Transient Theories of Legitimacy and the Remain Paradox

Chris Dillow wrote an interesting piece the other day arguing that political beliefs and preferences are often transient affairs.  We tend to dramatically overstate the extent to which our own opinions are consistent over time, and the search for consistency might well turn out to be counterproductive and delusional. I would be tempted to go even further than this: a lot of the time, what we call beliefs, preferences and opinions do not even exist as things subject to change, their existence does not go beyond their contextual expression.  We do not consciously hold a belief, we are merely so disposed that certain situations will illicit a belief, perhaps momentary, perhaps of lasting effect. The set of questions we will at any point have consciously reflected upon is finite and not coextensive with the set questions that will become contextually relevant in the course of our lives. This is true of any of us. How we respond may be contextually determined. Sometimes this is perfectly appropriate. A teacher’s attitude towards a good teaching style will be a response to educational institutions as they actually exist, in the social context they exist. But they will tend to be believed as if they represented universal truths, rather than contextually specific ones.  Sometimes, on the other hand, what we see is not situational propriety but contradictions. It is, for example, a well known result in experimental economics that people will respond differently to an equivalent trade off depending on whether it is interpreted as an exercise in minimizing loss or maximizing gain, even when the outcomes are logically equivalent.  It is equally well known fact about opinion polling that contradictory results can be achieved by how a question is framed.

Theories of political legitimacy almost certainly fall into that category of things most of us do not have fully fleshed out opinions on. Only a fairly odd bunch of people have spent too much time examining or attempting to develop theoretical justifications for a political system, and it is questionable how useful a thing such an exercise really is. It is not surprising that in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, the dominant response was to accept the fundamental legitimacy of the process. Brexit was what most people voted for, and the majority wins.

It’s tempting to see this as an absolutist position, but in reality it almost certainly isn’t held as such. There are plenty of situations in which very few people would evaluate the legitimacy of a course of action in this way. They might be more inclined to see a certain course of action as immoral. Or, in the event that they are personally adversely affected by a decision taken by a majority, they might see it as a violation of rights. In other circumstances the requirement of consent might be key.

And sometimes, the dominant way of thinking about a situation changes as circumstances change. In the case of Brexit, at the point where public opinion on the topic is relatively static, the view that a majority decision must be implemented is natural enough, and it may well be expressed as an absolutist position. But if public opinion changes significantly, other questions seem more natural. We might instead ask if previous decisions should be binding and whether democracy must allow for changes in mind. The point is not that it is impossible to try and reconcile these two views, or base a constitutional order on whatever synthesis emerges. The point is that most people simply do not ever do so. That is not a slight on them. My own experience of political philosophy has led me to the conclusion that it is largely a waste of time, but that may well be another kind of self delusion – I was never personally particularly good at it.

For remain campaigners this last point is quite significant. Since the 2016 referendum, actually convincing people that remaining is in fact a good idea has been a second order question. Before that could be effective, they have had to try and convince people that this is now a legitimate question to ask, given that the referendum happened. The problem is, the question only becomes one which is likely to be seen as legitimate after a change in public opinion. From the perspective of remainers, this is a kind of bad equilibrium. Public opinion can’t shift until the question is taken as a legitimate one, and the question won’t be seen as legitimate until there has been a shift in public opinion. Like many bad equilibria, random exogenous changes can sometimes, eventually, kick things in the right direction anyway. Eventually the storm might pass, and the ocean will be flat again. Public opinion does indeed seem to have started to shift, and new transient notions of legitimacy are springing up. This might well have happened too late in the day, though.

Structural causes of the radicalisation of Brexit

A few weeks ago I wrote a post arguing that since the referendum, Brexit had been subject to a process of increasing and self reinforcing radicalisation. Some of the ideas I think require some further clarification, so I thought I would collect them here in what is hopefully a clearer form. By radicalisation of Brexit, I refer both to the objectives and policy demands associated with Brexit, and the tone, rhetorical style and surrounding political and ideological tropes. On a policy level this means the fact that many Brexiteers demand not just an end of single market membership, but a default on international legal obligations to achieve it (terminating article 50 negotiations without a mechanism for preserving the Good Friday Agreement, failing to pay existing obligations to the EU etc). On a rhetorical/ideological level, I am primarily referring to the evocation of a notion of democracy which is ultra majoritarian and rejects any form of constitutionalism or democratic pluralism which might get in the way as treasonous, be it parliamentary scrutiny, supreme court rulings, the findings of the electoral commission etc. I wish specifically to argue that a large part of the explanation for this is structural and to do with the nature of the referendum, its legal status and its tensions with parliamentary democracy. This is not to say other factors are not also in play, but I wanted to focus here on these particular points, as I have not seen a fully fleshed out discussion the interplay of these factors with one another elsewhere, even though the individual points are not particularly original. The factors identified are as follows:

1. The referendum had very little legal status, beyond being advisory. It was won, but without support from the majority of MPs, or the then government. Implementation, because of its complexity and the absence of a defined legal mechanism beyond parliamentary and executive initiative, required some level of active support from people who had seen no new reason to like the policy. This damaged the traditional separation of liking a result and respecting its legitimacy. As Ken Clarke noted, normally an MP of the losing party in a general election can respect its outcome, with all the constitutional consequences which follow, without having to now agree or even acquiesce to the policies of the new government. With Brexit that was simply not possible. Many MPs saw the only way of solving this difficulty as a form of self censorship.

2.  Given point (1) it was strategically necessary for Brexiteers to attempt to delegitimise opposition to Brexit. The absence of a legal mechanism compelling implementation of the referendum result meant that Brexiteers assessed, quite rationally, that Brexit could only be guaranteed if support for it did not wane, and opposition did not grow. This made the delegitimisation of opposition a key strategic goal, achieved by calling opponents traitors or undemocratic. Their assessment that opponents were trying to reverse the referendum outcome was not wrong, but the means by which they attempted to prevent this was an assault on democratic pluralism, and later on constitutional constraints (e.g judges ruling in favour of Gina Miller).

3. The positive proposition (leaving the EU) was neither proposed by the government nor an opposition party, but instead a campaign group with no political accountability after the referendum. Support for leaving was from a diverse group of people with diverse and contradictory motivations. Vote Leave judged (correctly) that the best strategy for winning was to gloss over these, rather than making explicit policy choices. This meant that after the referendum result, interpretation of what the result should mean was a matter of ex post facto rationalisation.

4. Because we tend to make sense of policies as having reasons behind them, or fulfilling a purpose, the most natural ex post facto rationalisation of Brexit would involve policy choices which satisfied at least some of the most vocal (and radical) proponents.  This meant that Brexiteers would have a natural advantage in setting the tone of what 'counted' as a Brexit, and what the motivations for it were. This is not the same as achieving something with majority support, as these key proponents may well represent the radical wing, and even if they represent the majority of Brexit voters, a majority of a majority does not imply the majority of a whole. Being able to define what counted as Brexit went further than having a platform for being able to argue a particular outcome was good. It allowed Brexiteers to define the criteria by which Brexit was evaluated, and dismiss other criteria, or questions about whether the policy as a whole was a good idea, as illegitimate.

5. These Brexiteers have also largely been competing to come out well in any potential leadership contest within the Conservative Party. This gives a huge premium to those who make radical proposals, given the preferences of the party membership. This premium is further aggravated by the fact that extreme positions attract media attention, and outright displays of bellicose behaviour play well in culture war type disputes. In order to prove ones credentials as the true messenger of Brexit, Brexiteers have competed to outdo each other on their radicalism.

6. The logic of the Single Market and Customs Union does not allow for any of the substantial promises of Vote Leave to be kept without a radical break with the single market. Whether or not this is a good idea is not the point, as this is no longer the relevant criteria for deciding policy (see point (4). Since the criterion used to evaluate withdrawal is whether it 'counts' as Brexit, rather than being sound policy, it does not matter any more how damaging leaving the single market is.

7. The only way of preserving the large coalition in favour of Brexit despite its contradictions is to coalesce around purely negative propositions (no deal, voting against the government) etc. This also has the benefit of avoiding any of the consequences of any positive proposition, which given the realities of the options available will be politically toxic whatever that positive proposition happens to be.

8. Given points 1 and 5-7, any deal or course of action supported by Brexiteers could never command the support of the House of Commons. The response of Brexiteers, therefore, has been to attempt not just to delegitimise opposition to Brexit, but Parliament as an institution. This, and the institutions of representative democracy more generally, are now taken as superseded as sources of legitimate political power by what is taken to be an expression of 'the will of the people'.

Any comments on further possible structural factors are most welcome.

Article 50 Extension Day

It was a sultry day on June 29th, 2051. The air conditioners were on full blast throughout the newly opened Elizabeth Line, as a certain Mr M. emerged from the escalators. Checking his phone, he looked anxiously to see if there was any signal as he approached the faint smog of the street.

Despite his personal role in the procedure, Mr M had as little interest as anybody else in the day's formalities. Article 50 Extension Day was more of a national embarrassment than a festivity, but in true British style, the peculiar customs were kept to in a rigid fashion, in an almost ceremonial way.

Today, however, something quite strange was afoot. Rumours had been circulating MyNews that the parliamentary lobbies were fuller than expected. Today's proceedings were, after all, by custom, only attended by cabinet ministers and a sole representative of the opposition. But there was no denying it: the Malthouse Loyalist Wing were there, in full force, and now photographic evidence had emerged to prove it. "What are they up to? Surely," Mr M asked himself, "there must be a reasonable explanation." But reasonable explanations rarely helped much with the Malthouse Loyalists. It was exactly what Mr M, the then Prime Minister of the National Government, and leader of the Labour party had feared.

Frantic phone calls were made. Members of Parliament were instructed to return at all costs. "For God's sake! Yes, yes, I know that's the custom, but they've showed up this time! There must be 50 of them, and without any support, they've got the numbers to scupper it!".

But it was no use. Most MPs were on holiday, or in their constituencies, and time was short. The only hope was the London MPs of the opposition Socialist Party, but they were in no mood to bail out a Prime Minister from a party which in their view was illegitimately usurping the Labour name, and in coalition with the Tories, no less. Perhaps a few would turn up, but without the support of the whip, who could say if it would be enough?

The ceremony began as it always did, with the Prime Minister speaking at the podium. "No deal is better than a bad deal, and we intend to leave the European Union by the end of the month!", he announced. The words had meant something once, like when the King is said to have been asked to dissolve Parliament for a general election, but now they may as well have been Latin.  "But," said the sole member of the opposition, "we have not made adequate preparation! I therefore propose to the House that a request be submitted to the European Union asking for a two year extension!" The ceremony could not easily be delayed, and it continued as if nothing was the matter. A now authentically old Rees Mogg smiled from the back benches, filled with his 50 or so allies sitting behind the cabinet ministers in an otherwise empty chamber. He displayed his iconic wry smile, and, turning to his neighbour, whispered "I think we've done it!" Or at least, that is what the parliamentary lip readers would later report.

But events would have it otherwise. Filing in, at just the last moment, were the 30 or so members of the Socialist Party needed to pass the extension bill. Nobody knows for certain what caused their change of heart, but it is strongly suspected that it might have had something to do with the National Government's renewed efforts at nationalising the railway lines, excluding of course, the Inter-City Maglev. Or perhaps that was an afterthought, a kind of token of thanks from the National Government to the Socialists. One thing which was beyond dispute was the changing character of Extension Day. Everyone agreed that parliamentary attendance in all future ceremonies would have to be mandatory.

Failing to try, or trying to fail?

Well, they certainly are cutting it fine, aren’t they? With about 2 weeks until the article 50 deadline, nothing has been agreed in parliament, and the default remains no deal. Later today, MPs will likely vote en masse against this option, in principle, but with nothing of substance to change the fact that it is ultimately still the default option. They just aren’t trying hard, are they? Or maybe they are indeed trying, just trying to fail.

Since the start the start of the article 50 process, the main driver of for MPs of all parties and factions, with the exception of May and her loyalists, has been to avoid responsibility for whatever happens next. This makes a lot of sense, as all the options are toxic politically. Labour MPs, particularly in leave seats, are worried (perhaps mistakenly) about alienating leave voters, but they also know the majority of their voters and members do not like Brexit at all. For the Labour leadership and a large part of the parliamentary party, the preferred option is for May’s deal to pass, but without their own support. As Owen Jones put it, what they really want is for the Tories to own the consequences of Brexit, but without actively supporting anything else. They will therefore continue to vote against anything of substance which could pass a vote in commons, in the belief that this means whatever happens next they will have opposed it. In order to negate the claim that this ultimately allowed the actual outcome, they will continue to support certain quasi substantive motions only upon the condition that they cannot possibly pass in the House of Commons. Corbyn will put forth his alternative Brexit bill a second time, it will fail a second time, and he might even try another vote of no confidence. 
The ERG’s motivations are a little more varied, but with some overlaps.  A few may genuinely want no deal as an outcome. They know that this is still the default option, and may be willing to take a gamble on the MPs failing to coalesce around an alternative. However insane the desire for no deal, it is not an irrational strategy for obtaining it, given what we have seen of the behaviour of MPs over the last 2 years. For others, it is simply about positioning themselves in line with the 57% of Conservative Party members who prefer no deal to anything else. For them, the ideal outcome to have supported no deal and failed to achieve this outcome. This way, they get to position themselves as the true Brexit believers, without actually having to face up to the consequences of no deal. The problem is they are now dangerously close to actually achieving this outcome, which is where the Malthouse Compromise comes in: they will claim this represented a substantial policy contribution which could have made no deal work, and blame the actual disaster on the failure of parliament to support it. When parliament votes against no deal in principle, this will be used as evidence that if it does happen, it was not done with proper gusto. They will therefore have failed to achieve what they claimed would make the policy workable, and content themselves with a no deal by default, the consequences of which will be blamed on others.

Unfortunately, all other things being equal, both groups will succeed. Whatever happens next, they will not have supported it, and have failed to achieve their alternative. This will not be a happy outcome, to say the least. 

Making sense of right wing anti-elitism

Ian Dunt made some pretty disparaging comments about a certain Brexit backing pub tycoon earlier today. Julia Hartley Brewer had the following response: 

"Can someone remind me of the name of the multimillion pound company that Ian Dunt started and how many thousands of people he employs? Asking for a friend..."

This would be uninteresting, until you remember that Hartley Brewer is very much part of the 'ordinary people against the elites' brand of social conservative. What's more, the pairing is quite common. Right wing populists rail against the 'elites' yet have no problem with supporting some pretty wealthy and influential people; indeed at times use that wealth as something impressive and worthy of deference. The ultimate example of this is perhaps support for Donald Trump (who Brewer herself does not support), but it's quite a familiar pattern of engagement.

How can we make sense of this? One explanation is just to see it as a straight contradiction. There is probably something in this, as I suspect an awful lot of arguments in what we now call 'debate' are essentially epiphenomenal. They don't reveal people's real motives, are generally ex post facto rationalisations, and whether or not they remain effective or are dumped in favour of a different rationalisation has little impact on what the speaker (and to some extent audience) believes. At most they are about riling up supporters and detractors alike.

But there is a kind of consistency of this anti-elite rhetoric, although only if we appreciate what is actually understood by the term 'elite' by the populist right. What constitutes elite status is about education, profession and political disposition more than wealth or power per se. Elite status in this worldview is held by academics, civil servants, members of the judiciary, and those who work in international non-private institutions. In other words, they are the (generally liberal) professional classes who work in the legal, economic and political administration of the modern state and the international framework within which it operates. When coupled with a belief that the problems with the world stem from institutional order, rather than common sense action, this makes sense both of the anti-elite rhetoric of the populist right and some of their preoccupations. In Britain, the elite are judges, civil servants, liberal and left wing academics and of course the EU. This is a classic crisis of modernity type of thinking. What is opposed is institutional rationality and rule by process, in favour of the common sense thinking of the every day.

In this context, who would best represent the sentiments of this anti-elitism? Figures who make no particular claim to technical or specialist knowledge, and no claim to acumen in law, politics or statescraft. People like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or even Jacob Rees Mogg, provided he presents his education in terms of obscure rather than technical knowledge and his social status as aristocratic rather than professional upper middle class. This could easily go alongside wealth or power (particularly when coupled with conspiracy theories about power really being held by a specific, different group of people). Indeed, it can easily be accompanied by deference to wealth and power, provided it is achieved in the right way, and with the right attitude. And the particular appeal of this type of thought now would make sense: we have seen both a massive shift in the economy to the type of jobs which give a premium to education, and a cultural ascendancy of the attitudes of those who have this. Right wing populism can appeal to those who have lost either socially or economically from this change. This may go some way to explaining who, exactly, counts as members of the ‘elite’ in this worldview.

Brexit radicalisation

Pete North, one of the founders of the Leave Alliance, a small pro-Brexit campaign group, released the following tweet this morning

"Brexit is a culture war. It is a fight to the death. A fight for democracy itself. It is not good enough to simply leave the EU. We must comprehensively win if we want to save Britain from the destructive paranoia of our rulers. "

This remark is an extreme example of something all too visible: the radicalisation of some Brexiteers, both in tone and content. Victory must be total and metaphorically violent. We see this in the description of MPs as traitors and the demand for a 'no deal' resolution to article 50 negotiations. And it has not gone at all unnoticed how different these demands are to what was said in the referendum campaign.

How did we get here? If we start with the shift in goals, one way of explaining this is a thesis popularised by James O'brien: the movement towards 'no deal' is essentially about avoiding having to give any specific plans about what to do next. A variant on this would be to say that the varying and contradictory demands of Brexiteers could ultimately only coalesce around a negative proposition. A third alternative would be to see the shift as intentional- 'no deal' could never be advocated in a campaign, but was the ultimate desired outcome, or at least the best way of achieving something akin to that as circumstances unraveled. I think these are important and persuasive, and to the extent that the third and first two propositions are contradictory, I suspect the third motivation is less at work. What, I think, they miss, is another, completely different element at work: the self reinforcing radicalisation of Brexiteers in their outlook and attitude.

For this process of psychological and rhetorical radicalisation to make sense to make sense, we have to understand two central mechanism: firstly, the logic of implementation, given the way the referendum was set up, and secondly, the peculiar dynamics of the so called Brexit culture war.

The first point is quite 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. There was no constitutional guide as to what should happen next, it was all a matter of extra-legal interpretation of what ought to (or what was good politics). Brexiteers were well aware of this, and correctly, or at least rationally, assessed that Brexit could only occur if both MPs and a large chunk of the public continued to believe that it ought to. This meant that the traditional separation of respecting the legitimacy of process and the correctness of the decision somewhat vanished. Provided it could be contemplated that Brexit would not be implemented, or not implemented as desired, if opinion changed, continuing to argue Brexit was a bad idea could indeed potentially have undermined the result. It was not like a general election, where it is easy to subscribe to the validity of the process without liking the outcome. The complexity of the decision and the need for continual and active involvement of those who instinctively did not like it fundamentally blurred this distinction. A key strategic requirement for Brexiteers in this context was to delegitimise opposition. It was this need, as much as the atmosphere of the time, which sowed the seeds of claims that opponents of Brexit were traitors.

The absence of legal parameters also fundamentally changed the accepted criteria for success. Leave got away without precisely defining what Brexit should mean, and once they won, definition was a retroactive activity. Hardliners were always going to be in a position to claim to be the authentic voices of what Brexit was about. Once the settled metric for deciding what Brexit should mean was retroactively asking ‘what is most in keeping with the rationale for voting leave?’, this set in motion a competitive process for finding the most extreme and uncompromising definition, which would naturally seem most authentic. This was not helped by the reality of the available options for leaving, which did not allow for any of the substantive content of the campaign to be implemented without a radical break from the single market. And once the debate became about the correct interpretation of leavers’ rationale for Brexit, whether achieving these goals was worth it, a good idea, or in fact insane became a second order question at best, and indeed an illegitimate one for hardliners. 

The second point has to do with the dynamics of culture wars. By accident or intent, Brexit has become a focal point of general cultural tensions between liberalism and social conservatism. Very few people on either side are much interested in the complexities of how the EU functions, and to some extent support or opposition is a proxy for indicating general political outlook. This has, one way or another, led to the belief that somehow these differences will be resolved by one side 'winning' or 'losing' the dispute, when democratic politics should on some level be about compromise. Both leavers and remainers see an urgency to this, and for both it is about loss. Remainers are worried about the demise of liberalism, this fear extenuated by comparisons of right wing populism to inter-war fascist movements. For the Brexiteers, it is about the perceived slow loss of social conservatism to progressivism, and the loss of status of social conservatives in the media and broader society. 

Political mobilisation in this environment is most easily achieved by appealing to the tropes of this culture war. This sets in motion a process of cumulative radicalisation. Previously outlandish ideas and rhetorical frames of reference become normalised, and convictions are made ever more solid. The need to continuously excite the passions of radicalised supporters, as well as the desire for attention it satisfies, demands ever more outlandish ideas. And the perceived radicalism of political opponents makes the desire for victory more vivid and more totalising in nature. 

This is quite a disturbing thing to witness, and it is easy to lose sight of how quickly this has occurred. Fortunately these ostentatious displays of fanaticism probably do not play well beyond certain core audiences, and I suspect ultimately makes bad politics. And more fortunately still, the UK remains a country where democratic politics is the only means whereby this fanaticism can achieve power. But I do not find this more than a partial comfort. 

Explanation at the margins

Large scale historical events often have deep causes, but useful explanations may also be at the margins. A decent account of the origins of the First World War might well talk about the alliance system, the nature pre 1914 European diplomacy, or the expectation of conflict, but it might also talk about the particulars of Serbian domestic politics, or even the implications of train logistics on Russian mobilisation. Elections are no exception, and analysis of Brexit has become an become an industry.

Given the closeness of the result, and its immediate significance for political parties and campaigners, it makes sense that a large amount of time and attention will be given to marginal changes. In a split that is 52% to 48%, any number of small factors can be seen to have determined the result. But there is one factor that has received particular attention: leave voting Labour voters in the North of England.

This is totally fair enough as a causal explanation. It is a quasi-necessary condition of the victory for Leave, and of course of particular interest to both the Labour and Conservative parties, given that this group has been regarded, perhaps incorrectly, as now a swing group. It is also a valid enough focus for stressing as a causal factor, as it was (to some) in violation of expectations. The problem is when this is conflated with an account of the general character of the leave vote. About 23% (a large chunk, but not the largest) of the Leave vote came from the North of England, and a much smaller group northern labour voters. The largest group of leave voters were Conservative and from the south.

Why has this conflation become so widespread? I think there are a number of reasons why this would occur. For the Conservative party and press, this narrative acts as a means of legitimising the vote. The stereotype lends itself to the idea of the authentic, ordinary person. This is probably what is meant as much by the ‘will of the people’ as a numerical majority (socially conservative politicians talked up the authenticity of this stereotype long before they had grounds to claim it represented a numerical majority). For Labour, it is partly about worrying about losing certain core constituencies, but also partly a tendency on the left to view destabilising events with mass support as driven by the working class.

This conflation is important to recognise, as it can lead to significant misunderstandings of recent events. It can also blind people to important new developments, in particular, that Labour supporters in the North have shown a significant swing away from supporting Brexit.