Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy

Something I’ve been thinking about since the Brexit vote: There was a prevailing sentiment at the time that the British people are inherently conservative, and so would never vote to upend the international order. In fact, they did, by a small but decisive margin. But how was this “conservatism” imagined to act? The difference between 52-48 for Leave and 48-52 is happening in the minds of 4% of the population who might have decided the other way. Except that there’s nothing to tell them that they are on the margin. If you are negotiating over a policy, even if you start with some strategically maximum demand, you can look at where you are and step back if it appears you’ve crossed a dangerous line.

A referendum offers two alternatives, and one of them has to win. (Of course, a weird thing about the Brexit vote is that only one side — Remain — had a clear proposal. Every Leave voter was voting for the Leave in his mind. In retrospect, the Leave campaign is trying to stretch the mantle of democratic legitimation over their maximal demands.) There is no feedback mechanism that tells an individual “conservative” voter that the line is being crossed. Continue reading “Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy”

Moving the goalposts

Reactions to the high court’s ruling that Brexit requires approval of parliament can only be understood in the context of the fundamental unseriousness of British politics. It’s all sport, and they won, so you can’t take away their victory.
But “their victory” involves taking away people’s rights, so there’s a parliamentary procedure. That’s how politics differs from sport. If you win the championship, as the cliché goes, they can never take that away from you. In politics every victory is immediately followed by a struggle over what the victory means.

The Daily Mail calls the judges “Enemies of the People” who “defied 17.4 million Brexit voters.” The Sun’s headline attacked the lead plaintiff for being foreign-born. The Daily Express said that three judges have “blocked Brexit”.

How odd, as many have pointed out, that the Brexit supporters suddenly object to parliamentary sovereignty.
Continue reading “Moving the goalposts”

The Brexit spiral begins

I’ve been warning since the Brexit vote that there could be a xenophobic feedback spiral:

We face years of escalating frustration on both sides of the negotiating table, as the British are confronted with the reality of a Europe that has no interest in making the fantasies of the Conservative Party come true. The British public will become more bloody-minded, unwilling to be dictated to by a bunch of foreigners, leading to a feedback loop of retaliation against the hostages, the EU citizens living in Britain and the British living in the EU. It could get very ugly.

According to the Guardian,

The chairman of JD Wetherspoon has fired a warning shot that the pub chain could stop selling drinks brands from other European countries if senior EU leaders maintain a “bullying” approach to Brexit negotiations.

For Britain to take a decision that harms its neighbours — with rhetoric that positively seems to relish the gratuitous harm to its neighbours — is a matter of high principle. Sovereignty! But when the neighbours respond in kind it is “bullying”.

I never heard of this chain, but then, the negotiations haven’t even started.

Existence and greatness

I commented before on the home secretary’s announcement of a plan to require companies to report on the number of foreign employees they have. Just to keep an eye on things, of course. Information is a good thing, natch. I missed this quote:

She justified that policy on the following grounds: “The state must draw a sharp line of distinction between those who, as members of the nation, are the foundation and support of its existence and greatness, and those who are domiciled in the state, simply as earners of their livelihood there.”

Far be it from me to boast that I am supporting Britain’s greatness, but surely I am somehow contributing to its existence? They don’t seem to mind taking my taxes, anyway, and they’re awfully keen to get their children into Oxford in order to be taught by domiciled livelihood-earners like me.

Refer madness

Shortly after the EU referendum, someone asked me why the EU referendum was made to allow such an enormous change from a simple majority. After all, many countries have either supermajority threshold for referenda, or requirements that a majority be attained in a majority of regions or states. The answer, of course, is that

  1. The point of this referendum was to settle a conflict between two wings of the Conservative party. This was not an election, but a sporting contest — though sooner or later, in Britain, everything turns into a sporting contest — and it would have been completely unacceptable if both sides did not feel they had a reasonable chance of winning.
  2. There wasn’t any threshold at all. As many have pointed out, this wasn’t a referendum in the normal sense of the word. It was an opinion poll. The relevant law, the European Union Referendum Act 2015, orders only that the question be asked, and describes eligibility for voting. It says nothing about how the result is to be interpreted or enforced. (The most intricate part of the law seems to concern the question of which hereditary aristocrats are eligible to vote.)

There is nothing inevitable about concluding that the UK should withdraw from the EU because 52% voted that way in the referendum. Most democracies would not make it so easy for one group of citizens to deprive another group of citizens of cherished rights — particularly when the groups really are clearly defined social groups, whether age groups or semi-autonomous component nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland).

In principle, there’s a good argument that the government is constitutionally obliged to get clear authorisation from Parliament before pulling the Article 50 trigger. And if they do that, the MPs could reasonably point to the national divisions, or just the lack of an overwhelming majority, as justification for avoiding such wrenching change.

They won’t, though. Because it’s a sport, and nothing is more important to the British than appearing to be “good sports”. They call this “democracy”, and there have been any number of articles from left-wing Remain supporters, arguing that a commitment to democracy requires that they get behind the Brexit project now. The people have spoken, and any other response is an elitist insistence that you know better than the unwashed masses.

Where does that leave us, the foreigners? I am reminded of the work of David Blight and other historians on the “Lost Cause” historiography of the US Civil War. Americans of the North and the South decided to come together in a spirit of reconciliation, requiring that the Northerners agree to look past points of dispute, like the civil rights of African Americans. They — that is, the white people — pretty much all agreed that this was the charitable and democratic thing to do. Similarly, Britons are divided by economic and class differences, but they can all come together in agreement that the real problem is the foreigners. This is something I noticed when I first arrived here.

Things aren’t so bad in Oxford — though we all know people who have at least been menaced in public in the last couple of weeks for speaking a foreign language — and those of us with good professional jobs have a fairly easy out, if we want it, by acquiring UK citizenship. At least, that gets us to the other side of the rope line in terms of formal legal harassment. Elsewhere foreigners have to be thinking imminently about being driven out of places where they have resided for decades, and where they mistakenly thought they were at home.

The worst form of government

One of the key points of indictment of the EU, favoured by those in the Leave campaign chary of venting raw xenophobia in public, was the “democracy deficit”. “Take back control” they said. Decisions about Britain need to be taken by the British parliament, rather than by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The British people need to show they are capable of governing their own fate.

Well, apparently we need to put Britain on the list of those countries whose culture is not yet ready for democracy:

Electoral services workers have reported calls from people asking if they could change their decision after Friday’s result became clear, while some publicly admitted they intended to use a “protest vote” in the belief the UK was certain to remain in the European Union.

Among those who “democratically” chose to take us out of the EU was

Mandy Suthi, a student who voted to leave, told ITV News she would tick the Remain box if she had a second chance and said her parents and siblings also regretted their choice.

“I would go back to the polling station and vote to stay, simply because this morning the reality is kicking in,” she said.

“I wish we had the opportunity to vote again,” she added, saying she was “very disappointed”.

My email inbox is full of solicitations from friends promoting a petition for a second referendum. That’s not how it works, I’m afraid, even if the petition has gathered close to 3 million signatures. It’s done.

 

The masks come off

I think a lot of people — a lot of foreigners living in Britain — are feeling like this character in Paul Murray’s wonderful satire of the financial crash, The Mark and the Void:

“But if you write the truth about our time? How can the truth ever be obsolete?”

“People don’t want the truth,” he says, waving a hand at the streets around us. “They want better-quality lies. High-definition lies on fifty-inch screens. I wrote the damn truth already, Claude. Maybe I didn’t write it well, but I wrote it. And not only did no one want to see it, they made me feel like a fool for even trying. They laughed out the window at me as they sped away on the gravy train.”

“That was during the boom. Now the gravy train has stopped.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t unsee what I saw. The money poured in, and it was like suddenly everyone in Ireland took off their masks, and they were these horrific, rapacious alien beings who if you fell down in the street would just leave you there to die.”

The day after 

Oxford is full of Europeans, and it seems like everyone is walking around in a daze since the referendum. It’s rare that you hear any other topic of conversation. If anyone has an opinion other than pro-EU they’re not saying, only citing some elderly relatives for possible insights into the psychology of Leave.

I hadn’t anticipated how hurt and angry people would be. Lots of people are talking about leaving. It’s not that anyone is expecting anti-European pogroms, but it makes it suddenly palpable how thoroughly unwelcome foreigners are in this country. I noticed this immediately when I arrived here, so maybe that’s why I’m not so shocked by this result.

Oxford is a xenophilic bubble, in this respect — 70% for Remain — so it’s easy to ignore, if you’re so inclined. Also, many Europeans didn’t really think of themselves as foreigners, which is why this rejection was such an emotional blow. It’s devastating for the university, of course.

I fear that this may turn a lot uglier. I think the British are going to be shocked to discover how much the rest of Europe resents them. It’s like a bad marriage: Europe has been making all kinds of compromises and telling Britain how much they love it to keep the union together. For the sake of the children let us say. The effect was only to heighten the British sense of their own importance. Now that they’ve announced, even though you’ve done everything I asked, I’m still leaving you, because I never loved you, and I never wanted to be married anyway, the British we’ll be surprised to discover how cold and businesslike the Europeans can be, in to just wanting be rid of them as quickly as possible. I fear that the unrealistic expectations will give way to fury and escalating rounds of retaliation against the hostages, who are the Europeans living in Britain and the Britons living in Europe.

Not the Day of Remain

It is accomplished. The UK is headed out of the EU. The generational coup of the pensioners against their children and grandchildren.

I’d hoped, but not expected, that it would turn out otherwise. Huge self-inflicted damage, and I doubt that the situation will develop to the advantage of those who supported Brexit. Scotland will likely secede. Northern Ireland may see the peace process unravel. I’m slightly worried that “Project Fear” actually underplayed the risk. It’s perhaps not the most likely scenario, but I see as perfectly conceivable that we face years of escalating frustration on both sides of the negotiating table, as the British are confronted with the reality of a Europe that has no interest in making the fantasies of the Conservative Party come true. The British public will become more bloody-minded, unwilling to be dictated to by a bunch of foreigners, leading to a feedback loop of retaliation against the hostages, the EU citizens living in Britain and the British living in the EU. It could get very ugly.

It’s a bit like climate-change denialism: You have one side saying, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the effects of our actions, so let’s be hopeful that it won’t be so bad. It might be substantially better than the median prediction. They conveniently ignore the downside risk, which could be pretty terrible.

Should I stay or should I go?

How will the referendum turn out? I’ve been saying, from the time when the referendum was just a twinkle in Nigel Farage’s eye, that I could hardly imagine the process, once Cameron had agreed to promise it as an election ploy, could end in anything but a UK withdrawal from the EU. Whatever the ostensible question, these sorts of referenda almost invariably turn into plebiscites on people’s general satisfaction with their government, and the answer is invariably NO. I can’t imagine the British people, given an opportunity to poke a finger in the eye of their leaders and those in Brussels, will turn it down. It just seems too exciting. On the other hand, people say that the undecideds will swing toward a status quo position, afraid of disruption. Could be. I suppose it depends on whether the public generally views their votes as political actions or as a form of self-expression.

Whatever happens, the next days and weeks will certainly be eventful.