In most conversations and interviews on what’s broadly called populism, “Trump” and “Brexit” are bracketed. These events in the two largest Anglophone countries are taken, without the need for further discussion, to signal a turn to the nationalist right, to take their place with the German Alternative für Deutschland, the French Front National and the Italian Lega Nord as proof that liberal-democratic culture is under siege, and may even go under.
But Trump’s election and Brexit are distinctly different. The widely believed view that Trump won because of working class votes isn’t the case. He did get millions of such votes: but detailed studies of both the primaries and the presidential election showed that two-thirds of his votes came from voters whose economic status varies from comfortable to very rich. They were united by a detestation of the central state.
Writing (with Nicholas Carnes) in the Washington Post in June this year, the Vanderbilt University political scientist Noam Lupu, who combed over the data from the American National Election Survey, showed that “in the general election, like the primary, about two-thirds of Trump supporters came from the better-off half of the economy” – pretty much of a piece with a conventional victory for a Republican candidate. He also found that the view that low income/low formal education attainment = vote for Trump, wasn’t very robust either: “among white people without college degrees who voted for Trump, nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution. In fact, one in five white Trump voters without a college degree had a household income over $100,000”. They voted for Trump to lighten what they felt was the burden of the state – especially, its taxes.
Autre pays autres moeurs
In the UK, an analysis by the National Centre for Social Research showed that a large number of the poor and poorly educated voted to leave. The Centre’s authors wrote, however, that while “it is clear that the Leave vote was most concentrated amongst those with least economic resources”, still, “in order to win the Referendum, the Leave vote mobilised a broader base of supporters. Almost half of those who said they were ‘doing alright’ financially voted Leave, as well as almost 40% of those describing themselves as middle class”. Oldham, among the poorest cities in the UK, voted to leave: but – as the interview with Branko Milanovic on Social Europe noted – so did Sevenoaks, in Kent, among the richest.
The reasons were overwhelmingly for a return, not a diminution, of sovereign power. Polls showed that many of those voting (88 per cent) wanted control over borders to cut down on immigration, while some 90 per cent said they wanted “independence” from the EU . The Leave voters wanted powers which they believed had been taken from the UK Parliament and given to the European Union to be repatriated. British laws for British people – to use Gordon Brown’s formulation.
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“Trump” and Brexit” are in their most important respects quite different. US Trump voters identified with his “clean the swamp” anti-Washington rhetoric, and were generally hostile to central government and to federal power which they wanted to diminish. This is a hostility which is ingrained in US political culture, especially on the right; and has been exacerbated both by wage stagnation and inequality – above all, inequality of opportunity, the bedrock value in the US.
British Leavers, with no such basic assumption that the state is an enemy of freedom (the most trusted institutions are statist) voted to increase central power, to re-endow it with greater authority – crucially, over immigration. The US vote was an anti-statist vote: the British one for a state which the electorate could control through the ballot – the central tenet of a liberal democracy.
This was made more obvious by the collapse of UKIP after the vote, for which it claimed credit. Having done its job, the electorate found no further use for it: they did not want a reactionary group in parliament – unlike quite large numbers of French, German and Italian voters. In the US, by contrast, an America First, increasingly obviously racist President enjoys still 90 per cent support among Republicans, and has recently had his first major success in passing a tax bill which certainly lessens the state’s economic heft at the cost – most economists believe – of rising inequality as the wealthy benefit disproportionately and of an increase in the already dangerously huge public debt.
Yet the fact of the pro-democratic vote in the UK lands the country in an economic mess. It is clear from the efforts of the pro-Brexit government that, at least in the short term, Britain will suffer from the decision to Leave. The country was split in two, and remains so. Polling in the summer showed that many more Leavers (6 per cent) regretted their choice, as against only 1 per cent of Remainers, while applications for Irish passports have soared. But the evident desire for the British parliament to remain sovereign, and hostility to further integration of the Union (inevitably, more powers for Brussels, fewer for national parliaments) will remain.
The political task is not to engineer a second referendum. It is to take the country as it is, and to recognise that effective government and parliament, familiar to and supported by a large majority (even if the governing party is unpopular with many), will remain the primary locus of debate, decision and legislation. This should be the argument of a campaign – recognising the desire for sovereignty and what it can do, pledging to strengthen it, and seeking support from other EU member states which believe in broadly the same approach.
This is not to pitch camp on the ground of the nationalist-populists: on the contrary. It is to recognise that liberal democracy requires comprehensible, relatively transparent mechanisms to control those taking, and wielding power: and this is likely to be unavailable on a European level for many years.
We in the UK should recognise two things. One, that a democratic decision has been made in a referendum: and second, that the EU needs to open a debate among its members which clarifies how far and which states are willing to integrate and transfer more power to a central Union administration: and which are not. Those which attempt to do this face a large challenge: that is, to convince sceptical electorates that power wielded by politicians from different countries, diverse political cultures and strong ties to their own states will be able to take the right decisions for diverse electorates who are largely ignorant of who they are and of what the issues consist.
Inner and outer circles
And power must be wielded: the very limited scope accorded to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security confines the holder to coordination and exhortation. Though both the first holder of the post, Catherine Ashton, and the present, Federica Mogherini, have had usually un-sung successes, these are tightly limited by what consensus can be reached with the EU member states. An EU Finance Minister, sought by both President Emmanuel Macron of France and Martin Schulz, leader of the German Social Democrats now in coalition talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, cannot be so constrained if s/he is to be effective. Success, however, in working with greater integration will mean the construction of a new political pole of attraction for the ‘laggards’ who don’t believe in this: and sooner or later they would probably wish to join.
For those laggards presently, membership should be clearly transactional: its aim, to enjoy the advantages of a single market and to use the Union as a medium through which cooperation on a range of important issues – environment, security, military – is encouraged. At any time, members of the outer circle could transfer to the inner.
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The outer circle states should make clear to their citizens that political sovereignty remains with the national democratic institutions, and that the protection and encouragement of a robust and varied civil society is seen as a necessary concomitant. The EU has remained suspended between rhetorical commitments to integrate and real world action which demonstrates that politics remains, in the eyes of the large majority, properly within the nation state. The laggards’ governments should make clear that an EU state is not their goal: not to do so is to increase the space for authoritarian nationalists.
The basic belief of the laggards is that it is at the national level where politics is best understood and where the leverage which representative democracy and civic activism grant to all who would participate in them is best protected. Further, that the conflicts which government inevitably creates remain, for the larger part, within a given state: pan-European government extends conflict to all. Thus, the founding aim of what became the Union – the preservation of peace in Europe – would be weakened: a wholly perverse result.
The good idea which is a Europe of close and multi-level cooperation and civil relationships is, ironically, best preserved by separate government. The integrationists may prove, by success, that this is as limited and parochial as they presently think it is. But they will be ultimately the better placed to succeed by recognising that many of the member states wish, for the moment, to remain semi-detached politically, and thus framing a structure which accommodates them – including Britain.