In the history of political campaigning, there is a much repeated four-phase-pattern. First, complete establishment rejection. Second, growing voter pressure. Third, guarded political muddle. And finally, acceptance.
Take the fight for female suffrage. The Establishment typically responded to the first generation of activists either with stony silence, or by treating them as unruly children. Placing faith in the impact of rational argument, they produced eloquent pamphlets that laid out the case for advancement of women’s rights – but such pamphlets still only swayed a handful of people in Parliament, most of whom were related to the most prominent campaigners.
The opponents of women’s lib, who for decades included the vast majority of politicians in all major parties, always had some doom-and-gloom counterargument up their sleeve: “Women are too soft and pure for public life. The suffragists are diehards who threaten not only political stability but also family stability. We have to be sensible and realistic; with women in politics disaster would follow both at home and in the public sphere.” At the time, these arguments were treated as perfectly credible.
What ended up making a difference, it turned out, was not rational debate, but voter pressure. And why were voters, few of whom had read the pamphlets from either side, finally swayed? Because they were much closer to the reality than most prominent politicians. They saw first-hand that female nurses, teachers, social workers and shopkeepers benefited their communities enormously.
As a direct consequence, some women were allowed, from 1869, to be involved in local government. Surprise, surprise, the sky did not fall down. In the 1880s, women helped lead a successful national campaign for more humane prostitution laws. “Female decency” had helped to civilise rather than destabilise the public sphere – so perhaps the Establishment did not deserve the moral high ground after all?
From 1897 and onwards, the old guard were in retreat. Gradually, more and more parliamentarians, under pressure from the voters, dared to break ranks. Eventual victory seemed inevitable – yet it would still take more than two decades until the battle was actually won.
How so? What happened was that at the turn of the century, the suffragist campaign entered the muddled phase: the establishment was wounded and increasingly defensive, but still strong enough to make or break individual careers.
This was (and is) the phase when every career politician is typically playing both sides: “Rest assured I am on your side but additional support is needed, we should not waste our powder until we can win.” Or: “Yes, yes, I see your point but there are so many other pressing issues, patience is required.” Or: “The issue is complex, this is a time for contemplation.”
When women protested, they were accused of hysteria – which supposedly “proved” they were indeed unfit for politics. It was this kind of disingenuous argument that enraged – and energised – as Emmeline Pankhurst. Her militant methods were highly controversial – but they also improved the perception of politer campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett, who were perceived as the representatives of moderation.
And when victory was at last realised in 1918, did the old guard finally eat humble pie? Not at all. Because by then, those still alive had adapted their stances to the point where they simply brushed aside their previous resistance. The suffragist victory had been total.
Why dwell on such ancient history? Because this process is strikingly similar to what has happened when it comes to Britain’s leaving the EU. At first, the Establishment scoffed at the idea. Then came growing voter pressure, based on their everyday experience of the pressures of immigration and the Byzantine regulation emerging from Brussels – culminating in June’s referendum victory. (With Michael Gove and Boris Johnson as the latter-day Millicent Fawcetts, and Nigel Farage in the “bad cop” role played by Emmeline Pankhurst.)
Perhaps the best illustration of how the terrain has been shifting is the role played by Theresa May – which displays a true mastery of calculated adjustment.
May has proved expert at balancing – and constantly rebalancing – the conflicting demands of the Establishment and the voters.
When she succeeded David Cameron, it was as a Remainer who, at the time, was perceived as only somewhat more Eurosceptic than David Cameron. Compare that with her recent speech outlining her vision for Brexit: only a few months ago, it would have seemed incendiary.
Through her gradual transformation from Project Fear Remainer to optimistic Leaver, the Prime Minister has strengthened her hand – at just the time when it would have been weakened had she not orchestrated such a transformation. The voice of the people is being heard – only with a time lag.
The same phenomenon is evident in Europe itself – even if the process is not quite as far along. The EU idealists may manage to hold on during this year’s big elections, but a critical mass of European voters no longer swallow, without question, the Establishment twaddle. Indeed, it is starting to repel more voters than it convinces.
If this process does continue, it can only be good for Britain. When, in two years’ time, the EU idealists are seeking a punitive deal for Britain – or at least one which falls short of the win-win trade deal that Mrs May outlined – they are far less likely than at present to find sufficient member state support for such a punitive agenda.
And there is also a lesson here for those Remainers who are trying, with increasing desperation, to block or even reverse Brexit. To stay in charge, politicians will always have to, on the field of political reality, adapt to voter demands. The moment approaches, in other words, when the Remainers will be the diehards and the Leavers the Establishment.
We tend to smile smugly when wondering how our 19th-century forebears could refuse women the vote. In future, people will smile similarly smugly when pondering the position of today’s Remainers. How could they not? The idea of outsourcing politics to a foreign power structure – spearheaded by unelected idealist diehards manifesting a paternalist disregard for voters – is arguably every bit as backward, ridiculous and politically destabilising.