It took less than two hours after the Brexit referendum for someone to denounce the result. Labour MP Keith Vaz described it as heartbreaking on the BBC’s “morning after” analysis program. He came to the very brink of calling for it to be overturned. But he was soon overtaken by Labour MP David Lammy (who did call for it to be overturned on that first day), storming Twitter-users, several million petitioners to Parliament, BBC and CNN news programs, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, and most recently 1,000 well-paid barristers, all demanding the cancellation of the referendum on one ground or another by one means or another.
This agitation has now continued for the better part of four weeks. It still continues. It seems to have widespread support. Its weakness is that it evokes the story of a middle-class lady who, in reply to a bus conductor inquiring about the result of the 1945 election, said: “They’ve elected a Labour government; the people will never stand for it.”
So let’s start with some realism. The referendum is not going to be overturned. It had a turnout of 72 percent, and the 17 million who voted for Leave is the largest number of people in Britain who have ever voted for anyone or anything. Before the vote all parties expected that a high turnout would mean a Remain victory. The fact that it gave a substantial victory to Leave is one of several signs that Brexit has deep and persistent support in the electorate. Sixty percent of Tory voters and 40 percent of Labour voters were for Leave, which gives the leaders of both parties a powerful incentive not to divide their followers again with a second referendum. By a two-to-one margin voters don’t want a second referendum. Polls showing that some Leave voters have changed their minds are counterbalanced by polls showing that Remain voters have done so as well, sometimes by much larger margins. Hence any re-run would probably produce the same result.
Even if that were not so, respect for democracy would require that the path of negotiation and legislation to Brexit be substantially completed before the question is again put to the people. And that will happen.
British voters will get an opportunity to pronounce a second verdict on Brexit in the next general election. If legislation implementing Brexit is passed by Parliament before 2020, they could vote for one of the several parties likely to support its reversal. If Parliament rejects such legislation, however, that would spark a general election in which whether to pass the Brexit legislation would be the main election controversy. So political battles will still rage on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, but the likelihood of that withdrawal is overwhelming. As it should be.
That said, what we have witnessed in the three weeks since the result is the upsurge of a widespread anti-democratic sentiment in British and European politics that until now has been covert and ashamed but that is now self-conscious and even aggressive (though also fuzzy and illogical). It is advanced not by a handful of street thugs, moreover, but seemingly by millions of young urban professionals, mainly on the center and left of politics but some occupying positions in corporate and government bureaucracies. They have received moral and intellectual support from their fellows in other countries, including the United States, through the international media and the Internet. CNN and the BBC have been especially eager to undermine the referendum result, playing up stories of its damaging impact on markets and the British pound, playing down stories that showed stability returning after an interval. And their arguments are quite astonishingly self-righteous. How has this come about?
Their case can be summed up as follows: “They’ve just voted to leave the European Union. The people will never stand for it. And the people will be right not to stand for it. Brexit was sold via a false prospectus.”
Let’s break that narrative down argument by argument, however.
Leave Voters: Ignorant, Old, and Uneducated?
Their first criticism was that Leave voters didn’t know what they were doing. A New York Times headline shrieked: ‘Alarmed Britons Ask Pollsters: Why Didn’t You Warn Us?’ Some had apparently been shocked to discover, revealed the Times, that if Britain left the EU, they would not enjoy visa-free travel across Europe. In fact, it is quite certain that they would enjoy such travel, as I recall doing before Britain entered the EU in 1973. What they will not enjoy is the unqualified right to work and settle in the EU (though many would obtain that in practice as many non-EU people do today). But no argument was covered more thoroughly in the campaign than that Brexit would end free movement of labor. Neither Leave nor Remain voters have any excuse for not realizing this. Did Remain voters know, however, that the EU’s “Five Presidents” report would propose the creation of a European Army a week after the referendum? Though the proposal was generally known to politicians and journalists, it was certainly not covered by the mainstream media in any serious way. If anyone has the right to complain they weren’t informed about important consequences, it was those Remain voters who thought they were casting a vote for the status quo rather than for innovations such as fiscal federalism or a European Army. Meanwhile, watch out at election time for the Times’ headline: “Conservatives Beg: Stop Us Before We Vote Again.“
Another argument was that it was somehow wrong that old voters (who were 70 percent for Leave) should have apparently outvoted young ones (disproportionately for Remain). The old, it is said, have “stolen the future” of young people. They had voted their generation’s interest because they couldn’t take the long view. But this argument is a case of begging the question (or assuming what has to be proved). For since we don’t know what the future holds, the elderly may have done the young a favor by shielding them from a tyrannous and failing EU. Besides, the reason more old people than young voted was greater public-spiritedness leading to differential turnout. Young voters stayed in bed while sprightly older ones sprinted to the polling booth. Memo to the young: The future belongs to those who show up (copyright Mark Steyn). Memo to the media: This kind of argument by the Remainers used to be known as ageism. What changed?
A third critique was that Remain was overwhelmingly supported by educated people with degrees while uneducated people without them backed Leave. This factoid was stressed quite heavily in the Guardian and the Left media with the implication that it was somehow wrong for the views of the uneducated to prevail over those of people with degrees. No one quite wanted to say this meant that stupid people had prevailed over clever ones because, among other reasons, that might raise the dangerous topic of IQ. Nor did anyone go so far as to declare openly that higher education should be a criterion for plural voting or that lack of it should be a criterion for not voting at all. But these anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic notions hung disturbingly in the air. Let us therefore relieve any such anxiety by combining the figures for education with those of age to show the absurdity of these temptations:
People aged 65 were born in 1951 and reached the college age of 18 in 1969 — hence those above 65 were born earlier and reached college age earlier. Now, fewer than 4 percent of high-school graduates went to U.K. universities in the 1950s and 1960s. A major expansion of universities began in the mid 1960s, however, and by the dividing line year of 1969 that percentage had doubled. It kept on doubling. According to a House of Commons Library study of educational changes in Britain: “Overall participation in higher education increased from 3.4% in 1950, to 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000.” It has hovered around the 50 percent mark for the last few years.
If the young vote disproportionately for Remain, therefore, that will appear in the voting statistics as better-educated people voting mainly for Remain. But that is a statistical artefact rather than a sign of Remain’s greater intellectual appeal. The social fact is that a far, far higher proportion of young than of old people have degrees. Ceteris paribus that means the value of a post-1969 degree is lower than that of a pre-1969 one — and the difference gets more pronounced the later the degree was awarded. So most recent university graduates are actually less educated than those who graduated before 1969. University selection after 1944, moreover, was meritocratic. So they are also likely to be on average less intellectually capable than those who graduated before 1969 since they represent a wider range of ability downwards. Given the size of that pre- and post-1969 disparity, it must also be the case that many recent university graduates are both less educated and less intellectually capable than many pre-1969 high-school graduates who never went to college. Like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, however, they have diplomas as a consolation. Both statistics and anecdotal reports of falling educational standards seem to support this conclusion.
In short, Remain advocates need not feel tempted either to restrict the franchise or to overturn the referendum because the latter was won with uneducated votes. They will feel relieved, we trust, that this myth turns out to be not merely a case of intellectual snobbery but one of unjustified intellectual snobbery.
An exception must be made to this conclusion: It is arguable that at least one educational distinction would be relevant to casting a referendum vote — namely, do you have any experience of British life before the country “joined Europe” in 1973? That would give the voter a deep means of comparison between the prospects of Leave and Remain for the future. Unfortunately, as the Remainers have already conceded, the great majority of those holding this qualification voted to Leave.
The Xenophobia Charge
Much the most serious charge — and the one most likely to delegitimize Brexit if it were to be believed — is that the Leave campaign was fueled by racism, xenophobia, and hostility to immigrants. As a result, the anti-democrats say, its victory has caused an upsurge in hate crimes in Britain that, according to the police, rose by numbers between 57 and 500 percent in the two weeks on either side of the referendum. That certainly sounds worth examining.
But how many actual hate crimes do these statistical percentages amount to? Any firm figure is hard to discover because different sources produce competing and sometimes conflicting numbers, which in addition are neither convictions nor legal charges but incidents reported by the public and pressure groups. They may exaggerate the extent of such crimes; they certainly do not minimize it. That said, in the case of the 500 percent increase, reported by CNN, the answer is 331 hate crimes in one week compared with “a regular weekly average of 63.” The figures of a 57 percent increase show a rise to 85 crimes in the week after Brexit compared with 54 over the same period four weeks before. These figures were described by international media such as the Sydney Morning Herald as “a wave of racism sweeping over Britain.” The 500 percent increase in particular was cited by hundreds of media outlets.
But what were the U.K.’s hate crimes anyway? Mass murders, axe attacks, other violent assaults as in France and Germany in recent days? Or rapes and other serious sexual assaults as in Cologne in January? Not at all. The great majority of them were low-level insults and minor technical assaults — spitting, shouldering someone aside, swearing, racist remarks, etc. Such things are unpleasant and sometimes frightening; the police should warn the perpetrators that they risk arrest (as well as actually arresting violent ones); but they scarcely rise to the level of a national scandal. And whatever else it was, the figure of 85 hate crimes in a week is very small percentage of a population of 60 million, and the figure of 331 in the week after Brexit is not much larger as a percentage of the 17,400,000 people who voted for Brexit.
What linked this increase in mostly minor hate crimes to the Leave campaign? No solid evidence of any such link has yet been presented.
Even so, what linked this increase in mostly minor hate crimes to the Leave campaign? No solid evidence of any such link has yet been presented. The crimes and Leave are linked almost solely by the imaginations of journalists and activists sympathetic to Remain such as Christiane Amanpour of CNN. They note that Leave won and hate crimes rose around the same time, and, er, that’s it. This is a variant of the discredited proposition: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It’s an argument, moreover, with risks for both sides. After all, Remainers have been charging throughout the campaign that Brexit meant racism and xenophobia. So they rather than Leavers might well be the people responsible for linking the two in the minds of bigots, racists, and television viewers (as well as in their own).
Almost the only thing recognizable as an argument presented by Remainers to add substance to their charge goes as follows: Since the desire to reduce immigration was the overwhelming reason why Leavers voted for Brexit, their campaign must have been inspired by racism and xenophobia. Alas, this argument is a remarkable horse that falls at the first fence only to rise and fall again at every other fence along the way.
First, almost everyone in U.K. politics, including some leading Remainers, claims to want better control of immigration. Opinion-poll majorities of 70 percent and above support it. And David Cameron claimed (unpersuasively) to have achieved it. Were they all racists and xenophobes? Second, immigration was not the “overwhelming” reason why Leavers backed Brexit; sovereignty was. A ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror found that sovereignty was a bigger issue for Leave voters (53 percent) than immigration (34 percent). Other polls show similar results. Third, wanting to restrict immigration is not of itself evidence of xenopbobia or racism — especially when, as here, the immigrants whom Brexit would exclude are Europeans. Leave campaigners even argued that Brexit would enable a more diverse intake of migrants from around the world, including former British colonies, to meet the U.K.’s specific economic needs. Staying in the EU forces the country, in effect, to accept only EU citizens and thus keep out other nationals. Racial and ethnic discrimination are built into it. And, fourth, the heightened importance of immigration in the Brexit campaign was because the loss of control over it was the single most dramatic example of the U.K.’s loss of its democratic sovereignty and inability to determine its own future.
All in all, the claim that Brexit was inspired by an unworthy racism and xenophobia is — as Boris Johnson would say — a “pyramid of piffle,” but nasty, vicious, and slanderous piffle. It also points us to an oddity, though: Why did the Remainers remain more or less silent on Leave’s central argument? As Sir Noel Malcolm, the author of a short but authoritative study of sovereignty, asked during the campaign: Why are the opponents of Brexit opposed to Britain regaining its status as a self-governing democracy?
The Global ‘New Class’ Can’t Abide Democratic Sovereignty
It’s a fascinating question about a real vacuum in the Remain armory. Restoring the U.K.’s sovereign democracy was one point on which all the Leavers agreed. It was the single most important argument for Leaving in the minds of the voters. To be sure, Remain dealt cursorily with one half of the question: the sovereignty half. It tried to dismiss it as abstract, recondite, theoretical, and trivial compared to the greater power that Britain supposedly enjoys as an EU member-state. But these were soon seen to be evasions and dropped. Meanwhile, the “democratic” half of the question was sedulously avoided. The Leavers kept raising it; the Remainers kept changing the subject. Neither Britain’s democratic traditions nor the EU’s democratic deficits crossed their lips. Democracy was a no-go area in their propaganda. They never gave Sir Noel the courtesy of an answer.
But I think an answer has been given in the tactics the Remainers have employed since the Brexit result. They no longer believe in democracy. They don’t believe that ordinary people should have any real say in the government of their country. They believe the people to be racist, sexist, and homophobic proles against whom minorities and civilized values must be protected. They hold that major decisions — Brexit, the Euro, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, migration policy — should be left to the experts and credentialed elites who have studied the question and reached considered conclusions. And they want the voters’ role to be restricted to choosing between a limited set of policy options within boundaries set by elite opinion.
That set of beliefs has been visible for some time in the gradual but increasing practice of transferring powers from democratic bodies such as parliaments and congresses to unaccountable ones such as quasi-independent bureaucracies, national and international courts, and supranational bodies like, well, like the EU. It represents the interests of the New Class (sired by James Burnham, brought up by Irving Kristol) of lawyers, bureaucrats, technocrats, corporate managers, etc., etc., who control the undemocratic institutions to which popular power is increasingly transferred. It is slowly congealing into an ideology, a class ideology, that so far lacks an agreed name. John Fonte of the Hudson Institute originally gave it such names as “post-democracy” and “transnational progressivism.” But as the New Class has gone global, so has its ideology. It now goes by the name of “global governance” (and Fonte is its prophet) among its practitioners in government and its court followers in the media.
Until Brexit, however, it was an ideology that could not speak its name in an open unconstrained way. It could not follow an argument wherever the argument led because it would eventually lead into anti-democratic territory — hostility to the democratic nation state, the need to restrain the voters, the wisdom of experts, the unwisdom of crowds, the religion of open borders, the superiority of international over national law, the justification of judicial sovereignty, and so on and so forth. Democracy still retains enough prestige in the West to make frank attacks on it dangerously unpopular outside elite circles. But the fact that the adherents and beneficiaries of this ideology could not advance their principles in an open, straightforward way did not mean they were content to be silent. They were quietly frustrated. And when an issue as big as Brexit went the wrong way, reflecting the interests of the voters and the democratic nation-state over those of the international new class and global governance, they rent the air with cries of anger and incredulity (as listed above). They even resorted to the most primitive weapons of traditional class war. Hostesses sympathetic to Remain asked guests who had voted Leave to, er, leave their dinner parties. They could not accept defeat on such an issue gracefully or at all.
Project Fear vs. Reality
Within hours of the result, the Remain campaigners were pointing to anything that seemed to suggest that the horrors of Project Fear were happening on cue. It didn’t matter that the leading Leave economists, such as Norman Lamont and Roger Bootle, had granted in advance that Brexit would probably produce instability in the stock exchange and currency markets, which, owing to weaknesses already present in the U.K. and world economies, might be severe in the short-to-medium term. These market tremors would be the temporary effects of transition; they would not mean the failure of Brexit. But when the pound fell or the Footsie trembled, the Remainers at once treated this as proof that the heavens would fall forever.
Project Fear went international too. The Times, the Post, the networks, the BBC, and CNN all began to repeat the same predictions of doom by return of post. Sometimes they became indignant when the doom was delayed. One BBC interviewer on the first post-Brexit day sternly told a Wall Streeter that he seemed to be taking the emergency very lightly. He replied that he’d been around the block a few times. And, indeed, markets steadied and currencies bottomed out shortly thereafter. If that sounds as if I’m taking things lightly, here’s a U.K. blogger’s crisp summary of the first day’s coverage. Really:
A prime minister resigned. The Pound plummeted. The FTSE 100 lost significant ground. But then the Pound rallied past February levels, and the FTSE closed on a weekly high: 2.4 percent on last Friday, its best performance in four months. President Obama decided that we wouldn’t be at the “back of the queue” after all, and that our special relationship was still strong. The French president confirmed the Le Touquet agreement would stay in place. A big bank denied reports it would send 2,000 staff overseas. The CBI, vehemently anti-Brexit during the referendum campaign, said that British business was resilient and would adapt. Several countries outside the EU stated that they wished to begin bilateral talks on trade with the U.K. immediately. If this was the predicted apocalypse, well, it was a very typical British one. It was all over by tea time.
Economic and political news has continued along similar lines in the four weeks since that first day. A new prime minister, Theresa May, has been appointed without constitutional difficulty of any kind. She has constructed a new government with broad party support, appointed a Cabinet that includes most of the talents, and established her authority with surprising ease at home, abroad, and in Scotland. In the background the Footsie 100 and the Footsie 250 (which is supposedly a better thermometer of the U.K. economy) have recovered any ground lost. And two of the main Jeremiahs of Project Fear, the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund, have repented of their gloom. The Bank of England reports that there is “no clear evidence” of a post-Brexit slowdown; the IMF predicts that U.K. growth will be 0.2 percent lower over the next two years than it would be without Brexit but that U.K. growth will still be higher than that of any other G2 economies except the U.S. and Canada; and for an encore the European Central Bank reports no sign that Brexit has had an impact on inflation. And that’s how it is today. Markets rarely stay quiet for long, however, and there are a great many problems queuing up in the European and world economies — above all, the looming threat of an Italian bank crisis that is ultimately traceable to the continuing euro crisis and that may even bring the euro to an end. That would start a far bigger crisis than anything Brexit threatens to do — and it is the result of the orthodoxies of Europeanism and global governance rather than of the controversies of democratic national debates.
Why were the Remainers so certain of victory in the Brexit referendum? Why did the media believe it with equal vigor? Why did they find the result so hard to believe? Why do they still feel that it must and will be overturned somehow? It wasn’t that the emperor had no clothes so much as that the emperor had nothing but clothes — no optimism, no positive program, no solutions to the EU’s manifest euro and migration crises, no persuasive replies to the arguments of Leave, nothing but the trappings of power and office, which added impressiveness to any claims he did make. Economic columnists, star television interviewers, humble political reporters all get to mingle with chancellors and billionaires (who also mingle with each other) at events such as Davos and IMF meetings. They talk to each other, nod at the same points, and gradually arrive at a collective view. The reporters, happy to be near the inner circle, share these orthodoxies and shape their reports to conform with them. Anyone who differs on more than a few points is marked down as an eccentric; anyone who buys the whole package is celebrated as an expert. Economist and Telegraph columnist Roger Bootle, the author of an authoritative book on the EU, calls this process “group-think,” which I define as conformity enforced by scapegoating. Its results are that “everyone” comes to agree that (A) is bound to happen and that its opposite, (B), is laughably unthinkable. A key orthodoxy among the global-governance crowd was the unquestionable necessity of the European Union. Though discussed frequently, therefore, the EU was never discussed seriously. And the few who disputed its value or importance were dismissed as lightweights in comparison with the officers of large institutions in the grip of myths.
What followed was the Shock of Brexit. But the managers of global governance still run much of the world. They still cling to their orthodoxies. They are angry that ordinary mortals, or at least Realities, have outfoxed them over Brexit. And they will probably regain their control — until, of course, the Shock of Something Else Entirely occurs.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.