Liberals guilty too on referendum chaos

A few days ago I noted a tweet from someone who, I know, is a fairly quintessential Guardian-reading left-liberal. It poured scorn on David Cameron for daring to call a referendum which had brought out all the lunatics of the political Left and Right.

Therein he revealed the problem with too many Liberals. They’re not really all that keen on this “democracy” lark either. How dare the people be consulted? Some of them might be easily “confused” and not vote the right way…

Let us pursue that logic. Decisions should only be made by people qualified (like, through study) to make them. People not qualified should, therefore, be disenfranchised. That looks to me like a nineteenth century Conservative argument, not a modern Liberal one…

Of course, to some degree that is how representative democracy works. Ultimately, however, Ministers are drawn from those elected by the people – all the people. A majority of all the people of Great Britain, in their wisdom, voted last year for parties which pledged an in/out referendum on the EU, and so now we are having one. All the people will get a say in it.

The conduct of the referendum has, as usual, been a disgrace. The Remain side has been ludicrously alarmist, and the Leave side has been outright deceitful as a matter of course. Ultimately, however, it is for the individual voter (as any Liberal should accept) to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Perhaps the main driver of the Leave vote is indeed the desire to give what many might see as a smug middle-class elite (of which the aforementioned tweeter himself would no doubt be taken to be a member, as indeed I would) a bloody nose. This is the reason that, across the West, nominally “left-wing” parties have increasingly lost ground in the inner cities to what that same elite generally refers to as the “Far Right”.

For example, almost every single working-class Austrian male voter last month chose a “Far Right” presidential candidate over a centre-left one. The latter may have offered a set of policies theoretically more in their interest, but it was the former who spoke their language (mainly, of course, by playing to their fears about immigration, just as the Leave campaign is now doing in the UK).

Indeed, I attended a function last month where some pro-Remain academics wanted to focus on immigration, essentially to “correct” people’s views on it, as if it was their place to do that. “Focus on immigration”, I said, “and you lose the referendum”. They seemed detached from the point that immigration is not a rational issue, but (for reasons which are not entirely illegitimate) an emotional one, and they were not going to turn that around among the masses with a case based on academic theoretical reason in a few weeks!

Liberals – and I am one of course – find themselves with an existential problem. They simply cannot find the means to communicate with people in marginalised communities. This is primarily, I would suggest, because they keep applying reason to topics to which normal human beings apply emotion. We are primarily emotional beings, something which is essential to our survival as a species – after all, since when was falling in love rational?!

Liberals needn’t worry about this forthcoming referendum, as it happens. Human emotion also dictates that security plays a big role in decisions like this, and there is always security in numbers and in the status quo, which is why Remain will win in the end, even if by rather less than the eleven points “No” won by in Scotland.

But after that, Liberals (and Greens) across the West will have to answer questions about their existential crisis, and about why they simply cannot appeal to vast bulks of the population without sounding at best demeaningly distant and at worst plain arrogant. They need to stop talking to comfortable social circles consisting solely of each other, and start listening (really listening) to new people, and to the concerns they raise – and if those concerns do not make them uncomfortable, they are not doing it correctly.

And they need to do this fast. Nothing less than the future of democracy is on the line.


3 thoughts on “Liberals guilty too on referendum chaos

  1. Tried to explain to a left wing Leaver how voting against the EU wasnt going to open borders to refugees or make the Tories leave office.

    It’s got to the point Brexit means everything to everybody.

  2. As is so often the case, you have identified the key problem, Ian. Whatever the EU vote, there is a much wider (one might even say global) crisis for liberal democracy. The political enlightenment assumption was that with a few generations of education, the voters would increasingly be guided by rational self-interest, based on socio-economic (and perhaps power) interests. Much of the evidence of the last century is that this is a mistaken analysis, but there is not yet an obvious, straightforward, widely understood alternative.

  3. BOB GELDOF! We’ve got Demagogues too!

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