Cameron and Populism

So, David Cameron blames his ignominious defeat over Brexit on the rise of ‘populism’ ( By that he clearly means the ‘mob’, which has been the great bugbear of his class and political persuasion for centuries. It was the fear of ‘mob rule’, in fact, which led the makers – or rather evolvers – of the British constitution, such as it is, to insert safeguards into it in order to avoid the great unwashed’s storming the ramparts of their privileges, so endangering not only those privileges, but also – they claimed – the security and well-being of the nation as a whole.

The ascendency of Parliament – composed (the Commons, that is) of elected representatives who would be able to channel the will of the people safely, after due debate (three readings of any bill), and then subject to amendment by the House of Lords and clarification by the judiciary, the powers of all of these being ‘separated’, as in the USA – was the main formal means to this. Other means, rather less overt, but still effective, were official secrecy (about which I’m just now writing a piece for the LRB); the oppressive use of certain laws; privileges granted to unelected people and bodies; propaganda; and various other forms of chicanery. All this, of course, as it becomes revealed – as it is being, for example in the book I’m reviewing for the LRB – somewhat undermines the claim that these ‘checks and balances’ are working to the benefit of ‘the people’ at large.

But there’s something in what Dave says. Analysis has shown that Brexit voters were on average lower-class, less well educated and poorer than those who voted the other way: a pretty good indication what the upper-classes would regard as ‘mobbery’. (See But that’s not the main point. It doesn’t matter who voted for Brexit, so much as the circumstances in which they voted. I can imagine other demographics voting (in my opinion) wrongly, on this or on other questions; if, as in this case, they aren’t given the opportunity to consider their votes calmly and seriously, and are forced to decide on the basis of inaccurate facts (those Brexit battlebuses and posters of invading Turks), and on just one single occasion, at a time of great political feeling about other issues, and of popular frustration and resentment on a number of grounds – I’ve already argued that it was these that lay behind many of the ‘leave’ votes (; on the basis of a simple and, as it turned out, very narrow majority of votes (most foreign referenda on fundamental constitutional issues demand a significantly larger-than-50% majority); and – lastly – with no mechanism for reconsideration. There is one such mechanism, in fact, which however is what the Brexiteers are getting so het up about now: putting it to Parliament, they say, will flout the ‘popular voice’. But that is exactly what British Parliamentary democracy, which they claim to want to liberate from Brussels tyranny, is – or was – all about. Not flouting the popular will, necessarily, but ensuring that, on such an important issue as this, it is a considered and tested will. Not just a hasty decision taken for reasons irrelevant to the main issue, and which might melt away in the very near future, and especially without sober consideration: meaning three readings in the Commons, at least.

According to Wikipedia Cameron took History A-Level at Eton – though he didn’t follow this through at Oxford. Didn’t he study any British Constitutional history, which should have taught him all this? If he had done, he would have realised that Britain has never been a country ruled by plebiscite, and for very good reasons, quite apart from the less laudable ones. At the very least, he would have made it plain that the referendum he called to appease his wilder backbenchers was advisory only; should have emphasised that Parliament was still sovereign; and possibly – taking the example of other nations – might have required a (say) 60% majority, for such a huge and shattering decision. And if he’d been more in touch with the ‘people’, he might have seen the popular reaction against his government  – indeed, against ‘Westminster’ generally – emerging a lot sooner than he did. There were clear signs of it. The surprise is that it took him so much by surprise.

What an ignorant and irresponsible fool he was; to have so misjudged the nation, and then wagered its entire fate on the flip of one coin.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Cameron and Populism

  1. Phil says:

    I’ve argued here that bringing the EU referendum result back to Parliament to be debated on & planned out may be constitutionally necessary – not because it was a referendum, but because it was such a bloody awful referendum.

    Liked by 1 person

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