openDemocracyUK

Politics against democracy: tracing the roots of Brexit.

Brexit cannot simply be attributed to contemporary alienation. We must examine the referendum result in the context of a long history of anti-democratic trends in UK governance.

Trevor Smith
18 July 2016
 / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All Rights Res

Economist Milton Friedman leaves a meeting at Downing Street, 1980. Photo: / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All Rights Reserved

After the EU Referendum vote for Brexit, change in UK politics is moving so fast that daily newspapers are out of date before they are published while the weekly magazines are just recording recent history. Hourly radio news bulletins and social media are the only channels that can cope with the new frenetic situation that “an hour in politics is a long time.”

It would be a foolhardy enterprise, therefore, to write an essay on this fast-evolving scene on the implications of the Brexit result. A few rather anodyne scenarios may be sketched out, but all they would do is add to the extensive jumble of journalistic speculations on offer. These speculations invariably identify the main influences behind Brexit as growing inequality, regional differences, educational disparity, inter-generational division as well as ethnic factors and alarm at the prospect of mass immigration. They are identified as principle reasons for the increasing public disaffection with politics, seen to be mostly composed of an aloof elite preoccupied with themselves rather than the needs felt by the electorate. Hence, the ‘protest vote’ triumphed in the referendum.      

The problem is that almost all of these commentaries suffer from analysing only the very recent political past of developments in the UK. Though almost all take a glance at how Harold Wilson orchestrated the referendum to join the EEC in 1975, their diagnoses of this disaffection tend to go no further back than looking at the legacy bequeathed by the Thatcher and Major years at best. The fact, however, is that the seeds of the present state lie much further back in historythe seeds of the present state lie much further back in history. 

Advancing alienation, and the political volatility it incites, has its roots in the suspension of party politics during Churchill’s wartime Coalition. This was a necessary move, given the overwhelming need to concentrate our efforts on defeating the Nazi war machine. But with the coming of peace, the effects of this political settlement lingered on to the detriment of parliamentary democracy and its essential correlate – authentic political discourse.

The Attlee government’s policy programme consisted largely of consolidating the Welfare State, prefigured by the Beveridge Report in later stages of the Churchill Coalition. The advent of the Cold War necessitated the maintenance of the North Atlantic military alliance. The nationalisation of basic industries, though disputed by the Tories at the time, was maintained by them when they were returned to office in 1951. This resulted in the development of the Keynesian-type consensus termed ‘Butskellism’ that endured for more than a decade. This in turn was succeeded by the new economic planning consensus that was adopted and sustained by the two Harolds – Macmillan and Wilson – and Edward Heath, despite his ‘Selsdon Man’ momentary wobble that was swiftly jettisoned by him when he became prime minister.

The accession to power of Margaret Thatcher is often regarded as an historic break with the successive consensuses of the post-war era, with her wholesale privatisation of state industries. She insisted on TINA – ‘There is No Alternative’ which, in its way, had the similar but greater anti-democratic effects as had ‘consensus’ – namely the suppression of much of political argument and debate. The Friedmanite neo-liberalism that underscored her policies, including privatisation, brooked no argument. Thatcherism was continued by both the Major and Blair administrations. However, privatisation did not usher in a regime of free market competition, as Friedrich Hayek would have advocated. Rather, the policy entrenched a system of ‘monopoly capitalism’the policy entrenched a system of ‘monopoly capitalism’ of the kind that Karl Marx had predicted.

The cartels, thus created, would be largely immune to the discipline of market forces. But they could not be allowed to run entirely free as the fancy took them. In the event, a new, vast industry of regulatory agencies was created, ostensibly to monitor and occasionally discipline these new corporate monoliths. These added greatly to the quangos and other non-governmental bodies that had mushroomed in the second half of the twentieth century and which, despite successive governments’ promises to cull their numbers, continue to grow apace.

Their origins go back a long way, to the creation of the ‘Brethren of Trinity House’: an organisation founded to supervise the maintenance of lighthouses dotted around the coast.  The intention of such organisations is to remove from government ministers the responsibility for surpervising the provision of necessary services. This responsibility is tasked instead to ‘independent’ boards, policy tsars, task forces and other such bodies, reporting either to ministers or in some cases to parliament. Ministers were thus distanced from such supervision, and could not be questioned on the day-to-day workings of these authorities – which earlier had included the public corporations created by Attlee to oversee the nationalised industries. This further curtailed open political discourse, as politicians divested themselves from oversight of and responsibility for the public sector.

The UK polity that emerged over the post-war years was the result of two confluent forces: ‘tentacular government’ (as described by Preston King) and ‘anti-politics’. Tentacular Government sees the growth of regulatory agencies and privatisation schemes, spawned to essentially “outsource” what hitherto were government activities. The nineteenth century advocates of the ‘night watchman state’ always insisted that the defence of the realm, foreign affairs, and the broad principles defining the economy should be the monopolistic preserve of national government. That dictum has been long since cast aside. Westminster and Whitehall have ceded vast areas of security to private contractors as can be seen in the running of prisons at home and the provision of security guards in war zones abroad. Similarly multi-national corporations have usurped the economic public agenda. In his presidential valedictory address to the American people, General Dwight D Eisenhower presciently warned of the rise of “the military-industrial complex” that would endanger the democratic process of policy-making. As events have proved, he underestimated the situation. Undue corporate influence now affects most areas of activity; the problem is not confined to defence. The tentacular state is essentially extra-constitutionalThe tentacular state is essentially extra-constitutional, being largely beyond the purview of parliamentary, and therefore public, scrutiny.

The associated forces of anti-politics work in the same direction. One aspect of this is to be seen in the hollowing-out of the senior civil service, transferring much of its work to out-sourced management consultants. A major result of this was the destruction of departmental ‘memories’ and skills that had traditionally proved an important resource for policy-making. This is now highlighted by the acknowledgement that too few Whitehall staff have the requisite skills and experience to handle the forthcoming Brexit negotiations with Brussels. Transient technocrats, contracted on short-term bases, are poor substitutes for so formidable an operation. The relentless promotion of private business methods and values was a very strong element of Thatcherism, but it was enthusiastically embraced, more fully articulated and promoted by both Blair and Cameron. The operational precept was adopted that politics should be conducted along the lines of business. A striking example of this was to be seen in the appointment of outside non-executive directors to all Whitehall departments. Public administration and civic values were discounted in favour of the pursuit of private sector ideas and practices to which David Marquand has constantly drawn attention. It is taken as axiomatic that “private” is equated with good and “pubic” with bad – and this, quite amazingly, at a time when corporate greed and corruption was endemic in the business world. Thus, rampant managerialism has become the operational principle for much of Whitehall that, in turn, spawned a technocratic caste of mind that is inimical to parliamentary representative democracy. Technocracy, by its very nature, starts by seeking to impose a pre-conceived and contrived consensus in the determination of policy outcomes. As such, it is the antithesis of democracy which seeks to achieve policy consensus as the end result of open and transparent debate.

The combined forces of tentacular government and anti-politics ...nourished a simmering discontent.The combined forces of tentacular government and anti-politics seriously discouraged, constrained and at times even suppressed the exercise of public debate which is the hallmark of parliamentary democracy. It nourished a simmering discontent, and it was this as much as anything else that led to the populist eruption that culminated in the explosive decision to opt for Brexit. Most unfortunately, the referendum seemed to be treated by the electorate more as a by-election, which could be a vehicle for a large protest vote against the government without risking toppling it. But it wasn’t confined to a backwater constituency; it had massive repercussions. Although catalytic in its effect, it was a symptom – albeit a major one – of an anti-political tendency that had been brewing for a long time.

It was a consequence of the inability of Westminster to tackle some vital questions that contributed to increasing widespread public disaffection. Demands for greater devolution, including complete independence – for Scotland from the rest of the UK, and the UK from the rest of the EU – were advanced. A paralysed and sclerotic Westminster opted to refer these issues to the citizenry to resolve by means of referenda. Scotland declined the offer – at least for the time being – but the UK accepted secession from the EU.   

After the referendum, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte succinctly summed up the resulting condition of the UK as being economically, politically and constitutionally broken. It is a crisis enormous proportions. Indeed, our situation is not dissimilar to that which prevailed in the inter-war German Weimer Republic – and we know where that led.

At least three responses have been advanced to remedy the situation. First, there is a general feeling that the right kind of political leadership can return the UK back to a well-ordered civil society and prosperous economy. Secondly, that this should be accompanied by some realignment of the political parties together with a more proportional voting system. And thirdly, that there should be a greater devolution of powers to local bodies.

Commendable though these developments would be, very much more is needed by way of policy innovation. Stable democracy will not be maintained without throwing off many of the old paradigms that have led to the present crisis. Not just in Britain, but in western democracies more generally, new approaches must be devised if viable stable democratic government is to survive. To be sure, determined and intelligent leadership is necessary. But by no stretch of the imagination can it be deemed a sufficient condition to ensure a restoration of democratic governance. This will require a good deal of original and lateral thinking to break out from the silo outlooks and related practices that have contributed to the chaotic upheaval we are currently experiencing. To deny this is to guarantee the perpetuation of continuing mayhem.

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