Despite the views of David Cameron, a majority of MPs, the UK business community, finance houses, and legal fraternity, and most leaders in the Western world, Britain’s voters have defied them all to return a Leave vote. The dire economic consequences for Britain, Europe, and New Zealand have been well forecast in the Herald and factual confirmation will doubtless follow.
My aim is to look further ahead. I identify three longer term consequences, none reassuring.
First, David Cameron’s judgement in calling the referendum for party-political reasons, and the credibility of the Conservative Party for splitting so rancorously over the issue, are now seen as serious mistakes. Cameron has resigned effective October 2016 and the next leader will be faced with the task of reunifying the party or face defeat at the hands of Labour next year. This portends a period of reform policy paralysis while negotiations with the EU take precedence.
The referendum debate was marred by negativity, fear-mongering and slurs such as have never been seen in British politics before, and the iconic civility of the British public has been vitiated. Public disillusionment with established parties and politicians, already evident in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, has intensified. More political volatility will characterise the next election, accompanied by an upwelling of factions and minor parties, among which UKIP will be prominent, perhaps joined by Scottish Nationalists.
Second, Britain’s benign image abroad as a consensual, courteous, pragmatic democracy has been shattered. Many European leaders are beginning to perceive the UK as a self-centred, demanding partner, and may be reluctant to grant further special privileges and opt-outs to London. The cry ‘perfidious Albion’ may echo anew across the Channel. Hostile leaders such as Vladimir Putin may see deepening Western European disunity as an opportunity for further encroachments in Eastern Europe. The United States, which politely allows Britain to claim a ‘special relationship’, may distance itself from its factious and now unpopular ally in favour of more stable partners on the Continent.
Third, the UK episode is a symptom of a wider Western democratic malaise. Put baldly, publics increasingly mistrust their leaders. Disillusionment with promises not kept and prosperity and jobs not delivered by handsomely paid political, financial, and commercial elites and their associated consultants and think tank pundits is growing across Europe and North America. Parties and leaders of the extreme right and left are proliferating and attracting larger followings, notably the National Front in France and nationalist parties in Austria, Denmark, Greece, and Spain. The ‘democratic deficit’ that has marred the European Union is now being addressed by populist mobilisation such as seen in the Trump and Sanders campaigns. Independence movements in Catalonia and Basque region, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the Leave movements in Greece and Portugal may get fresh oxygen.
It is paradoxical that at in an era of successful Western history when professional expertise to manage complex societies and economies is more necessary than ever, amongst non-elites respect for expertise is evaporating. ‘Post-truth’ attitudes and politics prevails. The current elite-public gap echoes the classic Marxist conception of class divide between bourgeoisie and proletariat but transcends material grievances to embrace nativist and identity appeals. In short, xenophobia is no longer politically incorrect, and openly decrying immigration and Islam is its most visible expression.
What is the path back from this incipient crisis of democracy? Two routes have appeared in recent history: the rise of charismatic leaders and preparations for aggression masked as ‘defence’. Neither ended well.
A less risky route is to oblige government institutions to become more inclusive and elites to listen more sympathetically to public grievances. Furthermore, I recommend a moratorium on referenda which can be hijacked by demagogues and produce perverse results.
As English statesman Edmund Burke argued during the French Revolution, too much democracy can be counterproductive and harmful to health, and elected leaders should accept the responsibility of making hard decisions in the public interest.
Stephen Hoadley is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.