Brexit: populism without agency

I've just finished reading Jan-Werner Müller's What is Populism? Not that he needs my endorsement, but it's a great book. Concise, compellingly written and with what I think is an important and useful analytic framework for thinking about how populist movements work. The central theses (or definitions, depending on how you think about them) are threefold. Firstly, populist movements claim exclusive moral representation of 'the people' over and above other parties, political groups, institutions, laws or processes.  Secondly, a particular subset of the population is talked of as if it was the whole population, and those who do not conform to this idea of are not of 'the people'. Thirdly, because populist movements are by nature anti-pluralist and seek hegemonic power, and because they are often rooted in conspiratorial thinking about institutions and rule by law and processes, populist movements should not be viewed as democratic. They undermine the norms and institutions of a society that make democracy work, and are therefore not merely 'illiberal democratic' but 'undemocratic'. 

It isn't much of a leap to apply this to thinking about Brexit, indeed Müller has done so on many occasions himself. Think of Farage's appeal to the idea of the 'real people' who voted Leave on the night of the referendum, the labelling of those criticse Brexit as 'enemies of the people,  or attacks on judges, civil servants and even Parliament itself as thwarting the 'will of the people'.  But I think there is a genuinely interesting and unique (albeit worrying) dynamic to Brexit which makes it different from other populist movements. Typically populist movements seek to establish the hegemonic control of a defined group or party with a leader. It is that group and/or individual which represents the ‘Will of the People’. With Brexit, this is not quite the case. Yes, Brexit has Nigel Farage, but he is nowhere near gaining actual political power. Rather, with Brexit, political legitimacy is driven by the idea of Brexit itself, with the referendum as its foundational myth.  Brexit, not a party, or individual, represents the will of the people. Political legitimacy, at least within the right of British society and politics,  is established by proving not that you represent particular needs or interests, or that what you advocate is in any practical sense a good idea, but that you are a firm believer in the cause and what you advocate represents the true spirit of Brexit. It does not matter, for example, whether membership of the Customs Union is a good idea or not: what matters is whether it is consistent with the principles of leaving the EU.

This, I suspect, is not merely the result of  a conscious effort of committed populists, but the curious circumstances of the referendum and its tensions with parliamentary democracy. There were some individuals, like Farage, who always used this kind of populist language and fundamentally espoused a populist idea of political power and legitimacy. Farage talked about his supporters as if  they were the only authentic members of the population long before they could plausibly be argued to represent the majority of the population. For anti-immigration, ethno-nationalist parties like UKIP this kind of thinking goes hand in hand with a moral justification for their platform. But for some, the overtly  anti-parliament, anti-pluralist bent may have been partially accidental. The reason for this is as simple. The 2016 referendum had no legal status beyond being advisory. Leave won, but without the support of the then government, or the majority of MPs, or any mechanism for these two facts to automatically change. What Brexit was supposed to mean was simultaneously vague, at times contradictory, and also all encompassing. This set up a situation where there was almost certain to be a crisis of political legitimacy. No government could ever deliver the kind of Brexit promised by Vote Leave, and socially liberal MPs could not get on board with Brexit as an all encompassing mandate for social conservatism in any aspect of life even tangentially related to the EU. Two sources of political legitimacy therefore came into conflict: legal and parliamentary legitimacy on the one hand, and the idea of Brexit as the will of the people on the other. Moreover, as long as there was no legal means for those in favour of Brexit to force their desired outcome, and so long as it was possible that Brexit might be abandoned if public opinion changed, Brexiteers could never be confident of their victory. In this context, it made strategic sense for Brexiteers to try and delegitimise parliamentary and legal impediments to Brexit, provided they were ruthless enough to do so. It was, in other words, a curious alliance of committed, outright authoritarian populists and those willing to use their methods in the circumstances they found themselves in.

This is important for thinking about how power in the UK now works, because it means that, unlike a country where a single, normal populist party is dominant, actors actually have remarkably little agency. Political legitimacy is established on the right by proving commitment to an idea, and proving the consistency of what you say with the spirit of that idea. But deviation can quickly result in a loss of authority. Theresa May tried to establish her authority this way (think of the ‘red lines’, the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ line, or her ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech) but her authority evaporated when the reality of the withdrawal agreement set in. Liam Fox, an arch-Brexiter, was dismissed by fellow Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party as infected by remain sentiment in Cabinet, when he tried to refute the old myth about GATT 24. Even Rees-Mogg found himself having to back-track after briefly indicating support for the Withdrawal Agreement, when he realised his supporters would not go along with his justifications for doing so. And Michael Gove was given a hard time in the Brexit supporting press for arguing in favour of a possible (extremely short) additional extension of Article 50. 

This sets a very dangerous process of radicalisation in progress, of what was already a radical idea. Power and the legitimate exersize of power requires adherence to an idea, with individuals competing to be truest to it. Once this is accepted as the way in which political legitimacy is established, it does not necessarily matter (at least within the Conservative Party) if it is believed to be good or bad anymore. Soviet officials knew that policy had to be sold as true to the spirit of Marxism Leninism long after too many people actually believed in the state ideology. And in the British Conservative Party, it is not clear that anybody would have the agency to do anything differently, even if they wanted to. 

Now, perhaps Johnson will be different. It is possible that as someone who was so clearly the face of the Leave campaign that he will indeed have some authority to shape what happens next. This would in and of itself hardly be reassuring, but I suspect that the debate has become so radicalised and he has so tied himself down in opposition to Withdrawal Agreement, that even he no longer has much control of the process. We do, fortunately, still live in a multiparty democracy, and the popular appeal and perceived legitimacy of Brexit may be waning. Let's hope that's enough. 

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