It may be too extreme to say that our democracy is broken, but certainly we are witnessing the rise of populism and the dethronement of reason. Recent years have witnessed a growing disenchantment with conventional politics and a simultaneous growing contempt for politicians.
This seems to be a result of a number of trends and events. These include the MPs’ expenses scandal, the economic crash of 2008, which exploded the myth of economic competence amongst our governors, and the rise of a political class which has little experience beyond being members of think tanks or acting as special advisers.
Additionally, longer-term trends have seen a rupture between the Labour Party and much of the working class with the decline of organic linkages through trade union membership. With disdain for the ‘political class’ comes an increasingly uncritical view of those who are ‘outside’ or even ‘against’ politics. Looking outside of Britain, it was revealing how many Donald Trump supporters in a vox pop supported him because he was “not a politician”: a strange description of a US presidential candidate.
Populism feeds into the disparagement of expertise and of reason. However, it seems at times as if the “elite” are only too happy to play to the populists’ stereotypes. One such example was a Guardian column in which Chris Patten gave a patronising dismissal of Brexit voters. As someone who had held the sinecures of governor of Hong Kong, chair of the BBC Trust, European Commissioner and Chancellor of Oxford University, he arguably typified the elite against which the Brexit outsiders railed.
The rupture in the UK’s body politic was evident during the Brexit campaign. Such were the poor levels of information provided for voters that the Electoral Reform Society produced a report: It’s Good to Talk. Its recommendations included that “an officially sanctioned data set might help to inform voters” and that there could be intervention “…by independent sources when overtly misleading statements are made by official campaigners”.
However, while this endorsement of objectivity and rationalism is laudable, it misconstrues the nature of the Referendum. For many voters, it was not about facts and evidence: the European Union had become a symbol of either malign or benign trends in British and European popular culture. For many Brexit supporters, it represented an elite-driven project that both failed to benefit many Britons and eroded national sovereignty: “We want our country back”. For some Remainers, the EU symbolised a liberal, cosmopolitan, unchauvinistic and inclusive form of politics. Neither of these positions was likely to be much influenced by facts, and the details of the cost e.g. of the European Commission or the relative efficiency of its bureaucracy were beside the point.
In the short term, the EU Referendum has exacerbated existing trends: the rise of populism and the decline of reason in political discourse; the febrile relationship of the four constituent nations of the UK; and austerity-driven economic uncertainty. Sadly, the calibre of the ministers responsible for the Brexit negotiations gives little hope that these issues can be effectively addressed in the near future.