Part II in our three part series on how our politics was upended
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At the heart of this is what I call ‘the revolution’ —a political and cultural revolution which swept through and upended the country, driving a wedge between different groups in society and setting the stage for the political turmoil of the last decade.
While this revolution reflected the values, interests, and priorities of the New Elite —a new, urban middle-class graduate elite which has come to wield enormous power— it simultaneously left millions of others feeling as though their values and voice were no longer recognised, represented, or even respected.
In Part 1, we explored the rise of hyper-globalisation and how this helped set the stage for the revolts of the 2010s, including the rise of national populism, the vote for Brexit, and the post-Brexit realignment. If you missed it then you can read it here.
Today, we turn to the second key feature of this revolution.
Part 2: The Hollowing out of Democracy
The damaging effects of hyper-globalisation might have been more manageable had the British people still been able to influence the decisions affecting their daily lives.
But as their national economy was overturned and reshaped around the interests of the new elite, their national democracy was hollowed out.
Increasingly, between the 1980s and the 2010s, millions of people who did not belong to the new elite converged on the same conclusion -they were now powerless in politics and no longer had a voice in the national conversation.
Much of this flowed from how meaningful choice in Westminster disappeared. As hyper-globalisation unfolded, political power and influence were increasingly pushed outside the boundaries of national democracy to much more distant and less accountable institutions.
Politics, in other words, was stripped out of politics —it was ‘de-politicised’.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this was the extent to which left and right became largely indistinguishable.
Unlike an earlier era, when there was a meaningful difference between the Labour and Conservative parties, by the twenty-first century they had converged on the same narrow territory, offering the same economic and cultural liberalism.
A single way of talking and thinking about the country descended across not just politics but much of the prevailing culture.
Many of the most important and influential institutions were increasingly dominated by the new middle-class graduate elite —people who tended to have gone to the same schools, the same universities, the same backgrounds and shared the same cluster of values.
The Labour Party played a particularly important role in entrenching this new consensus and narrowing the range of voices. Historically, Labour had combined a strong left-wing stance on the economy with what would now be seen as a right-wing stance on culture.
It combined strong calls to redistribute resources with strong appeals to social patriotism. Labour leaders were not afraid to say they loved the country, respected national institutions and, overall, saw the best, not the worst, in Britain.
Shaped by the cultural conservatism of the time, many Labour politicians, from Clement Attlee to Peter Shore, were instinctively sceptical about how things such as globalisation, EU membership and immigration might impact on workers. Instinctively, they put the national economy and the national community first.
But, from the 1990s, things changed.
The rise of New Labour reflected the rise of a new wave of more globally-minded, if not cosmopolitan social democrats.
They not only drifted towards the centre economically, embracing the New Right legacy of the 1980s, but installed a more distant, technocratic and homogeneous politics which reflected their interests but left many other people asking whether they were even represented at all.
This was the Third Way, which charted a new course between the old right, which was anti-state and pro-market, and the old left, which was pro-state but anti-market.
Seemingly overnight, New Labour became the strongest supporter of the revolution, embracing not just hyper-globalisation but also Britain’s deepening EU membership and, from 2004, the onset of a historically unprecedented phase of mass immigration.
In fact, centre-left social democracy moved so far from its original position that by the 2000s, in the words of one study, it now had ‘more in common with its main competitors than with its own positions roughly three decades earlier’.
Though it was not recognised at the time, the arrival of this new orthodoxy would soon have profound effects. Not least, it stoked a palpable sense among millions of people there was no longer any difference between left and right.
You can see this clearly in the data. At the height of Thatcherism, more than 80 per cent of voters said they could see a great deal of difference between them.
But from then onwards this figure crashed – to 55 per cent in 1992, 33 per cent in 1997, 27 per cent in 2001, and then to just 22 per cent in 2005.
On the eve of the Brexit referendum, which many voters saw as a rare opportunity to reassert their voice, fewer than three in ten said they could tell left and right apart. Serious choice, serious debate, had left Westminster.
Instead, when many people now looked out at their political institutions they saw an identikit governing class which was overwhelmingly dominated by members of the graduate class, political careerists who had only ever worked in politics (and who were now the single largest tribe in Westminster) and politicians who, whether on the right or left, now leaned much further to the cultural left than the average voter.
This new orthodoxy and growing sense of voicelessness among millions of voters was further compounded by how the new graduate elite had also now risen to disproportionately dominate many other institutions in society —the creative, cultural, educational institutions and a large swathe of the media.
These too were increasingly reshaped around the values, the tastes, and the political priorities of the new elite and so as they moved left on many cultural issues they tended to take the institutions with them, leaving many voters again with a palpable sense they were simply not even in the national conversation.
While the new elite would later rush to blame the rise of populism, Brexit and Boris Johnson on everybody else, in reality their path was cleared by this glaring lack of meaningful choice and voice in politics and the wider culture.
One person who noticed this at the time was Professor Colin Crouch, who, in his book Post-Democracy, argued that political ‘debate’ in Britain and across the West was increasingly being reduced to a tightly controlled spectacle.
Politics was no longer about genuine engagement between citizens and politicians —it was now just a game, managed by rival professionals, spin doctors, focus group consultants and pollsters, who had become expert in the techniques of persuasion and minimising the role of the masses in democracy.
Politicians now only ever debated a small number of issues which had been carefully preselected for discussion and which did not risk cutting across established party lines or challenging the liberal consensus.
Any policies, any debate, which signalled a genuine break from the new pro-EU, pro-globalisation, pro-immigration consensus in London and Westminster were either never entertained or simply closed down.
Instead, policies were increasingly decided behind closed doors, through the interaction between political, corporate and financial elites who were far more interested in representing the interests of themselves and business than listening, and responding, to ordinary voters.
In this way, argued Crouch, many Western nations were now morphing into what he called ‘post-democratic’ societies which were dominated by small circles of interlocking elites, where democracy was merely a shell of its former self.
Britain’s transition into post-democratic politics was also reinforced by other changes taking place beneath the surface.
Shortly before the vote for Brexit, Professor Anthony King had asked a simple but crucial question —who governs Britain?
He answered by pointing not to citizens, voters or elected politicians. Instead, he pointed to the growing number of global institutions, financiers, unelected regulators, independent agencies, and large multinationals that were now wielding enormous influence over the country’s political institutions.
British politics, he pointed out, was being pushed into a new era of ‘governance’, in which genuine political power and influence was now being transferred away from ordinary people to a complex web of organizations and agencies which sat firmly outside the borders of national democracy and were not accountable to it.
A vibrant, healthy democracy, in other words, was now making way for a far more distant and remote technocracy where the masses were being sidelined.
One small example of this was how, by the 2000s, £1 in every £3 the government was spending on public services went to independent providers, such as Carillion, which later collapsed with £2 billion of debt in 2018, or Interserve, which also collapsed.
Public services from hospitals to schools were being pushed out in an ad hoc fashion to private firms but with few mechanisms people could use to hold them to account or assess whether they were even offering value for money. Many such schemes suffered chronic problems and wasted hundreds of millions of pounds.
More fundamentally, political power and accountability were now rapidly being pushed upwards, away from citizens, to a growing array of international institutions, financial markets and supra-national organizations whose reach extended well beyond the nation-state. This reflected the more cosmopolitan instincts of the new elite.
In Britain and elsewhere, key milestones included the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, which strengthened the European Union, the launch of the World Trade Organization, which made it harder for countries to shield themselves from hyper-globalisation, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the arrival of the ‘Euro’ single currency and the further eastward expansion of the EU.
Aside from diluting the influence of voters, these changes also reflected a growing appetite among the new elite for a new world order in which democracy would be superseded by ideas such as ‘transnational governance’ – a new system, led by highly educated technocrats who essentially saw domestic politics, the masses and even national democracy itself as an unnecessary hindrance.
In Britain, this was best symbolised by one of Tony Blair’s ministers, Lord Falconer, who said with a straight face:
Alan Greenspan, former chair of the US Federal Reserve, also expressed the basic idea in 2007, when asked who he would support in the U.S. presidential election:
And Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, voiced the same basic idea when he pointed to how citizens were now only playing a secondary role:
Juncker was referring to another ostensibly democratic organisation which was gaining more and more power and influence over Britain’s national democracy and which was also fully supported by both the left and right -the European Union.
Despite frequently masquerading as Eurosceptic, it was the Conservative Party which oversaw the most important steps in Britain’s integration into the EU.
They led the country into the European Community in 1973, oversaw the Single European Act in 1986, which removed barriers to the free movement of goods, services, money and people and introduced qualified majority voting, whereby individual nations could be overruled in key areas of EU policy. And they signed the Maastricht Treaty, paving the way not just for Britain’s continuing economic integration but its growing political, social and monetary integration with the EU, too.
From here on, nation-states were transformed into EU member states, while national citizens were transformed into EU nationals. Everybody who lived in the EU would be free to live and work in other EU member states, further blurring the boundaries between nations and the line of accountability between the elites and masses.
As with hyper-globalisation, these changes were then embraced by New Labour, which reversed its previous scepticism of European integration to become the most passionate and enthusiastic supporter of the second pillar of the revolution.
Despite having called for an early Brexit, in 1983, by the 1990s Labour, which was now in the hands of the new elite, fully embraced EU membership.
New Labour became so committed to EU integration that Blair even campaigned for a referendum on joining the Euro single currency, before his chancellor, Gordon Brown, ruled it out, and before the Eurozone imploded into a major sovereign debt crisis.
The left also threw its weight behind the enlargement of the European Union, signed the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Chapter —which John Major had avoided— agreed to extend qualified majority voting over other areas of policy, talked about putting the EU Constitutional Treaty to a referendum and then quietly signed the Lisbon Treaty, extending the EU’s reach over many other areas of British life, including trade.
Left, Right, and the new elite were now all singing the same song, committed to not just accelerating hyper-globalisation but deepening Britain’s EU membership.
There simply was no alternative for voters who not only felt concerned about the direction of travel but were increasingly asking themselves whether they could influence it at all.
Such was the scale of this new consensus that when the Brexit referendum finally arrived, in 2016, no less than 96 per cent of Labour MPs, 75 per cent of all MPs, 80 per cent of David Cameron’s Cabinet, and a majority of Conservative MPs campaigned to remain in the European Union.
Only a very small number of politicians were willing to challenge the new orthodoxy, which pushed opposition to EU membership outside the mainstream, handing the populist Nigel Farage a major issue of his own. Had there been genuine choice in British politics then the country would never have given rise to national populism.
The new elite’s strong and passionate support for EU membership might also have been less problematic had there not been a glaring ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of the organization, which raised profound implications for democracy.
To be truly democratic, organizations need to fulfil three criteria —they need to give people the right to participate by casting a vote, they need to give them the right to be represented, and they need to give them the right to compete for control of the executive and to organise meaningful opposition to this executive.
While the EU was certainly procedurally democratic, allowing people to vote every five years and be represented in the European Parliament, it was never substantively democratic because its core executive remained out of reach for voters.
The most senior positions in the European Commission were decided not through open, democratic elections but behind closed doors, violating one of the founding principles of democracy – namely, that citizens must be able to participate in and influence executive decisions through open competition.
When it came to fundamental issues that were having a real impact on people’s lives, therefore, such as trade and immigration, policies at the EU level were determined by elites over whom voters had very little, if any, influence.
While national politicians never admitted it, the blunt reality was that remaining in the EU seriously constrained what they could offer their own citizens at national elections. While the countries that were members of the EU were national, the policies that were being delivered by the EU were supranational in scope.
Often, they also trumped domestic law, which meant politicians were unable to offer people a genuine alternative from what was decided at the EU level because such an alternative was no longer possible.
Whether economic policy, environmental policy, energy policy or immigration policy, many laws were now ‘locked in’ at the EU level, making it difficult if not impossible for individual national governments to overturn them.
In turn, governments often used EU membership to lock their successors into policies which had been decided at the EU level and, therefore, could not be changed or reversed unless a majority of EU states agreed, which was unlikely to happen.
In this way, the only policies that were allowed were policies that had been pre-approved by the new elite and their counterparts in other EU states.
In Britain, this was powerfully symbolised by David Cameron’s failed attempt, ahead of the Brexit referendum, to renegotiate the terms of EU membership.
Despite telling voters their relationship with the EU could be reformed, that they still had control, David Cameron’s hopes soon collided with reality. Aside from a vague assurance that the EU goal of ‘ever closer union’ no longer applied to Britain, on most issues he was unable to secure reform because opposition from other EU states made reform impossible.
As Cambridge professor Helen Thompson pointed out:
It was a powerful example of how Britain’s leaders could no longer seriously influence the big issues of the day, and certainly not in a way most voters thought they could.
Policies that were decided at the EU level were often deliberately insulated from the masses and the inconvenience of national elections. In the world of the EU, noted academic Peter Mair, key decisions were not taken by voters but ‘political elites with a more or less free hand’, by a new ruling class that was ‘reluctant to have their hands tied by the constraints of popular democracy’. Other experts conceded that rather than genuinely democratic the EU was now an ‘enlightened despotism’.
As Britain’s democracy was hollowed out, then, it became clear that, whether on the left or right, the country’s leaders were no longer deriving their sense of authority and legitimacy from their vertical relationship with the masses below.
Instead, noted academic Chris Bickerton, they were deriving their sense of political authority and legitimacy from their horizontal relationships with other members of the global elite -whether in the EU or at Davos.
It was this widening gulf, this huge void between the elites and masses —alongside the disastrous effect of hyper-globalisation— which set the stage for the political revolts of the 2010s, creating ample room for an assortment of mavericks, renegades, and rebels to urge much of the rest of the country to Take Back Control.
Both internally, through a glaring lack of choice in Westminster and the rise of the new regime of governance, and externally, through the country’s deepening membership of the more distant and insufficiently democratic European Union, Britain’s national democracy had been seriously hollowed out. It simply was no longer a self-governing nation.
And this gulf between the elites and the masses, this enormous void, was about to become especially visible on one issue in particular, an issue that would completely reshape the country and transform its politics forever -the issue we’ll explore in the third and final instalment in our series on how Britain came apart.
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