Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing



Democracy not what it’s cracked up to be?

I have to confess that I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that the UK voted to leave the EU in June. I’m disappointed that the USA voted Republican across all three branches of elected government. Neither of those were my preference. Having said that, I don’t actually have a franchise in the US, but you understand my point.

I’m reading a lot of discontent from those on the sides that didn’t see their preference win out in the elections. I’m also seeing a lot of crowing from the side that did win. I don’t really want to talk about that too much – there are always bad winners and bad losers. In today’s world where so many of us simply block those we don’t agree with we live in as polarised a world as we ever have done. After all, the imprecation to never talk about politics or religion at dinner is much older than the internet so I don’t feel it’s all that smart to blame social media for giving us a megaphone for issues that we’ve always struggled to debate effectively.

It was in the 1950s that Niebuhr said that democracies had to have the consent of all the governed otherwise they become tyrannies. This has always cut both ways for a form of government that is really startlingly new and like a sheet of glass – strong in some directions, brittle in others.

The point of this post is for me to talk about democracy. Not mob rule but the type of democracies we have in the UK and the US (which although constituted very differently are both of a specific type) – that is representative democracies.

I also want to debunk a number of facile arguments made by both sides about the results.

  1. We won, get over it. The country voted our way. This is disingenuous at best and miserable at worst. Representative democracies are not mob rule, they are a way of voting in people to make the complicated social and fiscal decisions for us. They may come with ideologies that we share or dislike but in the end their job is simple enough – rule in our stead. It’s never a case that a candidate is going to agree with their entire constituency, or even those who voted for them. It is massive overreaching to claim that ‘we won, get over it’. Politics is the art of achieving the possible with an underlying aim, for most, of improving society. Whatever your view of ‘improvement’ actually is. To suggest that winning an election is akin to winning the 100m sprint is to misunderstand both races. For elections it simply means the HARD WORK STARTS NOW and part of that hard work is to represent ALL THE PEOPLE. For the 100m dash, well, you may have won, but next week there’s another race and, frankly, you’re only as good as the last one. We should NEVER assume that the story’s over just because we’ve won a stage.
  2. The world will fall apart. Look, let’s be honest here, it’s pretty unlikely. It can happen and it does happen. But it remains pretty unlikely. We can make it more likely, on which more later, but overall, we have a complex and powerful system of government which means that most excesses have been anticipated and curbed before they can be started. Sure, there are always exceptions and issues that break the rules (campaign funding) or simply can’t be contained by the rules (climate change) but these are the cutting edge of how society organises itself and we should be absolutely expecting to fight hard on these battlefronts.
  3. The result wasn’t valid because so many people didn’t vote. I’m sorry, but I don’t care about this. It’s pure speculation to suggest those uncounted masses would vote any differently than the rest of society if they did vote. In fact, statistical evidence suggests they’d vote along the lines of those who did within the margin of error. So this doesn’t invalidate the vote. Now, Clinton may have lost because she couldn’t persuade people to vote for her, but that in itself is a valid message about the candidates.
  4. Particularly for the US, more people voted for Clinton than Trump. Yes they did. So what? We all knew before the election how the electoral college system works. For goodness sakes, it’s what did for Gore. It was deliberately set up to stop mob rule and for the most part it does that job really well. It means that just because California votes overwhelmingly one way it doesn’t mean the other 49 states get overridden. It’s an excellent example of constitutional checks and balances working well.
  5. Tyranny will follow!!!1!1!111!. Tyranny can always follow. So what? Right wing ideologues, of which it’s not clear that Trump is, tend to favour liberty more than left wing populists and although they have several views with which I disagree, fascism is NOT the same as Republicanism or Conservativism. (He may be a populist buffoon but check your judgements because another blond haired politician also presents that way but is far smarter behind that guise than most people credit him for).

I hear a lot of people saying that there’s something wrong with the system, that people on the other side are stupid or ignorant or elite or liberal as if these things invalidate their views. They don’t. That’s the entire point of universal suffrage. The democratic system is NOT broken even if the sponsors of that system on all sides have had their noses bloodied this year on both sides of the Atlantic (including Germany and probably France next year). I am unconcerned about vested interests getting a punch in the face.

I have never seen people more engaged with democracy. I mentioned to someone the other day that I almost wished for the time when we could rely on feckless apathy because it was less exhausting.


Yet the point is, our society is worth getting engaged over, getting emotional over. We should be talking, arguing and debating what we think we want from society. If we aren’t involved then that’s the real tragedy and that’s where the disasters we truly fear, the bogeymen themselves, can get their foot in the door. Political volatility has been blessed absent for the last twenty years in English speaking democracies. However, that minuscule interlude shouldn’t let us believe this is the norm.

I am proud to be part of a democracy. I am proud to be English, British, half-caste. I have views that I’ll champion but crucially, when the democracy I’m a part of chooses otherwise I will accept that decision all the while seeking to make my voice heard. Attacking the system is pointless, possibly even disastrous, because what if we succeed in truly dismantling the thing that’s kept debate and speech open in the post war period? What then? Who gets to rule then?

Get engaged in politics. Organise yourself. If you don’t like the parties on offer change them or replace them. Wars have been fought over less and we have a blessed society in which we are far from such danger. Make your voice count but talk about the right things – not the failure of your argument to persuade others, not the success of opposing points of view, nor how you couldn’t game the system but about what you believe in.

What did the Leave vote mean?

I’ve had a lot of conversations about the Leave vote, and the movement behind it, in the last few days. Most importantly, I’ve been thinking about what it means that people voted Leave. I will state here (as I’ve done elsewhere too) that I voted Remain.

I’m not so interested in the surface read – that’s pretty obvious – anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-sovereignty, pro-democratic. Those are the arguments when they’re boiled down to two word slogans. There’s a lot to admire in the ideas behind it. Except, just like the Remain position, there’s a more fundamental set of axioms underlying these positions that I think needs explicating if we’re to i) make any sense of what’s going on and ii)learn the lessons that we could learn as a society that needs to reflect on what’s going on.

I posted elsewhere asking, a little tongue in cheek, whether the Leave campaign was really, honestly, the truly anti-colonialist outworking of the collapse of empire? Think of it like this: your world spanning empire, through which you’ve exported your own people globally, together with your language and customs ends. You bring your people home (to a greater or lesser extent) BUT the impact on the world doesn’t simply stop, everything has to readjust, find a new status quo. Part of that is a movement of people (in)directly impacted by that empire and its end. Whether it’s former underclasses or opposition or even those who benefitted from the empire’s infrastructure and presence in their native territories. This, like the empire itself, can last decades, if not longer. However, a natural part of this deflation is that those who were impacted by this process wish to make their lives at the heart of what once ruled their world. In this specific case, people want to live in the UK because of its legacy on the world. Not consciously – few people wake up and say to themselves “I know, I’ll move to the UK because of it’s legacy in the world.” Systems of the World (to borrower Neal Stephenson’s phrase) are far more subtle than that. They provide localised reasons for what people decide to do. e.g. people DO wake up and think, the UK speaks English but is more open than the US, it’s culture is one I think I understand and it’s education system is just as good, so I’ll go study there for my qualification. Which is legacy all over.

Now, if you’re the centre, then you see this deflation with various view points, but one of them is this: we no longer draw wealth into the centre the way we once did but these people still come here. This makes no sense because there is no perceived benefit from the movement of people when the financial benefits one could say used to accrue from ruling them have ended. At this point the anti-colonialist says – let’s stop these visits then.

I hasten to add that it’s just one narrative and I am not proposing it as authoritative. I am simply saying what was behind my puckish question about are Leavers properly anti-colonialist when Remainers are, by and large, not truly committed to that. I’m not going to put here why I think you could argue that Remainers lean more to pro-colonialist narratives than Leavers – they’re not really, but their arguments about empire are differently constructed although arise from the same root – legacy of empire.

What I really want to write about here is legacy.

Let’s start with a bold statement – Leaving the EU is not about the EU. It’s not about Immigration either. It is about capitalism. It is about globalisation.

so point 1. Leave voters rejected globalisation. Both its good points and its bad points.

point 2. In voting remain, voters literally stood on the other side of the coin and said the opposite.

Now, I want to understand why, on the whole, people might have adopted these positions. To do that, let’s clear out a couple of surface level counters:

  1. No, I voted to leave the EU because it’s broken/needs reforming etc.

This isn’t really true when one examines the counter-factuals to this. If asked what could be done to reform the EU to make it acceptable, the only answers that come are either – we want no push for political union or that the EU needs to end completely.

The former of these is an explicit statement that globalisation should be limited. Freedom of movement of people – that is, you and I, is a good thing for workers because we can move for better jobs. Except people don’t really want to move around and face that kind of instability. So they’d rather that the opportunities were close to them (on the whole because there are huge costs with moving, not least the social ones that only the rich can really offset). I understand this even if, in economic theory it is suboptimal. It is a specific limit on globalisation with an obvious corollary – that eventually those people who choose a life where they don’t want to move around for work are also going to want a world in where the work can’t move around so easily either because when it does it will undermine them and their ability to prosper. It’s no malicious but rather an inevitable consequence of choosing a certain kind of life. Now, that demand could be from a minority, but if asked, I would expect that most people would rather have a stable home life and a job that suited them rather than a life spent globe hopping in search of that extra dollar. And remember, I’m not talking about CEOs here. I’m talking about normal people for whom that move might eat their entire benefit arising from the move.

The latter argument is just the former pushed to its logical end.  If you see no benefit from supranational structures like the EU, then really it doesn’t justify its own existence and so should disappear. To the extent it doesn’t, and worse than that, keeps pushing an agenda that undermines your choice of life, then it is a problem not just a neutral to be lived alongside. For most there is no chance to challenge such a behemoth…well most of the time and that resentment focusses itself not on the flaws in choosing a staid lifestyle of staying in one place but on the flaws in a system that doesn’t reward, or allow for, that choice of lifestyle. Like most blame seeking it looks outwards rather than inwards (if only people read more G K Chesterton it might be different one supposes).

2. No, I voted because I want to control our borders…

This is the same as the above, but phrased in a different way. Why should someone consider free movement of people as a problem at all? Well, if one chooses a certain lifestyle and others arrive who are different, that presents an implicit threat to the way of life being sought – because they may well prosper over and above those who chose the other way of life. For example, if someone comes in with better qualifications or with more experience, that means they should get more return on their labour which then means they will prosper over those whose education stopped at 16 years of age with a glad gasp to be away from schooling forever. We may wring our hands over the failure of education or the lack of ambition or the prejudice of such circumstances but the outworking is a difference in opinion about what is appropriate a way to live. We may even say to ourselves that the less well educated deserve their lot and we shouldn’t weep over their choices. However, I think the Leave vote offers us something to learn that our Elites should really be taking notice of for its own sake (rather than as leverage to get themselves more power).

Globalisation has had very palpable benefits. These are documents everywhere, not least in our ability to eat take aways, see films, use phones and have modern medicine when we need it. However, per Joseph Stiglitz’ book “Globalisation and its discontents’ it is not as simple as that. Globalisation has also had its losers and by number there are probably more losers than beneficiaries – especially in advanced western democracies.

Income inequality in advanced capitalist societies is about as bad as its been since enfranchisement. It’s certainly much worse now than at any time since the post war settlements. There is massive evidence in the literature that inequality drives poorer outcomes for the less well off, those who have fewer opportunities. They live shorter lives and at every stage of their interaction with official infrastructure achieve poorer outcomes than their richer counterparts. These differences scale with the gap between richest and poorest. It is not cynicism on the part of the less well off to look at the rich and better educated and believe the deck is stacked against them.

When one votes against the EU, one is voting to i) punish the elites, or ii) to kick against the sticks of official infrastructure that are stacked in other people’s favour.

It may not make one’s life better but it is unlikely to make it obviously, tangibly worse. If one sees this protest as validated then it also permits one to aggressively pursue a rejection of other people’s ways of life (i.e. more racism comes out into the open as a result).

For those who don’t see the argument from the bottom of the opportunity ladder the implicit reasoning is still there – we are insulated from the impact of globalisation, we have our own networks, we can benefit with or without that specific network and, as vested interests, we may well benefit MORE without the competition represented by the other network of powers. I hesitate to use the phrase checks and balances but when multiple sets of vested interests are in peaceful competition, it is nearly always good for the majority who benefit from stability because no one ideology can ascend unchallenged.

So the lessons:

  • Globalisation has its losers, it always will but right now our society is rejecting the notion of globalisation as it’s been presented to them
  • Elites across the western world are perceived by much of the population as the enemy – they have lost legitimacy (for whatever reason – I’m not talking about why or why not)
  • The rejection has a logic to it that makes sense from its own perspective
  • It is not simply here in the UK that this movement, populist in its nature, has taken hold, but across western democracies whose polities have seen their income erode even as elites are perceived to obtain more security, more wealth and deliver fewer goods to society.

I’m not going to talk here about what Remainers might have been voting for beyond the sense that we are better off in a stronger/larger network, that multi-culturalism has brought a massive peace dividend or that the benefits from globalisation outweigh the flaws. Why? Because this is already 2,000 words long and I’ve not got the time or inclination to do that here.

What can our responses be?

  • We need to recognise that, at its heart, a rejection of globalisation as we’ve seen in the last few days comes from almost the same place as Remainers own pleas for equality of opportunity. It’s just being expressed very differently. I think, primarily because the focus is different. In accepting globalisation, Remainers calls for equality and greater justice focus on all people. Leavers start at home and want it for themselves and their own tribes in priority to others. However, the want for perceived justice is the same. Given this idea (if true at all) both sides have a common mandate to pursue a change in the economic and political order that calls for a less wealth inequality and a financial system that permits that (while not actively discouraging wealth creators from innovating and creating)
  • We need to recognise that it is not in the interest of our elites to hear that message. They will look to treat the symptoms of the problem without addressing the underlying causes. They may well control our borders but the UK will become poorer as a result. Those who voted for it will also become even poorer with access to even fewer services. However they will then have nowhere left to turn because they will have been entirely disenfranchised in favour of the elites. Arguments that it’s not about immigration or the EU will be met with suspicion – only by challenging what our politicians enact in law as normative for finance, society and politics itself, can we try to create a space where income inequality is seen as a bad thing for society and, possibly, look to create a space where it is reined in.
  • The bumps in the financial markets right now are the recognition by elites around the world that there is a massive disconnect between them and their constituents and that, at some point it won’t hold together any more.

Our job, if I can be so brassic, is to make sure we change the debate now. That we don’t let decision makers bandage up their pride, throw us a few bones and carry on as normal. If we do, the rejection of the ideals embodied in liberal postmodernity that, in my view at least, benefit mankind more than they harm, will be swallowed up in a sea of intolerance, extreme difference between the rich and the poor and a properly dysfunctional society. I don’t want my kids to live in that world.


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