Brexit and the new hostility to participatory democracy

The reaction to Brexit illustrates the desperate need for the Left to return to first principles. For, as the result broke on social media, a remarkable number of progressives directed their anger not at anti-immigrant demagogues and opportunist politicians but against the voters themselves and the very idea of a referendum in which they might express their will.

It’s merely the most recent illustration of a growing estrangement from democracy, not only on the mainstream Right but also on the Left.

Obviously, that claim requires an immediate qualification. In Eureka Street recently, I wrote:

These days, aside from a few fringe cranks, everyone endorses democracy. As C. Douglas Lummis says, ‘The sentence, “I’m for democracy” communicates virtually no information … The statement is likely to be met with a blank stare or with a puzzled response like, “How nice”.’

But the almost universal enthusiasm is actually remarkably recent. Raymond Williams reminds us that, until the 19th century, democracy was mostly a term of approbation. It referred to a particular model of society, one in which the multitude ruled and the wealthy were suppressed: hence, in the revolutionary wave of 1848, the insurgent forces were known simply as ‘The Democracy’. Roget’s Thesaurus captures something of that usage by retaining ‘democrat’ as a synonym for ‘commoner’.

But that meaning was challenged by a conception of democracy as representative rule on behalf of the masses. Thus, Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founders, insisted that vesting deliberative or judicial powers in the collective body of the people led to ‘error, confusion and instability’. Against that, he advocated representative democracy as a kind of check on the multitude, ‘where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons’.

As Williams says, it’s from this notion that the dominant modern sense of the term developed. Yet, throughout the 20th century, the old debate continued in a new form, reflected in the differing understandings of democracy in the liberal and socialist traditions. For socialists, democracy meant popular power; for liberals, it meant elections of representatives alongside the conditions that facilitated those elections.’These two conceptions,’ Williams argued, ‘in their extreme forms, now confront each other as enemies.’

But that was written in 1976, a time in which the Left retained some of the vigour of the insurgent 60s. Today, the socialist tradition has been erased from public consciousness — and the radical definition of democracy largely forgotten.


In that piece, I suggested that the #neverTrump campaign illustrated the new hostility to participatory democracy. But the response to Brexit offers an even clearer example.

Take, for instance, the article by Michael Pascoe in the Melbourne Age, a piece about the Brexit result noteworthy primarily because it’s so typical.

‘Many of the protagonists know no better,’ he writes.

They are people with minds closed to the reality of the world being made a better place by maximising engagement, by welcoming differences and enlargement. There are others, the worst of them, happy to exploit ignorance for their short-term advantage. It sells newspapers. It can win an election. It can give an aspirant power.

The ignorant still view the interactions of nations as zero-sum games. They don’t grasp that globalisation is a win-win process, that the sum of our individual nations is indeed greater than the parts.

Pascoe’s the contributing editor of Business Day and thus hardly a radical. But, alas, that’s the point, for last night, you saw an almost identical rhetoric from all across Twitter. The majority of British voters were, we were told, buffoons and bigots – Little Englanders too foolish to understand the self-evident virtues of European integration. Many Australians drew a direct parallel with the proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage, a venture that would, we were told, allow a massive dam of ignorance and hatred to break its banks and drown us all.

Denunciations of the masses’ idiocy are always reactionary. If that seems surprising, it’s because, over the last decade, we’ve seen a minor cottage industry in books by supposed lefties with titles like Idiot America, The Dumbest Generation, A Short History of Stupid and so on. But if the masses are feeble minded, why bother trying to convince them? Why not instead devote yourself to reshaping the world on their behalf? Indeed, it often seems today that politics comes down to a choice between different versions of paternalism – the stern daddy of the Right versus the kindly father of the Left.

Of course, despite what the Pascoes of the world would have you believe, the ordinary people voting for Brexit weren’t motivated simply by a mixture of folly and spite. There were plenty of entirely legitimate reasons for scepticism about the EU project. Some years ago, Perry Anderson denounced the ‘degenerative drift of democracy across the continent, of which the structure of the EU is at once cause and consequence’.

The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.

More recently, Paul Mason argued that:

The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece; a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service. A judiciary that, in the Laval and Viking judgments, subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right do business freely.

Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law.

None of that necessarily involves claiming Brexit as a victory for the Left. As Mason says, at least in the short term, the beneficiaries will undoubtedly be the xenophobic Right.

At the same time, nothing’s contributing to the Right’s success more than the Left’s embrace of the antidemocratic, technocratic ideas embedded in the EU. It was one thing to argue against Brexit on the basis that it was being driven by bigots like Farrage. It was quite another to simply dismiss the quite legitimate concerns of working people as prejudices that might be dispelled by lectures from pop stars and TV personalities. ‘The cultural and economic barriers in the UK,’ lamented Salon, ‘the resentment of small-town people, some of them poor, to famous, wealthy people telling them how to vote … may be steeper than the people who did the predicting guessed.’ Ya think?

In some respects, Cameron’s plebiscite might be compared to the process by which Corbyn became Labour leader. In both cases, it took a political miscalculation to provide an opportunity for the expression of the popular will – an illustration of just how rare participatory democracy has become.

The best way to defeat a newly emboldened Right is to undercut its claims to give voice to the silent majority. The racists across Europe hate democracy – many of them have lineages directly traceable back to the fascist era. They can only present themselves as tribunes of the people because so much of the Left now sees ordinary voters not as agents of history but as a problem to be managed.

Take, for instance, the lessons being drawn from Brexit about the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. In the Age (in a piece published before the British vote but nonetheless expressing a sentiment widely voiced in its wake), Wendy Squires denounced the very idea of a vote on equal marriage as ‘divisive’, a ‘preposterous endeavour’ that would be innately ‘ugly’.

Again, it’s one thing to say that the plebiscite’s unnecessary, to denounce it as a stalling tactic by the conservatives. But that’s not the argument being made. Instead, the implication is that a popular vote would be more dangerous than a parliamentary one because it would involve, well, the population.

It’s a particularly odd contention, given the history of marriage equality in Australia. As I’ve argued before:

The current debate is only necessary thanks to John Howard, who, back in 2004, inserted a clause into theMarriage Act to exclude same-sex couples and ban them from adopting children. The Liberals’ discriminatory legislation was immediately supported by the ALP, with Nicola Roxon announcing Labor’s support for “promoting the institution the of marriage between men and women and as a bedrock institution for families”.

Noting the parliamentary consensus, Howard crowed, “Nobody can say [the amendment] is being used as a wedge, nobody can say it’s a diversion, everybody can say it’s a united expression of the national parliament and therefore of the will of the Australian people.”

The current marriage laws were imposed on the nation only 11 years ago, not as a result of the ignorance of the great unwashed, but as a parliamentary manoeuvre by the very people [we’re now told] will protect us from the hoi polloi.


For years now, polls have shown that the vast majority of Australians support marriage equality. The obstacle to equal marriage isn’t the bigotry of ordinary Australians but the demagoguery of Australian politicians, who entrenched homophobia into law. To put it another way, the struggle for marriage equality demonstrates that ordinary people have been consistently more progressive than their elected representatives.

Why, then, do so many progressives insist on presenting the issue as a cautionary tale about popular prejudice?

It’s the same problem we see in the reaction to Brexit: a conviction that ordinary people have failed us. Unfortunately, it’s far more accurate to say that we on the Left continue to fail them.

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Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great piece Jeff. Just one point I want to raise: I think the marriage equality rallies have already pushed back on homophobes. But the government will be giving tens of millions of dollars to the ACL to run a homophobic campaign in people’s living rooms, which will lead to people feeling unsafe, assaults and so on. Such a campaign won’t only increase homophobia – it’s actually a green flag to the far-right, empowering them to act on their violent impulses.

    While in the long-term a crushing defeat of the far-right, through mass counter rallies etc, might have a benefit of fighting homophobia, there has to be a recognition that people are genuinely scared of what the short-term consequences will be.

  2. The trend to discard “the masses” as soon as they do something we (cosmopolitan, professional, educated) disapprove of speaks of democracy’s underlying fragility and also of our own underlying prejudices. But. The truth is, even in Switzerland, where direct democracy exists at every level of government, not every question gets put to the public. Here in Australia, I think it is one of the leadership competencies to know which questions to put directly to the electorate, and to know which decisions broadly reflect the wishes of the electorate and meet the needs of the electorate without having to ask. There are certain questions our political class has agreed not to put to the people. If we had direct democracy in Australia, we would have a far more punitive justice system, for example. We would probably have the death penalty. Better for us all–and for our democracy–that the politicians take responsibility and do their jobs.

    1. “There are certain questions our political class has agreed not to put to the people.”

      Indeed. Like whether to continue their devotion to neoliberal dogma, criminalising those class war tactics available to the working majority, and ensuring Oz remains the vassal state of a corrupt and blood-stained empire.

      “If we had direct democracy in Australia, we would have a far more punitive justice system, for example.”

      You assume. In any case, at any given time it is impossible to objectively determine which issues are ‘too important to be left to the people’ so advocating such a position demonstrates a commitment to no particular position but only a general antipathy to democracy.

      1. There’s no assumptions about capital punishment. Look at the polls. While we are at, surely you jest about which issues ‘are too important to be left to the public”.

        The majority in the US does not believe that global warming is man made, and here we are with no time left. Should the future of the planet be determined by people who care more about shiny things than environmental science?

        Pure democracy enables interest groups to form and dominate with even less checks and balances than a representative democracy. I don’t get why it is supposed to be progressive. We’ve over 2000 years of political theory to draw from since the Athenians–it’s an ancient form of government. (I can’t really see the Athenian male aristocracy who had the right to vote giving rights to women.)

        Anyway, I’ll stick with a mixed system of referendums and representative republic, thank-you very much! Neoliberalism will die a horrible death either way eventually because it must–or we will die. But democracy will not save us either.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly with Bracha. Representative democracy, ie our sort, allows government to actually occur, without requiring the approval of the voters on every question. As you say, even Switzerland doesn’t have referenda on all issues. It is the job of our politicians to govern in our name, therefore we have a huge responsibility to choose our representatives wisely. Lastly, ” what’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right.” Government by populism produces some very nasty outcomes, another lesson from history.

  4. Good piece as always. However, regarding the plebacide on marriage equality, the concern regarding homophobia doesn’t stem from a denial of ordinary voices, but the fact that ordinary voices may not be heard above the excessive coverage given to the most vocal, bigoted minority in the media.

  5. You can be uneasy about the Brexit process without being cynical about participatory democracy. Aspects of the post-voting research suggest, for example, the the older voters carried the day (narrowly) for Leave where the younger voted to Remain – so those least affected by the result determined the future of those most affected. The process itself was unsatisfactory: what would have been a major constitutional change, had the UK a constitution, being decided by a simple majority in a single popular vote. This would not be possible in Australia, nor in the USA, among others.
    The analogy with Australia’s deliberations on marriage equality is not then so close, as that’s not a constitutional issue.

  6. While I might agree that the Brexit demonstrates an issue with outcomes of popular voting, I would also point out that Jeff Sparrow has never been on the side of people who believed, or acted in a democratic manner. For his version of the far left has always tended towards dictatorship and central command. It really doesn’t matter whether ‘government by populism produces some very nasty outcomes’, Sparrow is neither an advocate of popular election, nor of democracy. It is better for a democracy that we can make major mistakes together than be forced to march to the rallying call of the totalitarian ideals of Sparrows brand of politics.

    1. Your use of the term “totalatarian” in this context constitutes one of the greatest abuses of language that I have ever read.

  7. Brexit? Reads like a breakfast cereal: Snap! Crackle! POP! Ain’t that the absurdity of inherited political power and pomp, a la the old Master / Slave dialectic, where the master (Cameron), propped up irrationally by his slaves (voters), wages his honour on the outcome of a referendum, and is brought down by his slaves who refuse (for once) to endorse their irrational support for said master. So now Britain is free (of the EU). But free to do what? Maintain the old status quo? Business as usual. The rich buy up the three trillion wiped off the stock market at bargain basement prices, and triple that again to the power of infinity down the line? Nice free toy to get in your breakfast cereal packet.

  8. Implied within ‘those least affected by the result determined the future of those most affected.’ is an apathy which isn’t addressed by the elective process. I think this is a dangerous idea. Certainly, there is no gurantee of sincerety or societal purpose with each individual vote. However, intimating elders/seniors voted without a concern for a role of maturity and experience and, instead, voted only of a concern for ‘screwing’ those who still have youthful existence is pretty shocking. If this kind of apathy were true, it would be a sign that some kind of change should be considered as virtually mandatory.

    1. That implication is entirely of your construction not Sparrows. What is certain was a xenophobic and jingoistic “leave” campaign painting the woes of the working poor, the unemployed, the lower end of the middle class as being the fault of immigrants and that “EU elite” striping money from the nation rather than actual cause, thirty years of neoconservative (Tories) and neoliberal (Blair’s third way) economic policy that has devastated the socialist project of a fair go and reasonable life for all irrespective of birth circumstances. The fact that the Brexit if carried through will not address the refugee issue (for which climate change catastrophes and the ensuing water and resource wars will certain turn up the dial exponentially this century) in any substantive way and UK will have even less tools and checks at her disposal to counter the corporatisation of “democratic” power and syphoning of ever increasing wealth to the elites. There’s no doubt that Brexit will be leaving the poor and average relatively worse off economically and that a windfall gain has just passed to the asset rich classes in the UK.

  9. Also, it occurs to me, the young who might lath onto such a victimization would then be obligated to assure their own vote not as ‘one person, one vote, but as ‘immune from losing out on the issue’. Thus you’ve pitied an electorate – one against another – based on age rather than issue.

  10. That’s all fine re: the response to the UK’s plebiscite, but it ignores the fact that this referendum was actually called by the xenophobic right, who have been agitating for it for years. It’s Farage’s baby, and Cameron decided to call it for three significant reasons: to placate the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, to attract Kippers to vote for him in the recent election, and to provide a scapegoat for the devastating effects of ideological austerity in the form of EU immigrants. So in this sense, the left have been played – they are now a sideshow. What the referendum has successfully achieved is to firmly establish immigration as the principal cause of declining living standards. Mission accomplished. In response to the article, no plebiscite is ever a politically neutral instrument, and in this instance the correct response of the left should be to challenge the very circumstances by which it ever came into being, and this, above all, is the key thing the UK left failed to achieve.

    1. Exactly. This is super important. Similarly with removing the homophobic and transphobic restrictions on some forms of relationships (marriage): being completely led by the right, in order to manipulate and spread bigotry. Which it’s already doing.

  11. Dear Comrade Sparrow

    Allow us to express our concern over your latest published opinions.
    Firstly, when writing on the current situation in Britain, you have stated that the Left has “failed” what you describe as “ordinary people”.
    As you know and agree, it is impossible that the Left can fail any anything, or anybody. The success of our mission to fundamentally transform bourgeois society and all those in it is, historically, inevitable.
    Secondly, in your immediately previous article (‘Political Correctness goes right-wing’) in the self-same anti-theory literary journal, you put an openly American exceptionalist position on the constitutionality of gun laws in that country.
    As you know and agree, legal fictions are irrelevant; only relevant is the racism and reactionary essence of the nativist American petty bourgeoisie.
    Comrade Sparrow, you remain one of our most trusted comrades. The Committee remains as sensitive as ever to the needs of those members required to supplement their meagre state stipends through paid contributions to sometimes petty-bourgeois and revisionist media outlets.
    We understand also that while doing that, social and class pressures may mount on comrades, and they may occasionally express opinions of potential common sense and experience.
    But allowances are not licences. In the most fraternal way, at this stage, the Committee urges you to acknowledge and accept the dangers of individual judgement and observation. Accept that we are not individuals, but change agents of social transformation.
    Comrade, in the words of our founding documents, do not allow these scratches to become gangrene. Turn back decisively from the nihilism of petty belief systems that expose you to the danger of ideas containing a potentiality for truth.

    Yours in struggle

    The Committee

  12. I’m surprised and disappointed by this piece, because Jeff you’re critique is usually a lot sharper. But here you’ve stretched a pretty specific argument in a very general one about all the being anti-democratic. Which is just not true.

    You start with the dangers of arguing that those who support Trump, Brexit or homophobic and transphobic restrictions on relationships (in this case marriage) are simply stupid and/or bigoted. Fine. But then you go on to argue that these elections, referendums and plebiscites are participant democracy in practice. Sorry, what?

    The very reason people are opposed to the conduct of these voting systems is because they’re NOT participatory democracy. The critique is usually directed – as you even acknowledge above – at the leaders of the campaigns of bigotry, and precisely because they will very likely be successful in influencing a significant number of the completely economically disaffected. Because these voting systems are far from purely democratic. They’re also completely hypocritical systems of public persuasion, which far from ‘simply’ gaining a sense of public opinion are precisely used to persuade and goad and completely misguide and misdirect.

    So, instead of blaming the left for this – and almost buying into some of the very reactionary critiques of left liberalism – I think you’d be better critique these voting systems as systems of manipulation. Which is not to say we should never support systems of voting under capitalism, but let’s at least be a bit real about how they are very often constructed. Far from actual democracy, they’re about management of the people.

    1. Ugh! Sorry about the Sunday-brain typos above.

      2nd sentence should read: … a pretty specific argument *into* a very general one. about all the *critiques* being anti-democratic.

      And in last para: I think you’d be better *to* critique those voting systems…

  13. Also the plebiscite isn’t even binding! And you’re wondering why the LGBTIQ community is questioning it’s purpose?

  14. A referendum was called, a vote was taken, and there was a result. I don’t know that this result constitutes government of the people, by the people, for the people, but it’s the closest you’re going to get to democracy. What are some people calling for, best out of three?

  15. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks, as usual, for your very sharp analysis. I think this nails a lot on the head.

    I would like to add one element here in regards to the marriage equality plebiscite.

    I think you are right to criticise the idea that this will inherently cause a stream of hate within the community, and importantly the idea that public cannot be trusted on such an issue. It is amazing to me how so many are fearing that a campaign will ‘scare’ the public into voting no, as if the general public, which has been supporting this for years is just that dumb.

    But I want to add a positive element to this as well. Because I think participatory democracy, such as a plebiscite, can actually have real positive outcomes. If we — the left — were to embrace this concept of mass democracy we could actually use it for good. We could mobilise local community members to start speaking out against homophobia where it exists in our community, becoming community champions of LGBTIQ rights. We could really create a community focused campaign that looks towards the community as the solution to homophobia, rather than placing that responsibility in the hands of politicians. Instead, once again, we’re looking at the community with a degree of hostility, as if all homophobia comes from there — when in fact our politicians are way behind the community in this matter! There is a real opportunity in the plebiscite to show our politicians where our community sits on this issue, but one we are ignoring due to a distrust of the general population. That is a real shame!

  16. What is disappointing about so many of the critiques of the Brexit decision is that they are so negative. There seems to be an unwillingness to recognise the opportunity for positive economic and social change resulting from the vote. The immediate positives are: 1) the exercise of participatory democracy with an opportunity to use it for future major decision making; and 2) the opportunity for an independent approach to planning and land management. Why not focus on the kind of future we can have in Britain and elsewhere (for instance moving to a position of self reliance with populations well adjusted to land capability. In the post Second World War reconstruction phase we demonstrated how such possibilities could be turned into reality – an understanding of that past could also help the development of a better future.

    1. For goodness sake, wake up. The post-war social compromise between labour and capital that lasted from 1945-75 is decisively broken. Not all the King’s horses nor all the King’s men will put it together again.

      For all its successful peddling of anti-immigrant demagoguery and chauvinism, the British ruling class knows full well that it owes ‘its’ working classes nothing except perhaps war, austerity and a life on zero hour contracts.

  17. Anyway, in the United Kingdom EC referendum of 1975, the YES vote won 17,378,581 votes (67.23% of the vote) as opposed to the NO vote of 8,470,073 (32.77% of the vote). A convincing win.

    The interim between votes on this issue is a fairly long period to consider, particularly for those who lived through the period. It has been suggested too that younger people were in favour of remaining in the EU, but for which reasons, who knows?

    UK round-up

    “Overall the Leave campaign came top in nine of the UK’s nations and regions, with the Remain campaign coming top in just three. The West Midlands had the highest vote share for Leave, with Scotland highest for Remain.”

    So the further north you go the more disenfranchised people are from the (not so) United Kingdom, which is a different issue again.

    That’s participatory democracy for you, like it or not.

    1. Communists oppose plebiscitary ‘democracy’, which is in reality nothing of the kind. It is a Bonapartist tool which excludes the masses from effective control over policy, instead offering them a loaded question whereby they can rubber-stamp something already decided. Voting in referenda is a matter of tactics, but that tactical judgement must be informed by the understanding that referenda are, contrary to appearances, inherently anti-democratic.

      1. What is this, cold war totalitarian politics stillborn, or a Marxian withering away? Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

  18. Since when did we (or the UK) actually have participatory democracy?

    In fact, plebiscites and referenda are actually less participatory than regular oligarchical parliamentarism.

    The majority of the population has no control over the question asked nor the main mediums through which debate is conducted. Both the remain and leave campaigns were overwhelmingly dominated by the major parties and the mainstream media.

    Where was the third option – for a genuinely democratic Europe (and UK) and an end to austerity?

  19. If there were world enough and time for your third option – sure – which would devolve quickly into a Wittgensteinian proposition.

    Most people I imagine would have made up their minds before the simpler remain / leave question was framed.

    Anyway, it’s history now. Put the whole episode down to economic hubris on Cameron’s part.

    1. Wow nice straw man you got there. And no the whole episode has nothing to do with Cameron’s economic hubris. Leave campaigners have been vocal supporters of deepening Cameron’s austerity. It has to do with Cameron’s political manoeuvre (to wedge Ukip) prior to the last election. This whole charade had been an inter-Tory dispute and pretending it is anyway democratic gives cover to the anti-worker plans of Johnson and Farage.

      1. Regardless of the internecine politics (a lot of which I’m not happy with either), and as the world knows, an EU plebiscite was put to UK citizens – the historical rule being that you don’t run such unless you’re certain of the outcome – Cameron assured EU leaders of the result, and had to return to Brussels with egg on his face to try and save Britain’s credit rating. All of which is a deviation from the text of this article – refusal in some quarters to accept participatory democracy, flawed as it may be.

  20. Democracy is not a natural kind like an apple or a nose. It is a principle to determine the structures and processes through which communities make collective decisions. That principle is “the people as a whole decide”. Which is great, but almost meaningless as it stands. What is meaningful is what those democratic structures and process actually are and how they are put to work. What also matters is who gets to count as one of “the people”. What also matters is how justice can be protected against democracy where necessary. Etc. A plebiscite which wins by 1 or 2 per cent and enacts a measure which will materially worsen the lives of many is not obviously democratic or just…it savours of what they used to call “tyranny of the majority.” My own view is that pontificating about the loss of democracy or going on about how more democracy will make everything better is a sign of, let’s say,, brain tiredness.

  21. The argument against a referendum on gay marriage is surely elitist through and through and shows extraordinary fear of the masses. It’s also entirely misplaced.

    The only country to have a referendum on gay marriage is the south of Ireland, long considered to be under the croziers of the bishops and extremely socially conservative. What happened? Well, the masses voted very strongly for gay marriage – 62% to 38%.

    And where was the support for gay marriage strongest? Well, the big polling booths in the hardcore working class areas of Dublin recorded votes well in the 70s, and even high 70s, in support of gay marriage.

    Isn’t it funny how the middle class liberals and leftists who look down on the mere toiling masses as the font of backwardness never examine their own class prejudices?


    1. Phil, I’m surprised that you write this. The article has serious shortcomings. Jeff does not seriously consider the political content of the plebiscite, originating as it did in a failed attempt by David Cameron to obtain short term political advantage over UKIP, Nigel Farage and Cameron’s own rivals in the Tory party. Consequently, his discussion of the implications of the plebiscite cannot effectively critique the social-liberal nostrums hawked in outlets such as the Guardian, Salon and the New York Times.

      No discussion of the consequences of the plebiscite can begin without consideration of the political motives of it architect, the Tory PM David Cameron. During the 2015 general election campaign, Cameron pledged to hold the plebiscite on the issue of Brexit in an effort to staunch the defection of right wing Tory voters to UKIP. Anticipating that he would be returned to office in a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats who would veto any referendum on the question of EU membership, Cameron did not expect to ever have to hold good on this pledge. However, with the Lib Dems decimated, in the 2015 general election and finding himself with a parliamentary majority in his own right, Cameron decided to use the referendum as an opportunity to make lemons from lemonade by once again outflanking UKIP and his rivals in the Tory part, by establishing himself as the more capable manager of what he defined as the problem of immigrant labour in the UK. He therefore proceeded to negotiate a deal with the EU to curtail the social rights of migrants from EU in the UK, calculating that with this deal in hand, a plebiscite would present an opportunity to reinforce his own position vis a vis UKIP and the Brexit wing of the Tory party. In the end, this attempt to win short term political advantage over UKIP and his rivals in the Tory party backfired on Cameron personally, who now finds himself temporarily out of a job.

      However, far from being a total loss from the point of view of the UK ruling class, the plebiscite has been successful in reinforcing the framing immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the former British empire as scapegoats for the social devastation across the post-industrial UK caused by the dissolution of the post-war compact between labour and capital under the Thatcher-Blair regime and since. In other words, both the Remain and Leave camps used the referendum to cultivate a nativist chauvinism that diverts political anger away from the ruling class and into resentment against the immigrant section of the working class who are in the chauvinist narrative bizarrely framed as responsible for the devastation caused by the decimation of industry and financialisation of the economy. Contrary therefore to the argument being made across much of the left, the Brexit referendum, which was necessarily divorced from any political programme and offered a false binary choice framed by the ruling class, was not an exercise in popular democracy but a validation of Clement Attlee’s observation that plebiscites are an undemocratic tool of dictators and demagogues.

      Following the vote in the plebiscite, the British ruling class is united in seeking a deal that will further curtail the rights of labour within the UK while maintaining its own and the UK state’s global privileges, notably access to the EU markets and the status of the City of London as a financial centre. What concessions the British ruling class will extract for themselves from with the EU still remain to be seen. However, whatever the outcome of the future negotiations between Whitehall and the EU, neither the curtailment rights of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe in the UK or the abrogation of the Schengen agreement on the free movement of labour within the EU will do anything to strengthen the position of those sections of the working classes who, in accepting the premises of the referendum and voting either way in the plebiscite, fell into a political trap successfully laid for them by the chauvinist Tory politician David Cameron.

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