Far away view of Brexit

“To go to a referendum was curious… the UK has a regime of representative government that works to ensure that popular concerns have only limited impact on the conduct of government.”

Barry Hindess
26 July 2016

Terrain map of Europe cropped from CIA's Physical Map of the World, 2008. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.I have never been a fan of the European Union or its institutional predecessors and I am unimpressed by the EU's efforts to appropriate for itself, as the USA has done, the name of the continent on which it squats (an ambition that would seem absurd had Greenland not opted out of the EU some years ago). Consequently, I have no reason to be appalled when parts of the EU fall away.

Yet, a referendum on the UK's membership was not a good idea, if only because a Brexit vote would leave Tory extremists in power (Theresa May is no moderate) and few could seriously expect the EU to negotiate a generous divorce settlement. Overall, the decision to leave the EU looks like a slow motion disaster, damaging the economy and undermining London's role as an international financial centre (perhaps not such a bad thing). Cameron and the Tory Brexiters appear to have assumed that the people could be trusted to do what each expected of them… and then, grateful for the opportunity to speak, crawl back into their hole.

Moreover, it seems odd for such an important decision to be placed in the hands of the people. Referenda have no legal or constitutional force in the UK, although the constitution is clearly open to interpretation. On most understandings, parliament – or rather, the Queen in parliament – is sovereign. This means that, while it may be politically difficult for parliament to overturn the referendum result, the decision to leave has not been made unless parliament makes it. 

Yet the British decision to go to a referendum was also curious in another way. Like most contemporary 'democracies', the UK has a regime of representative government that works to ensure that popular concerns have only limited impact on the conduct of government. In case this last point seems unduly cynical, a few comments on contemporary understandings of democracy may be in order. The etymology of the term – from the Greek demos (the people) and krátos (power or rule) – suggests that democracy should mean popular rule. Yet, in the history of western political thought, democracy has only recently come to be well-regarded. The people and popular rule have usually been regarded with some suspicion, not least because the former were for the most part both poor and poorly educated and, whatever their individual qualities, likely to be easily led and collectively irrational – a theme that resurfaced in commentary on the Brexit vote.

The American authors of the Federalist Papers (the winning side in early debates around the US constitution) rejected the idea of rule by the people 'in their collective form' in favour of government by representatives. Even the eighteenth-century English radical Tom Paine, an ardent supporter of independence for Britain's American colonies, preferred 'representation ingrafted upon democracy' to pure democracy. Representative government, like democracy, allowed the people their say but, unlike democracy, kept them out of the way while persons of a superior kind, elected by the people, got on with the serious work of government. Given this continuing distrust of the people it was surprising to see a remarkably complacent British Government letting the people in on such an important policy issue. Cameron and the Tory Brexiters appear to have assumed that the people could be trusted to do what each expected of them, albeit with radically different expectations, and then, grateful for the opportunity to speak, crawl back into their hole.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, representative government gradually came to be labelled 'democracy' and this usage has come to dominate discussion of democracy in western states, the World Bank, UNDP and other international agencies. The earlier meaning of democracy as popular rule has survived, providing a democratic foundation both for left-wing and populist critiques of western states and for governmental attempts to bring the people on-side through consultation and public 'participation'.

This sketch of representative government is perhaps a little too simple. Rather than being governed directly by the people in any straightforward sense or by elected representatives, contemporary 'democracies' are governed by untidy networks of elected representatives, unelected officials and institutions. In each case, much of the governing network has continued from earlier, considerably less 'democratic' governmental regimes. British 'democratic' arrangements sit awkwardly alongside an hereditary monarchy, substantial private landholdings, currently subsidized by the EU's CAP, a collection of elite private schools, oddly labelled 'public' – when I first visited Australia, I was astonished to find, in many small regional communities, dilapidated buildings identifying themselves as 'public' schools –  elite universities and a major financial centre, all with significant links to the higher echelons of state apparatuses, a market economy and a semi-independent judiciary.

The EU has an elected parliament, a higher chamber – the European Commission – with representatives drawn from all member states and a variety of other  'European' institutions. The people elect members of the parliament but are trusted with no further role in EU government. The EU is therefore no less democratic, in the conventional sense, than any of its member states although it carries the separation of the people from the work of government to an extreme that none of these states has been able to match. We should not be surprised if the institutional distrust of the people that is an important part of the EU's design has been reciprocated throughout Europe.

Now, while I was surprised, and should not have been, by the Brexit vote, I was not appalled. But I have been appalled by much of the subsequent commentary. (I should add that I have not lived in Britain for almost 30 years and experienced the campaigns from a comfortable distance.) Perhaps 'appalled' is too strong a term. It is hard to be impressed by complaints about the size of the winning margin (few recent US Presidents have done better), anecdote dressed up as analysis, tales of popular rejection of elites (as if there were not elites on both sides), the worldwide growth of populism (meaning little more than that, in many states, established parties are now in trouble), the difference between winners and losers from globalisation and, not quite the same, the internet connected and the rest.

Still, one important issue stands out from the commentary. There are credible reports pointing to an increase in racist attacks in the period immediately following the referendum, linking this to the LEAVE campaign's focus on border-control. The suggestion, as I understand it, is, first, that controlling  borders functions in Britain, as it does in Australia, as proxy for racist policies designed to deter unwanted immigrants and penalise  those who have already arrived and, second, that racist aspects of the LEAVE campaign legitimised the racist sentiments of its supporters leading directly to attacks on migrants from both the Eastern parts of the EU and the Commonwealth.

Australia has demonstrated how easy it is for western powers to get away with ignoring their obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, especially the provision, repeated in subsequent Conventions and Protocols dealing with refugees, that refugees have the 'right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State'.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the 1951 Refugee Convention was one of those “ Never Again” gestures, like the European Coal and Steel Community, precursor to the EEC and later EU, designed, in this case, to ensure that if Nazis were again to take over much of continental Europe, the resulting refugees would be treated better than those who fled in the '30s and '40s. If the UK wished to emulate Australia's shameful example in using 'generosity' to balance penalising refugees, it would have to lift its intake of 'genuine' refugees considerably.

Unfortunately, the Convention's definition of a refugee – as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” – has since been established as a checklist enabling states to distinguish genuine or legitimate refugees from the rest, thereby promoting a suspicion of all undocumented refugees and empowering politicians and immigration officials to discriminate between those who are deserving of assistance and those who are not.

Obviously, this is an issue that deserves further discussion. My aim here, however, is simply to note Australia's strategy for getting round inconvenient provisions of the Refugee Convention. On the one hand, Australia resettles more refugees relative to its population than other western states except Canada, all certified legitimate according to the UN Convention's definition. In fact, Australia's refugee intake, like that of other western states, is small beer compared with many African or Middle Eastern states. Even so, Australian officials and politicians describe its refugee intake as 'generous'. On the other hand, Australia treats undocumented migrants atrociously, suspecting them of not being genuine refugees and incarcerating them away from public view in offshore detention centres on small islands, in spite of its obligation under the Refugee and other Conventions not to penalise illegal migrants seeking asylum – as if Australia's refusal of its obligation to not penalise asylum seekers were outweighed by its 'generous' treatment of  'genuine' refugees.

If the UK wished to emulate Australia's shameful example in using 'generosity' to balance penalising refugees, it would have to lift its intake of 'genuine' refugees considerably. While I would not wish the UK, or any other state, to follow Australia's lead, it was hard not to notice references to the Australian example during the referendum campaign.  Unfortunately, while she is reported to have supported REMAIN, the new PM's record on the treatment of refugees does not bode well. There is also an unpleasant odour of superiority emanating from the other side.

Yet, it would be wrong to finish on this note. There were two sides to the referendum. While it would be a mistake to read every LEAVE vote as supporting the racist views of some of the campaign leaders, racist elements of this campaign have been widely noted. Yet there is also an unpleasant odour of superiority emanating from the other side. Let me approach this issue by disposing of the absurd claim that Brexit means Britain turning its back on Europe and even on the world. Prominent figures in the LEAVE campaign suggested that, after leaving, Britain would be able to maintain its trade and other relations with the people of the EU, while retaining control of its own borders, and there were indications in July that the EU might be prepared to allow Britain something like this for a limited period.

At least in the LEAVE campaigns public statements, there was no suggestion that Brexit meant Britain turning its back on Europe. Nor is it obvious that Britain's departure from the EU would amount to cutting itself off from the world. Once Britain departed, it would be free to negotiate its membership of WTO and its own trade deals with other countries although these would take some time to eventuate. 

If there is no straightforward sense in which Brexit means Britain turning its back on Europe, or even on the world, how could anyone have advanced this claim, and what point were they making? Brexit was sometimes represented as rejecting the cosmopolitan outlook that was said to be embodied in the EU. We can get a grip on what is going on here by returning to the cosmopolitanism of Enlightenment Europe. This was largely a matter of cultivating indifference  towards national attachment while also promoting a vision of Europe as an harmonious system of balancing states. Many of these cosmopolitans took the superiority of European society and culture for granted. While some promoted a cosmopolitan vision that embraced all humanity, Enlightenment cosmopolitanism was usually little more than Eurocentric anti-nationalism.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData