One of the most repeated mantras explaining the Brexit vote is that a fracture has formed between wise people and ignorant people. These “wise” people include young urban professionals (funny how yuppies, eventually, became heroes), highly educated and with a cosmopolitan mind-set. The “ignorant” side is represented, instead, by older low-skilled workers who cannot accept a changing world and voted following the most basic instincts. So, according to many commentators, the British population is divided into two sides: one is rational and has a higher understanding of reality, whereas the other one is driven mainly by emotions like fear, anger and desolation. Given this narrative, it would be easy to decide who to side with, and even start to blame ignorant people for their myopic vote which will destroy the future of the younger generation.
But is this narrative accurate or useful in understanding the current political and socio-economic state of the European Union and the UK? And, above all, are we taking into proper consideration the history of the UK and its traditional views towards Europe, and specifically toward a hypothetical political Union?
Brexit shocked me. So I thought it would be essential to understand the roots of this vote, given that the current debate seems to be driven mainly by emotion from both sides. Brexiters are simplistically labelled as “populists” and, more broadly, any argument against the process of European integration is discarded as populistic or reactionary. This is not a good way to structure the debate and in the long run it can only exacerbate fractures and strengthen extremist wings. We need to understand the vote and to put what we have witnessed under the lens of history.
Luckily, some years ago I had the opportunity to read Robert Conquest’s book “The dragons of expectations – Reality and Delusion in the Course of History”, published in 2005. In this book, Conquest questioned the increasing involvement of the UK in the European Union because of the strong differences between the English tradition of Law and Liberty and the continental tradition, mainly inspired by the French Revolution and Jacobinism. The EU, he argues, is a bureaucratic state with a leveller mentality that is disrupting the more salient features of the English democracy (i.e. gradualism and civic participation in the socio-political debate) through interventionism and centralism. Here, we recognize some of the most repeated topics of the current debate. But they were not new even in Conquest’s writings: in 1999 he published “Reflections on the ravaged century” where he briefly highlighted the risks of the European integration ruled by decree, especially for the UK and its tradition of law and liberty. He also argues in favour of a so-called “Anglosphere”, a pragmatic union among countries with English as common language and sharing the common law. According to him, this union would be much more prolific because of the common roots of the members that would minimize conflicts and frictions.
To support the gradualism and concreteness of the English democracy, Conquest brings in examples from the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century, and focuses on the role of the working class in providing a good stimulus to the political debate. Specifically, the British working class used to be very pragmatic in solving disputes and for this reason was relatively immune to the viruses of socialism and populism, even when these movements were about to take hold in Europe. For instance, The People’s Charter movement had a prominent role in promoting political reforms in Britain in a peaceful and concrete manner and was rarely infected by radicalism even if some radicals were part of it. After the Chartism reforms, the British elite prevented the diffusion of Communism in the UK and forced socialists to acquire a practical view in line with the prevalent political tradition inspired by scepticism toward sudden changes.
As Conquest made clear, it is more important to achieve a concrete goal rather than a adhere perfectly to abstract principles with little or no connection to reality. The British political tradition has been shaped by the acceptance of the imperfection of human affairs and has always conceived politics as a tool to solve practical issues rather than creating an ideal order. In this regard, arguing that the Brexit vote was mainly the outcome of populist pressure means forgetting 200 years of British political history and at least 15 years of growing Euroscepticism all over Europe.
In its “Reflections on the French Revolution” of the 1790, Edmund Burke clearly highlighted gradualism and the reference to the past political tradition as the fingerprints of the English politics – in sharp contrast with the French Revolutionary manner of turning over power and settled customs. Gradualism and the need for compromises to preserve liberty in line with the past are key and cannot be abandoned without giving up to the inherited freedom and to the social order. The need for gradualism and compromise has always had a central role in the conservative tradition and inspired many political leaders, from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher.
Given the historical background, the Brexit vote finds its meaning in the consistency with a respectable political tradition that aims to preserve the very essential features of the British democracy in order to protect citizens from government intrusions.
On the other side, the political heritage of the European Union derives directly from the French enlightenment which theorized the possibility of changing a society quickly and imposing rules ex novo without taking into account past traditions. Hence, societies can be changed through a top down approach and enforcing laws with rigor. Clearly, such an approach is antithetical with respect to the political tradition of the UK and this difference can explain a great deal of the current debate in the UK.
It would be inaccurate to ignore the effects of pure populist rhetoric in the EU referendum. Nevertheless, such a great refusal of the foundations of the European Union cannot be explained solely by populism. It’s not by chance that the UK was the first to vote out. People voted against European intrusions, wanting to re-establish the authority of the British parliament over very concrete issues like immigration, free trade and economic freedom. Furthermore, Euroscepticism in the UK has been on the rise since the European elections in 2004, when the current European crisis was far from being duly recognized and populist movements were not a general phenomenon in the European political landscape.
Nowadays, populism is on the rise in many European countries and this definitely constitutes a major issue for the quality of our democracies. However, critics must distinguish between pure populism and parties that adhere to a codified and respectable political tradition, as a wide part of the Brexiters do. Simply labelling simply anti-European movements as populist is more a propaganda strategy than an actual representation of their political ideas and should be avoided. We need more constructive dialogue with those who have clear arguments against the European integration and the manner in which it is pursued.
This is not an argument in favour of Brexit or against the European integration. But it is important to remember that such a great political decision cannot be explained exclusively by emotions, fears or stupidity and that not all the so-called populism is truly populism. Whoever still argues that the European Union has a historical mission to bring and maintain peace and order in Europe should remember that this cannot be achieved without considering local customs and traditions.