Brexit Britain and the political economy of undemocracy: Part I – the right

10 August 2016

Craig Berry - Deputy Director at SPERI

The aftermath of economic crisis, followed by Brexit, has seen the dismantling of democratic norms in Britain. The right benefits, while the left stands by.

Another Conservative Prime Minister, another Downing Street speech drenched in one nation mythology.  Many will doubt Theresa May’s sincerity when she talks about equality and inclusion, but to conclude that she is being duplicitous would be to miss the point.  It is more a question of conceptual hierarchies: there will be plenty of time for progressive politics, but only once the economy has been ‘stabilised’.

The problem is that while politicians of the right borrow the language of the left, their real priorities go largely unsaid, or are at least obscured.  When May praises her predecessor’s commitment to ‘social justice’, we are attuned to focusing on the word ‘justice’, insofar as it conjures up egalitarian politics.  But her focus, like David Cameron’s, will probably be on the ‘social’ bit. Individuals must make themselves more morally worthy, if they wish to be rewarded by the inherently just market order.

Such wordplay is of course a normal, and usually unthinking, element of political discourse.  We can therefore both take May at her word, and with a pinch of salt.  My fear, however, is that this is becoming more normal, with contorted conceptualisations now deployed more consciously by politicians.  Colin Hay and I use the term ‘communicative dissonance’, to describe the way that the coalition government, especially George Osborne, talked about the economic recovery.

In the aftermath of Brexit, the willingness of competing elites to engage in post-truth politics, or what Ben Rosamond and Jonathan Hopkin call political ‘bullshitting’, is as alarming as it is fascinating to any student of politics or political economy.  It is an additional dimension of the post-crisis ‘unravelling’ of Western values identified by Andrew Gamble, made possible by an entire generation of elites’ indifference to the norms of representative democratic life.  Colin Crouch’s 2000 work on ‘post-democracy’ chronicles the emergence of this shift.

In this way, Theresa May takes forward Cameron and Osborne’s toxic legacy for Britain’s democratic culture.  She told us during her abbreviated leadership election campaign that ‘Brexit means Brexit’; this is only true because Brexit essentially means very little.  May claims that as Prime Minister she will be guided above all by respecting the people’s democratically expressed preference, but it is becoming increasingly clear that she has no intention of delivering Brexit in any straightforward sense.

I believe that the UK will ultimately agree to the closest possible relationship with the EU, short of full membership, including free movement of labour (FMOL).  The deal will probably see Britain included as a partner in both existing and future trade deals between the EU and the rest of the world.  This would be largely unprecedented for a non-member; it will presented as a way of delivering a new ‘global Britain’, but it will of course represent the opposite, that is, salvation for the pre-Brexit status quo.

To enable Britain to ‘save face’ in these circumstances, I would expect an EU/UK trade deal that allows Britain to sign supplementary bilateral deals on financial services with non-EU countries.  Such deals will in practice be quite rare, and insofar as they do materialise, the EU will probably welcome them, given the City’s Eurozone entrepôt function.

Caving in on FMOL might damage May, but no more so than she was hurt as Home Secretary by missing pre-Brexit immigration targets.  Crucially, opposition to FMOL will soon be dampened by a likely collapse in immigration as Britain’s stuttering post-Brexit economy offers a weaker ‘pull’ to migrants.  Migrants from outside the EU will also probably have fewer rights in Britain in the future; although May advocated remaining in the EU, she also argued in April that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Immigration will for the foreseeable future be even more concentrated in London, and so will be less visible to most pro-Brexit regions in England. I also expect a smaller but still significant immigration surge in Scotland:  the Sturgeon government will seek to use higher immigration in lieu of a fiscal stimulus as Scotland enters the next recession.  This will create a dilemma for the Scottish National Party if it precipitates an anti-immigration backlash among more disadvantaged groups – which the Conservatives, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, rather than Labour, are well-placed to benefit from politically.

All the while, the Bank of England has embarked on an enormous monetary stimulus that nobody voted for in an effort to again prevent recession turning into depression.  Its effects will be as regressive as they were after 2008. There are already emerging signs that the stimulus is failing. Expect the unexpected – just don’t expect it to be explained.

No matter how ‘Brexit Britain’ takes shape, the link to the exercise in mass democracy undertaken in June will seem increasingly tenuous over time.  The referendum result was of course a kick in the teeth to those elites who favoured remain, but clearly, and crucially, it was not a mechanism by which the established order was seriously endangered.

To clarify, I am not arguing that the new government should respect the Brexit vote – but nor am I arguing the opposite.  From the perspective of democracy, the referendum was a profoundly flawed process.  Cameron believed he could use the referendum to manage his own unruly backbenches, in the way he had in 2011 used the Alternative Vote referendum to manage his junior coalition partners.  Very little thought was given to whether a hasty, one-off, UK-wide, winner-takes-all, in/out referendum represented the correct way in a parliamentary democracy for the people’s voice to be heard on such a seismic issue.

That many millions of Britons wanted to challenge EU rules such as FMOL should be neither doubted nor ignored (clearly, Labour must take this warning seriously if it ever wishes to govern again).  But from the right’s perspective, it was only the loose correlation of anti-immigration sentiment with certain elite interests that made the politicisation of EU membership permissible.  And it is the same elites that will now translate the result.

As such, many of the actions that Britain’s leaders have undertaken or will undertake following the referendum clearly fit the notion of ‘post-democracy’ quite well.  But the crisis of democracy is arguably intensifying: I believe we are moving into an age of ‘undemocracy’.  It is no longer simply the case that popular opinion is marginalised by technocratic decision-making processes; it is becoming apparent that people themselves no longer appreciate the value of democratic institutions as arenas in which they can exercise any meaningful influence on public life.

One of the paradoxical dimensions of undemocracy may be a populism of the left, whereby a mass protest movement forms with only a fairly superficial focus on formal democratic processes – this will be explored further in Part II of this post.  But the left’s evolution seemingly mirrors a broader contradiction of undemocracy: while post-democracy marginalises popular opinion by narrowing the scope of democratic engagement by elites, in contrast, in the age of undemocracy, the people are themselves mobilised to execute the final stages of the destruction of democratic culture.

That they are asked do so in the name of democracy, through exercises such as the EU referendum, serves to underline the significance – and perhaps irreversible nature – of this shift.

What we are witnessing is the effective severance of the apparent operation of democratic principles from the actual institutions of democracy, thus creating a vacuum that only existing elites are capable of filling.  In this scenario, Brexit might be the least of our worries.

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