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Brexit: the British élitist revolution

Nick Clegg speaking at 'Brexit and the Political Crash', The Convention in London: “It is a curiously British élitist revolution and we need to understand what it is.” Keynote speech.

lead Screenshot. Nick Clegg at The Convention, May 13, 2017.It’s a delight to be here on a Saturday morning in the middle of possibly one of the most listless, soulless and dreary general election campaigns I can ever remember (applause). The title of your session, ‘What do we do about our democracy?” is very timely and in the short time available to me I shall try to explain to you the three principal crises in our democratic system as I see them, and then three possible suggestions about how we can remedy those problems.

So first and foremost I think it is important to be very unblinking and very candid about quite how stuck and paralysed British democracy has now become. Let me put it this way. Any democratic system relies above and beyond everything else on those in power constantly looking over their shoulder, worried that someone else is going to take power away from them. Without competition, democracy is nothing. Without the pendulum swing of electoral contests in which one lot win one election and another lot win the next, democracy is not worthy of the name. And that is what has happened in our country. Without competition, democracy is nothing.

It is very important to understand that there is no single party now in British politics, not a single party in British politics, who now on their own can wrest power away from the Conservative Party. It is not a conspiracy. It is a set perhaps of accidents: the dominance in Scottish politics by the Scottish Nationalist Party that has knee-capped the Labour party; the electoral system flatters the Conservatives – they have got this cabal in the rightwing press who clear their way for them  – whatever the reasons, the outcome is remorselessly the same. The pendulum has now got stuck. No one, no single party, can now compete for power with the present incumbents in Number Ten.  So that is the first crisis… that the ebb and flow of democratic life in this politics has been arrested. And I sometimes think that it is important to be more candid and blunt in spelling that out.

Secondly, and partly related to that we have a system that has become very vulnerable to the influence of vested interests, moneyed élites and unaccountable individuals and organisations who are able to use the peculiarities of our democratic system, the absence of formal checks and balances which generally prevent vested interests and moneyed élites from hollowing out politics in other systems.

We don’t have a written constitution. We don’t have meaningful checks and balances in parliament. We have an electoral system which gives extraordinary centralised power on a minority of the popular vote. The outgoing Government, Theresa May’s Government got, what was it, barely 24% of the eligible vote at the last general election. A new Brexit élite are operating almost like the new puppet masters of British politics: much of it is invisible.

And so for all those reasons, we are now in my view seeing an encroachment, by way of a proxy and unaccountable influence, of a new Brexit élite who are operating almost like the new puppet masters of British politics and who are doing so in a way which is entirely unaccountable – much of it is invisible – and almost all of it is entirely unknown to the British public.

So if you look at the financing of the Brexit campaign, it is very very striking that some of the richest individuals in this country – I was going to say to a man or a woman, but it is curiously mostly men with some exceptions – that almost all of them are men who are working in one shape or form in finance, in one sector of the British economy. Folk like Peter Hargreaves, Jeremy Hosking, Michael Hintze, Stuart Wheeler, Paul Marshall etc. …  All of them may individually be decent individuals, but they have acted knowingly or otherwise in an unusually coordinated fashion, to mobilise very significant amounts of money, derived from one particular sector, in pursuit of one particular ideological objective, which is not only to remove the United Kingdom from the European Union, but crucially, if you read the musings and outpourings of these individuals, they are all united if from somewhat different directions by a hard line, libertarian, small state view of the world – that we need to move as a country in order to regain our economic virility, that we need to pursue a small state, offshore, so-called Singapore-style low regulation economy.

You see it in the media: the folk who used to act as competitors in the media, some of the principal newspaper owners in this country, the Barclay Brothers, Rupert Murdoch – he’s not an owner but he is clearly a power in his own right; the somewhat curdled and zany prejudices of Paul Dacre in the Daily Mail – again they are all men, all older men – these men used to be competitors. But Brexit has curiously acted as a sort of glue to turn them from competitors into a cabal and this ‘praetorian guard’ around the Brexit cause and around Theresa May, who in a sense is their perfect prime minister – they have her exactly where they want her. She will do exactly as they instruct. And they have transformed themselves from vigorous competitors into a cabal that knee-caps any opposition to Brexit and discredits and delegitimises them – whether it is the Governor of the Bank of England, the judges, whether it’s me, whether it’s you, the young, or pro-European businesses. Anyone who now speaks against the trajectory that they want, is treated in a coordinated fashion – this is the difference from previous years – to an industrial-scale coordinated attack.

And then, as you will have read in certain newspapers, increasing evidence that some of the campaigning organisations – particularly those that mobilised a lot of the data that was used in the referendum last year – were funded and organised by Trump supporters from the other side of the Atlantic. Robert Mercer, in particular, one of the founders of Breitbart, seems to have played an important role.

My point is this, that we have a democratic culture and a system which is not only  stuck, it doesn’t work any more, it is not moving, but that it is very susceptible and  vulnerable to takeover by unaccountable élites. And I think this is one of the curious things about the Brexit revolution. If you look at the eruptions of populism in other countries – if you look at the support for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen in France – they were whether we like it or not in many ways a groundswell of grassroots opinion and dissatisfaction, entirely understandable dissatisfaction, with the status quo. What is curious in the United Kingdom is that we have seen the victory of one part of our commercial and media élite getting one over on another part of the élite – it is a curiously British élitist revolution and we need to understand what it is. An opposition-less democracy is rotten.

And the third and final thing – I read in the newspapers yesterday that Ian McEwan, as he would, spoke beautifully yesterday at The Convention on this very subject. We have a political system which is almost designed to ignore and overlook the aspirations and the needs and the dreams of the very young. So we have a democracy which is no longer a democracy in a functioning sense of the word, one which is very susceptible to élite takeover, one which is wilfully making very big and radical decisions about the future, whilst if not deliberately then systematically ignoring the wishes of the very people who actually inhabit that future – namely the young.

So, what in a minute and a half do we do about that? The first thing is this. You cannot restore the genius, the elixir, the necessity of competition to the British democratic system without non-Conservative and anti-Brexit forces working more effectively together. I am not by the way, before some mole from Conservative central office leaps up to say “Ah! The Coalition of Chaos!” – I am not talking about any party propping up Theresa May in Number Ten or propping up Jeremy Corbyn. I am talking about after the general election – and by the way I hope this would weigh on the minds not just of remain voters, not just of progressive voters, but of all voters who care about the quality of British democracy, because an opposition-less democracy is rotten. We have now the very real prospect of a one-party state in Scotland north of the border, a one-party state in England, in Westminster – and of course the SNP and the Conservative are ideal foils for each other. The SNP can blame everything on those dastardly Conservatives in Westminster and Conservative can blame everything on those terrifying SNP hordes about to flow over Hadrian’s Wall, and they did that, by the way, to devastating effect at the last election two years ago… 

For any of us who don’t feel that either of those options are the future that we want – of Scottish nationalism on the one hand and an increasingly angry UKIP-lite English nationalism in the hands of the Conservative Party on the other – it is not a choice. We are duty bound to work together, and it has to, for those of you are in the Labour Party – it has to start in the Labour Party. I say this as someone who you might expect is entitled to a little schadenfreude about the travails and ills of the Labour Party, having been traduced and betrayed by them quite so vigorously over half a decade – but that’s not how I feel. I’m really, really sad that a once great party of social progress, of internationalism and government has now become in my view such a spectacularly introverted and self-indulgent political movement. The Labour party or people within it can help renew the progressive cause, but only if they understand what I think many of them get in their heads but don’t yet feel in their hearts, that they are not capable of going it alone. It is impossible under our electoral system, it is impossible against the vested interests that I talked about, it is impossible because of the turn in Scottish politics, for Labour to win again. So Labour must learn pluralism. If it does that there is hope: if it doesn’t, there is no hope. (prolonged applause) Labour must learn pluralism. If it does that there is hope: if it doesn’t, there is no hope.

Secondly, as part of that reinvention of pluralist, progressive politics, we must must must put the inevitably often rather arcane issues surrounding electoral reform, political reform, House of Lords reform, party funding reform on the agenda – of course I totally understand this may bore the vast majority of the British people even if it fascinates some of us here – but we must put that centre ground. Because unless you clean up and make more transparent the ways in which parties are funded; unless you ensure that people can’t simply march into Downing Street with barely a quarter of the eligible vote; unless you open up this increasingly sour and curdled unhealthy relationship between the media and political élites in this country – we will continue to make the same mistakes that we have made over and over again that we have made in recent years. So political reform as well as the reorganisation and realignment of the non-Conservative part of the spectrum – of the centre ground and progressive ground in British politics – is the second vital ingredient for the rebirth for our somewhat tarnished, jaundiced and jaded political system.

Third and finally, and I won’t say very much on this, not least because I am not perhaps the best witness to the needs of young voters, having somewhat blotted my copybook with them in the last parliament – but as Ian McEwen and others have quite rightly said. There is something very, very, very wrong when a mature democracy makes a decision which represents such a radical and abrupt, and in my view, damaging and self-harming departure from our entire post-war past and does it against the explicit, explicit stated wishes in the ballot box of those who have to inhabit that future and who have to pay the consequences. That in my book is simply in the long run unsustainable. So the youth must, must mobilise and make their voice heard and say that what is happening to our country now is not happening in their name! (prolonged applause) The youth must mobilise, make their voice heard and say that what is happening to our country now is not happening in their name!

So I will end with one gloomy message, which is that I think our democratic system is now in greater peril and in greater crisis certainly than in any time in my adult political lifetime and, I believe, if you read the history books, in a greater state of disrepair and malfunction than at any time in the post-war period.

But it doesn’t mean that it is going to carry on like this. For every action in politics just as in life there is always a reaction. And the thing we must fear more than anything else is passivity, cynicism, hopelessness, a sense of complete disempowerment. It is genuinely in our hands.

About the author

Nick Clegg served as Deputy Prime Minister in Britain’s first postwar Coalition government from 2010 to 2015 and as Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2007 to 2015. He is MP for Sheffield Hallam, and was previously a Member of the European Parliament. He is currently the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade.

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