The Debate

Brexit: An Indictment of Direct Democracy or Vulgar Politics as Usual?

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The Debate

Brexit: An Indictment of Direct Democracy or Vulgar Politics as Usual?

No reason to grow contemptuous of direct democracy after ‘Brexit’. This was always about politicians and politics.

Brexit: An Indictment of Direct Democracy or Vulgar Politics as Usual?

Newcastle Upon Tyne, TYNE AND WEAR/UK – APRIL 16th 2016 – Mayor of London Boris Johnson speaking at a vote leave rally in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, on April 16th 2016.

Credit: Stuart Boulton /

As the votes were tallied and results announced on Friday morning in the outcome of the United Kingdom’s historic vote on continued membership in the European Union, the British pound sterling crashed against major world currencies and global equities nosedived, with $3 trillion of value wiped away immediately. Opinion and commentary on the immediate outcomes of Brexit has rightly pointed out the folly of some in the pro-Leave camp choosing to ignore expert opinion, which predicted the deleterious outcomes. Others, like my colleague Franz, note the inadvisability of popular referendums on consequential questions like the United Kingdom’s continued participation in the European Union.

Franz further diagnoses the causes of the triumph of the Leave camp: “British tabloids have fed the public a steady stream of half-truths and distortions painting the picture of an undemocratic out-of-control bureaucratic behemoth in Brussels that needs to be discarded as quickly as possible, lest it grabs the last remnants of ancient British liberty.” He concludes that there “is an inherent danger coming from direct democracy when combined with an uninformed and manipulated public that has to decide the policy of a country.”

While I sympathize with Franz’s Hamiltonian cri de coeur (indeed, Europe as we know it is fraying at the seams as a result of popular discontentment), a paternalistic doubling down against popular will seems counterproductive and the wrong lesson to draw in the wake of ‘Brexit’. Consider also that no European polity, when asked to decide between the national and the European, has voted in favor of the EU. The referendum was always going to be close and even a slight victory for Remain, while avoiding the disastrous immediate economic consequences, would have left the UK tense and uneasy over its relationship with Europe.

Like Franz, I’m also partial to the wisdom of the American founding fathers and count myself lucky to live in the United States where popular referendums on questions of foreign policy and international political economy are not in the cards. (Imagine a popular American referendum on the North American Free Trade Agreement or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization today, for example.) But instead of looking to Alexander Hamilton, ‘Brexit’, like so many political earthquakes, is borne primarily of the unchecked ambitions of vulgar political men. Here, more so than Alexander Hamilton, I am reminded of Nicolo Machiavelli’s aphorism that the “vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.”

This was always about politics. The motley crew of pro-Brexit campaigners, chief among them the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, engaged in a campaign of vulgar misinformation at best and outright xenophobia-bordering-on-racism at worst. And while some who voted pro-Leave had an intellectually cogent case against the European Union’s shortcomings (which do exist), the public faces of the Leave campaign—its vulgar appearance, to use Machiavelli’s parlance—were simply in pursuit of political power. Gove’s remarks that “the country is sick of experts” and Farage’s foul evocation of racism and xenophobia no doubt stirred up the passions of those who agreed with them, drawing the “vulgar crowd” to the ballot box, but there is more to this.

Consider Boris Johnson, the man who appears best positioned to emerge as the UK’s next prime minister. In becoming the public face of the Brexit campaign in defiance of fellow Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Boris seized on the opportunity he saw in the aftermath of the Cameron government’s own politically cynical ploy to hold a non-binding referendum on EU membership should the Tories gain a majority in last year’s general election. Boris, heeding Machiavelli’s warning that “there is nothing more important than appearing to be religious,” took on the role of the high priest of Tory euroskeptics in favor of leaving the European Union.

In the hours since the results of referendum became known and ‘Brexit’ was given the imprimatur of 51.9 percent of voters, Johnson’s veneer of faith in the wisdom of leaving the European Union has come tumbling down. Though the result of the referendum gives Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions a huge boost, neither he nor Gove have been particularly celebratory in the way that a true believer in the anti-EU cause might be. (Meanwhile, the UK Independence Party’s Farage has had a jolly good time, genuinely satisfied with the result, like many of his xenophobic and racist supporters. Farage, though vulgar, is also a believer.)

Johnson’s pious affectation in favor of Leave was shed almost immediately after the vote. His somber “victory” speech on Friday praised Cameron, sought to build up unity, but the real tell was his walk-back: “There’s no need for haste and, as the prime minister has said, nothing will happen in the short term.” He added: “I believe British people have spoken up for democracy in Britain and across Europe.” Indeed, as other observers have noted, Johnson was smart enough to know that the referendum was a gamble worth taking; it was his best bet to see Cameron off, with a humiliating popular mandate to invigorate the intra-party insurgency.

This was always about politics and power. The coming weeks and months will vindicate what I’ve outlined here, as I expect Boris and company to drag their feet on following up with the mechanics that would realize a ‘Brexit’ de jure (most critically, the invocation of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty). Indeed, the bad-but-not-catastrophic reaction in global markets may suggests that despite the worrying message sent by the triumph of the Leave camp in the referendum, market expectations are that Boris may yet finagle a way out of implementing ‘Brexit’. Direct democracy by mean of referendum, in the context of Brexit, was a tool evoked of political necessity (Cameron seeking temporary political ballast) and taken advantage of for political ambition (Boris’ skewering of Cameron). That the people of the UK voted and told us what they really think is ultimately a neutral event, on balance.

The American Founding Fathers had it right on the dangers of popular will and the tyranny of the majority as principle of governance, but Machiavelli’s more universal observations about the interactions between men and those who lead them don’t cease to apply for contemporary democracies like the UK. (Since I’m writing this in June 2016, I could include the obligatory paragraph tying this into you-know-who’s rise in the United States, but I’ll practice some self control.) The takeaway from ‘Brexit’, thus, shouldn’t be a hardening of contempt for popular will and the one-person-one-vote principle that underwrites all forms of modern democracy, but to continue to expect politicians to be politicians.

I’ll leave it to Boris Johnson to prove me right.