “Today, the far right has established itself at the center of European politics, while scholarship is predominantly “neutral”, although most scholars remain hostile to the far right itself (but increasingly sympathetic to its voters).” Unfortunately, it seems true that these scholars also prefer to dwell on our need to understand the “strong identification” of such voters with a non-existent or imaginary monocultural National Us, at a time when Tommy Robinson is busy inflating that balloon, by claiming that his far right will lead “the 52% who opted for leave in the referendum”.

Aren’t we doing Robinson’s work for him, when we encourage people to ignore the diversity in their own ranks; when we reassure people that they don’t have to change their minds or take minority viewpoints into account; and when we create an enemy image out of the ‘other’? 


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