The wisest political pronouncement any Tory ever made – indeed that anyone ever made – the first article in the Tory catechism, comes from Lord Falkland. ‘When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’ If that view had prevailed, the Remain campaign would have had an easy passage to victory.
In a world where all political institutions rest on an increasingly fragile basis of public consent, economic growth is crucial. At present, the UK is – just – on the right side of the Micawberite margin, but the recovery from the great recession has been slower than expected: no purr thus far from a great engine accelerating into the overdrive of steadily-rising growth. A renewed recession could lead to a further withdrawal of public consent, and indeed to social unrest. Yet quite early on in the campaign, the Brexit camp virtually acknowledged that they had lost the economic argument and then retreated to immigration. On that, some of their arguments were contradictory, others were unpleasant: all of them were based on the assumption that a cunningly-blown dog whistle could seduce quite a few limited human intellects.
None of that should have overawed wise Remainers. They should merely have stuck by Falkland and paraphrased the Proverbs: ‘In fear is the beginning of wisdom.’ Our opponents call us ‘Project Fear’. In reality, we are ‘Project Safety’. There were two points which were surely irrefutable; knock-down punches that would have done for Cassius Clay. First, if it were in Britain’s interests to leave, it would also be in other countries’ interests for us to do so. Where are those other countries? Donald Trump thinks we should leave. So does Vladimir Putin. To be fair to Brexit, the North Koreans might well concur. Who else?
Second, if the Brexiters were right, they would surely have allies among the international financial institutions. So where were they? The IMF, the WTO, the Federal Reserve, other central banks: the CBI, admittedly inclined towards a corporatist conventional wisdom, but also the IoD, traditionally robustly free market: all of them are remainers.
That should have been the end of the bout: Brexit dazed, as the referee held up the Remainers’ right hand. But the fight continued, for a simple and alarming reason: poujadist, know-nothing anti-elitism. Apart from a few eccentric romantics – Matt Ridley, Robert Salisbury – most of what one might term elite opinion was on the side of Remain. The weight of expertise ought to have impressed the voters and may on balance have done so, albeit reluctantly and by no wide margin. But that is still in doubt, for a lot of voters are in no mood to listen to the experts. Throughout the advanced West, there is an anti-elite reaction, most pronounced in the Republican primaries, but also visible in almost every European country. To people who think like that, the views of educated and thoughtful persons are ipso facto suspect. It is as if the Remainers were sticking their fingers in their ears and saying: ‘la la, la la – I can’t hear you.’
Some men who ought to know better have been encouraging this. A few weeks ago, Charles Moore welcomed the discomfiture of the elites. Whether that was hypocrisy or merely lack of self-knowledge, it was breath-taking. As is manifest In every aspect of his deportment, his personality – his entire being – there is no more comfortable and complacent an elitist in all of her Majesty’s dominions. Yet now we have Charles egalite. He should ponder Philippe’s fate. If Charles wants to see what happens when a country overthrows its elites, he should consider Germany after 1918. Equally, if he wonders why the American revolution was so successful and so unrevolutionary, he should remember that the country gentlemen of Virginia stayed in control.
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If caution and commonsense are overthrown on Thursday, the consequences would not just be economic. The Tory party could well be broken as an instrument of government. The last time that happened was in 1846, when Disraeli was to blame (as was Peel, for failing to crush him). But in those days, it mattered less that the Tories were excluded from power. Lord John Russell, Aberdeen, Palmerston, Gladstone: the Queen’s government could be carried on. Today: Boris, Corbyn – those who wished to dethrone expertise and sound sense would have their way.
And yet. Let us now give a platform to a trenchant anti-elitist.
“Fifty years ago, you decided to abolish the death penalty. We argued that this would lead to more murders and more gun crime. You insisted that hanging was obscene and we were wrong. Were we? Around the same time, you decided that corporal punishment in schools was unacceptable: the cane was a barbarous relic. We claimed that this would lead to the collapse of discipline and that in chaotic classrooms, children from poor backgrounds would lose their chance of a decent education. Were we wrong? You also decided to abolish grammar schools and replace them with idealistic new comprehensives (which did not prevent you from sending many of your children to public schools). We said that you do not improve education by destroying good schools, and that yet again, children from poor backgrounds would suffer. Were we wrong? You wanted more immigration. We foresaw social problems: more disorder, more crime, chronic difficulties with assimilation, and a decay in the quality of life. Were we wrong? You thought that the Common Market was a brilliant idea, based on free trade. We were worried that it was a covert attempt to suck Britain into a united Europe and deprive us of the right to govern ourselves. Are you sure that were we wrong?”
The anti-elitists do have a case. Those of us who oppose them ought to recognise this and to understand that even if Remain scrapes home on Thursday, the Tory government must become better at addressing its supporters’ anxieties. That is one of many debates which this new site – Reaction – should encourage.