Allegedly Mussolini made Italian trains run on time. It’s not hard to see some parallels here with the Brexiteers’ claim that leaving the EU will help to save the NHS, stop immigrants coming to the country, turn the economy around, provide affordable housing or reclaim waters and fishing rights for the doomed fishing fleet. But, at least so far, Brexit advocates haven’t dared promise to fix the great British railway disaster and make trains run on time.
How could it ever come to this? How was it possible that a country whose citizens in their overwhelming majority never voted for any fascist party and stood up to the totalitarian threat in Europe throughout the 20th century (despite some extreme conservative turns); a country with a string of distinguished universities; a country that ‘invented’ political economy (the Scottish Enlightenment) and re-invented economics when it was needed (Keynes); a country that possessed a string of excellent anti-totalitarian writers and critics committed to Europe (despite being recognisably British in tone and rhetoric, from Orwell and Cyril Connolly in the past to Jonathan Freedland or Timothy Garton Ash in the present) ‒ that such a country would finally give in to the madness that is Brexit?
But maybe such questions are just wrongly posed. One has perhaps to re-think the one-sidedness of the imagined tradition that transpires from the above list. Put differently, maybe the question reveals simply a lot of Continental wishful thinking, projected onto British, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish traditions? Perhaps Continental ‘foreigners’ and fellow Europeans imagined the UK for far too long as an entity totally removed from painful and unpleasant realities such as its crass class structures; the infrastructure for which the Grenfell tower is just a symbol and was a disaster waiting to happen; or the Northern ‘powerhouse’ with some of the oldest railways connections that have never been electrified; its rotten and largely unrepresentative political system with its 800 Lords of the unelected Upper House (400 of them from greater London) and the regional disparities which have led to the creation of permanent minorities/majorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; or other features of British public life starting with the endlessly recurring moral panics ‒ the BBC and Jimmy Saville being just the most recent example ‒ and finishing with the agenda-setting capacity of the right-wing media, including the space they provide for eccentric xenophobes with non-English sounding names such as Farage?
Perhaps Continental admirers blanked out the other, darker side against better knowledge? Anglophiles (incl. the admirers of its regional or national variants) perhaps hoped or wished that the UK had come to terms with its colonial past; its ‘two-nations’ legacy of inequality; its constitutional mess; its xenophobe undercurrents; its neglected and underfinanced regions; its deeply troubled history in the way that it still struggles with meaningful democratic representation after all attempts to overhaul the electoral system have been dismissed. It might turn out after all, that the rhetoric of a nation that celebrates fairness has perhaps to be understood negatively: such rhetoric may be just indicative of the fact that the country actually doesn’t treat its citizens fairly at all.
As to ‘caring’ about the relationship the UK had with the outside world, perhaps uncritical admirers for far too long took solace in the fact that while the UK would occasionally voice its concerns when Europe was in danger in going off the rails and needed reminding that not everything could be fixed through centralisation, normative orders, ‘the state’, or French-German agreements, it remained stubbornly unreformable at home. Still, for better (sometimes though not always) or for worse (recently and more frequently in more irritating ways) the UK had, for a long time, added to the EU cacophony, often by reminding those across the Channel in its unique empirical idiom of the grandeur of Continental policies by questioning the delusions of the German-French axis. That is now no more. Sure, the UK will not fall into an Atlantic abyss, thanks largely to other alliances and European communication networks, and thanks partly also to the non-availability of an increasingly navel-gazing and isolationist US; however, it will be a voice less meaningful ‒ and as such it will be sadly missed among the concert of nations.
But back to what motivated our catalogue of questions, how could it come to this? What made it possible? I think there are two explanations, one internal, the other external.
Let’s start with the internal explanation. In daily competition and in contrast to other EU countries it has transpired that the UK system of governance still relies heavily on the sovereignty of the Parliament with its fusionist tendencies, including the occasional blending of its checks and balances – something that is far easier in a political system that knows no written constitution but is mainly based on parliamentary acts and a historical collection of individual laws passed. Once that system was challenged (if not overwhelmed), first by the volume of legislation from Brussels and Strasbourg, and more recently in the form of a popular referendum ‒ which invoked other principles alien to the UK such as the sovereignty of the people ‒, there was no coming back for the sovereignty of the Parliament. It didn’t help in this context that the UK is the most centralised political and social system in the western hemisphere, even more so than the French system. This means that any flaw in the system just ripples through the whole without any force or power being able to stop it.
It added to an already confused situation that UK civil society (or should we say ‘civil societies’ since some of the nations and regions are clearly not in concert) is severely limited in its capacity to act ‘for and by itself’, and to find political expression outside the two main political parties. The return to a stagnant two-party system after the decline (or should we say suicide?) of the third party ‒ the Lib Dems ‒ and the national limitation of minority/majority parties in Scotland, Wales and NI, has made it almost impossible to voice protest or to set the agenda outside the two larger conservative parties (one of which happens to be Labour).
Having a well-informed public and forming an educated, well-informed democratic citizenry was largely prevented by the increased power that came with the control, centralisation and monopolisation that are the hallmarks of the UK’s unique media landscape. Where other countries know a number of quality newspapers and monthly outlets, and a healthy pluralism in terms of TV offerings and opinions, an increasing politically controlled BBC – once the pride of all public TV aficionados – and the increased influence of media giants like the Murdoch group in both print and TV form have left the public literally on the receiving end.
Last, but not least, there is the historical baggage of decades of structural stagnation: no major reform effort to overhaul the British system has ever been undertaken. Tradition, pomp and circumstance – muddling through in other words – have created a confidence trap unlike that of many other modern political systems. Thus, to paraphrase Tocqueville, in the UK the tyranny of the majority took on a peculiarly perverse form: it passed from the sovereignty of the Parliament to the tyranny of the majority without passing through the normal stages of a functioning politics.
This brings me to the external dimension. All the foregoing would not amount to a perfect storm were Europe itself in a better state. And here European admirers, including many fellow social scientists who have been so gung-ho about Europe for years (if not decades), will maybe have to ask themselves about their own delusions. Ever since Lisbon it has been clear that the EU project has been in deep crisis. But would EU politicians and their friends and supporters listen? Ireland was asked twice to reconsider its popular vote on Lisbon; Denmark, Holland and even France threatened further referenda. Did it lead our chief Europeans to reconsider the project of an ever-closer Europe?
How was it possible to design a system that had no clear definitions in terms of citizenship, borders, nor a constituent population, never mind any vision of incoming new citizens who usually don’t enter en bloc but rather as individuals or as groups of individuals (as most refugees and migrants do)? But it gets worse. Lisbon came to immortalise the nation state as one of the founding elements of the EU, effectively ruling out any possibility of any other political configurations and dynamics. Scotland and Catalunya have been the revenge for that. Finally, a long and dry document, first called a constitution but soon redefined and scaled down and called a new contract, was the result. The technical prose of this new contract didn’t raise any great passions. In fact, it lacked conviction, and the discussion surrounding it certainly lacked any alternative views on where Europe should be heading; worse, alternative views were simply dismissed as anti-European. Larry Siedentop’s pertinent question remains unanswered: where are our Madisons?
And so, remains the answer to our problem raised in the opening paragraph: who, after nobody ‘outside’ can be blamed anymore for the British malaise, will make British trains run on time?
Andreas Hess is professor of sociology at University College Dublin. He is the author of The Political Theory of Judith N. Shklar. Exile from Exile (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and (forthcoming) Tocqueville and Beaumont: Aristocratic Liberalism in Democratic Times (Palgrave Pivot, 2018).