The first, largest, and simplest message to be gleaned from the Richmond Park by-election is that it is rarely sensible to behave as though the electorate is dominated by fools.
Zac Goldsmith’s decision to trigger a by-election in protest at the Government’s decision to endorse a third runway for Heathrow was questionable in itself, not least since it subjected the people of Richmond to an entirely unnecessary election – the result of which would have precisely no chance of changing the government’s mind.
Worse still, however, was the Conservatives’ decision not to run a candidate against Goldsmith. The governing party thereby effectively endorsed Goldsmith’s act of vainglorious self-indulgence.
In such circumstances – and even before allowing that the by-election could become, at least in part, a mini-referendum on Brexit in one of the more heavily anti-Brexit constituencies in England – both Goldsmith and the Conservatives got exactly what they deserved. Which is to say, a drubbing. Comeuppance is a dish that may be enjoyed hot or cold.
This, in fact, has been a great year for comeuppance. The twin triumphs of Brexit and Donald Trump have many different parents, but share some genetic material.
In each instance, the “Establishment” or the “status quo” asked for approval and was sent home to think again.
And whatever you may think of the Brexiteers or even Trump, it is hard to avoid the thought that, to one degree or another, the “elite” had earned their kicking.
Consider the manner in which British politicians, including David Cameron, spent years parading their Euroscepticism. If Brussels and Strasbourg were not the source of all Britain’s miseries, they were certainly portrayed as a significant frustration.
Time and time again, the government would suggest, Britain’s ability to X or Y or Z was hampered by petty EU regulations. Yes, ministers would tell voters, we understand your frustrations, but the sorry fact of the matter is our hands are tied. So we cannot do what you want us to do.
And then there came a referendum and these same politicians – the likes of Cameron and George Osborne and so many others on the Remain side – asked voters to believe that, far from being a brake on British greatness, membership of the EU was an essential component of British prosperity.
Ignore, they suggested, everything we have said in the past. Please listen to, and take seriously, what we say now.
This was an interesting strategy and even, perhaps, a brave one.
Privately – as Tim Shipman’s account of the Brexit campaign, All Out War, makes clear – Cameron and Osborne were significantly more enthusiastic about the EU than they ever let on in public. But they had spent years in government arguing that the EU was all-but-irretrievably broken.
Cameron presented his “renegotiation” with the 27 other member states as a final chance to fix Britain’s relationship with Europe once and for all. If he didn’t get a good deal, he suggested, he would walk away from any agreement and campaign for a No vote. The status quo, it was heavily implied, was unacceptable.
Cameron treated the electorate as though they were fools. Comeuppance ensued.
So when Cameron returned with a “renegotiation” barely discernible from the status quo, and asked the British people to celebrate it as a great diplomatic triumph, he made a fool of himself.
It was not just that half his party wished him to fail (though that was bad enough). It was that by presenting the negotiation in adversarial terms he once again underlined the Leave campaign’s core message: Brussels is not the solution, Brussels is a problem and even, sometimes, the enemy. And in a game of “Us” versus “Them”, Us always has the easier and more immediately compelling argument.
In other words, Cameron treated the electorate as though they were fools. Comeuppance ensued.
And just as Cameron and the Remain campaign too readily assumed that not only were the “facts” on their side, but that the “facts” would be easily understood by the voters, so they failed to appreciate that you can start to lose a referendum before the campaign has even begun.
You need to prepare properly – which, in this instance, meant making an argument for the EU as a positive good, as something more than an inconvenient but on balance advantageous set of technical arrangements.
The groundworks for a Remain vote were never completed. No wonder the house proved susceptible to subsidence.
In like fashion, the wider malaise afflicting British politics stems, at least in part, from politicians telling voters for years that they “understand” the electorate’s “concerns” while doing vanishingly little to satisfy them.
Cameron promised to bring net migration below 100,000 souls a year. No one in his office appears to have thought it wise to ask a simple question: what happens if we can’t?
A large cheque was written to the British public. When it bounced, they were unhappy – and not altogether unreasonably so.
But that was, again, because for years the Conservative and Labour approach to immigration could be summarised as “Ukip are right, don’t vote for them”.
There is a lesson here: if you do not make a case for your own policies, do not be surprised when the electorate tires of your protestations that nothing else can be done. You are, again, preparing the ground for your opponents.
Faced by the uncomfortable fact that EU rules made it impossible to prevent people moving from one member state to another, Cameron – like most of the rest of the political establishment – had a choice. He could have made a forthright case that immigration was a good thing for the United Kingdom.
Cameron promised to bring down migration. No one seems to have asked: What happens if we can’t?
He could have argued that if immigration placed additional strain on public services the proper response would be greater investment in those services. Above all, he could have made his own argument.
Instead he implicitly accepted his critics’ logic – only to say, with a tinge of sheepishness, there was nothing much that could be done about it. As toast goes, this is weak stuff.
But there is always an alternative – and the British people voted for it in June. They did so, in part, because Cameron treated them as fools. Understanding “concerns” while doing little to satisfy them is a recipe for electoral comeuppance. Failing to make a real argument for what you really believe is even worse. If nothing else, that failure strips away a politician’s dignity.
Something similar could be discerned on the other side of the Atlantic recently. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was neither a defence of the Obama administration’s successes nor a rallying call for national reform. She offered a platform that was Not Trump but not much more than that.
Losing Michigan just a handful of years after the Obama administration bailed out the auto industry is one of the more remarkable political achievements of our time. But a campaign that is neither one thing nor the other is vulnerable to a blow-everything-up insurgency.
And so it proved. One of the best commentaries on the Trump campaign came in the form of a New Yorker cartoon in which a sheep nods in approval at a billboard depicting a fox alongside the slogan “I am going to eat you”. As least, the sheep tells another sheep, “He tells it like it is”.
The barbarians might be repulsive, but you know where you stand with them
In an age of uncertainty, a simple message has the power to cut through. But it is assisted if defenders of the status quo – of, in this instance, the established norms of liberal democracy – do not make a defence of that status quo that goes beyond simply noting how revolting the alternative is.
The barbarians might indeed be repulsive, but you know where you stand with them. And if only one side is really determined to fight – by means fair or foul – that side enjoys a considerable advantage.
Which may also help explain why democracy seems so shrivelled and so feeble almost everywhere these days. A new paper published in the Journal of Democracy reports that nearly one in four Americans aged between 16 and 24 believe “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” or “very bad” way to “run this country”.
In Europe, one in eight young voters take the same view. Across the Western world, the number of young people who consider democracy “essential” appears to be in freefall.
This change reflects sluggish economic growth in the post-2008 era – but also, just as significantly, a sense that the future is less bright than the past, and that opportunities for social mobility and economic advancement that were once taken for granted no longer apply.
No wonder the Western democracies increasingly seem paralysed by malaise. An era led by bloodless men (and the occasional bloodless woman) is vulnerable to predators preaching illusory but comforting strength.
The Great Openness enjoyed since 1989 seems to be ending – and France may be the next domino to fall.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But reversing this trend demands a liberalism muscular enough to make a case for its own virtues, not one that behaves as though it secretly believes its critics may have a point. A liberalism – and a capitalism – that allows for the world being a complicated place, but still insists that the advantages of an open society are greater than those of its alternatives.
A liberalism that does not treat voters like fools but, instead, as adults. A liberalism that levels with the people and trusts them to handle the truth.
It might not work, but it would be something worth trying. For the sake of dignity, if nothing else.