'To say or imply that the public is too stupid to grasp the high-minded
and sophisticated ideals of the advocates of the EU is to express
a profound sense of contempt towards ordinary people'
Europe's political classes, particularly on the left, are
bending over backwards to claim that no doesn't really mean no.
This is an insult to democracy.
Increasingly, the political class has drawn the conclusion that
the problem with the people is that they do not know what is in
their best interests. This sentiment can be found on both sides
of the Atlantic and it is particularly evident among liberal and
left-wing activists and thinkers. "People getting their fundamental
interests wrong is what American political life is all about,"
notes Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas?, his US bestseller.
Otherwise, he asks, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans?
The same belief that people are too thick to understand the complexities
of public life has been widely expressed during the arguments that
have followed the referendums on the EU constitution in France and
the Netherlands. Margot Wallstrom, vice-president of the European
Commission, commented in her blog that the constitution is a "complex
issue to vote on", which can confuse many citizens. In this
confused state they may be led to "use a referendum to answer
a question that was not put to them".
In the view of the EC president, Jose Manuel Barroso, his Eurosceptic
opponents had crossed the "border from democracy to demagoguery".
Barroso claimed that a "populist trend" was seeking to
"undermine the Europe we are trying to build" by "simplifying
important and complex subjects". After the French and Dutch
votes, the Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff commented that "the
experience begs the question of whether it was ever appropriate
to submit the EU constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national
plebiscites". And there was nothing liberal or democratic about
his characterisation of the constitution's opponents as he told
Parliament Magazine: "The rejectionists are an odd bunch of
racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, disappointed centre
left and the gen-erally pissed-off."
At first sight this "generally pissed-off" mob may indeed
appear to be both irrational and incoherent. The opponents of the
constitution certainly do not seem to have much in common. French
campaigners for Non often sought to defend their system of welfare
arrangements against an institution that they believe has come under
Anglo-Saxon neoliberal domination. In contrast, the British Eurosceptics
fear not a laissez-faire Europe, but the perceived bureaucratic
and regulatory ambitions of Brussels. It was said that some No campaigners
in the Netherlands feared the loss of their national identity and
the entry of Turkey into the EU. Others, however, simply used the
referendum to have a pop at their political representatives.
So what is going on? Hostility towards the EU has assumed a variety
of national forms, and within member countries sceptics have been
inspired by different, even contradictory motives. Some Dutch people
felt the constitution would encroach on their country's tolerant
lifestyle, but others felt that it ought to have a stronger religious
element. Surveys carried out after the referendum indicate that
Dutch No voters did not match the xenophobic caricature drawn by
their opponents - only 2 per cent, for example, stated that Turkey's
EU entry attempt was an issue for them. In the Netherlands, as in
France, No voters felt estranged from their political institutions,
a mood reflected sometimes in a vague disengagement and sometimes
in active anti-political attitudes - frequently expressed in the
form of revolt against many of the values upheld by the political
class and its institutions.
This is not exclusively a problem for the EU. The reactions of
the French and Dutch electorates echo the views of the people who
supported the North-East No campaign in Britain last November. In
this referendum, 78 per cent of voters rejected John Prescott's
plan for regional devolution. Not one of the 23 council areas involved
in the referendum supported this scheme, dreamt up, voters clearly
believed, by out-of-touch politicians far away in London.
Not surprisingly, however, the problems associated with the emotional
and political distance separating the public from their representatives
are particularly intense when it comes to the European Union. Ordinary
people have rarely been involved in or consulted about the direction
of this institution, so we should hardly be surprised if they do
not share the technocrats' enthusiasm for it. When they give vent
to their scepticism, however, they are dismissed as simple or naive,
lacking the sophistication to grasp the complex issues of the day.
Look back on the past three weeks and recall how often the No campaigners
and voters have been characterised - by the cultural elite, business
leaders and the media - as backward and short-sighted.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the EU constitution, this disparagement
betrays a powerful anti-democratic trend. Politicians are simply
reluctant to accept the verdict of the electorate. The reaction
of the Greens in the European Parliament to the referendums, for
example, was to issue a statement claiming that "it is evident
that this No is not a real No against the constitution but a clear
vote of protest against the internal policies of the national governments
of France and the Netherlands". Apparently the Greens possess
a privileged insight into the internal life of the voter and can
tell when voting No actually means something different.
To say that the outcome of the French and Dutch referendums has
little to do with popular attitudes towards the EU, as the political
elites are saying, represents an exercise in self-delusion. Certainly
it is true that the way human beings vote is never a simple, straightforward
matter. People do not simply read a script handed down from above
by the political classes and make a choice exclusively on those
terms. No, their voting behaviour is influenced by a variety of
motives and emotions. When they cast a ballot it may mean that they
have voted positively for something they desire, or it may be a
negative act meant to thwart their political masters. Teaching "them"
a lesson has an honourable tradition for a democratic electorate:
ask the many former representatives ousted in recent decades from
positions they thought secure. So voting is not simply about saying
"yes" or "no"; it is also about making a statement.
It can represent a call to arms and at the same time it can be a
cry for help.
But none of these complex and contradictory influences should detract
from the simple fact that when people voted No they actually meant
No; whatever else they may have been doing, they were also expressing
their opposition to the constitution. Nor should supporters of the
EU constitution draw comfort from the diversity of motives of their
opponents. That French communists and the French far right both
said No on 29 May, even though they have very differing attitudes
on most other issues, may confirm that as we move into the 21st
century the conventional divisions between left and right have lost
significance; but it does not diminish the blunt significance of
their verdicts. There is no getting around it: this is a populist
reaction against the EU. More than that: however many issues were
bound up in the No campaigns, a common thread was that sense of
estrangement from political institutions. The "lower"
classes, it seems, embrace values that are essentially focused on
their nation and community, while the elites are often oriented
towards a cosmopolitan and globalist perspective.
In France, those who voted No came predominantly from the working
classes, while the most enthusiastic supporters of the Yes campaign
were members of the French cultural, economic and political elites.
The referendum was as much a clash of values - what in the United
States is called a "culture war" - as a conflict over
what constitutes legitimate authority. By their very existence,
the populist No campaigns draw attention to the lack of legitimacy
of the EU. Their supporters are bemused by the managerial and instrumental
language of EU technocrats. And most important of all, they believe
that the EU is not of their making. It would be folly, or worse,
to ignore this. Those who are genuinely interested in European unity
need to engage with the sense of disenchantment we now see expressed.
Ensuring that people feel at home in Europe is far more important
than cajoling people to accept another top-down diktat from Brussels.
To say or imply that the public is too stupid to grasp the high-minded
and sophisticated ideals of the advocates of the EU is to express
a profound sense of contempt towards ordinary people. Furthermore,
this attitude uncritically transfers responsibility for the contemporary
malaise of political life on to the supposedly simplistic and uneducated
electorate. Those involved in liberal and left-wing politics, by
implication, are not at fault for their failure to connect with
significant sections of the public; it is the narrow-mindedness
of the voters that is to blame. This will not do. When political
elites complain about xenophobic populism, they merely distract
attention from their own inability to engage with ordinary people
in a conversation about Europe.
It was not so long since left-wing and liberal academics characterised
Thatcherism as a form of authoritarian populism that had somehow
seduced sections of an easily misled working class. They argued
that a heady mixture of nationalism, racism and the appeal to self-interest
had created a powerful right-wing populist movement that provided
Thatcher with grass-roots support. In those days it was fashionable
to poke fun at "Essex Man" and "Essex Woman",
supposedly the embodiment of the irrational but materialistic and
selfish Thatcher supporters who would not respond to the high-minded
appeals of left-wing politicians.
Today we see similar methods used to account for gains that Ukip
and the British National Party have made in working-class constituencies
such as Barking. As Margaret Hodge, the local MP, noted recently,
the truth is her voters are alienated and feel that the issues which
matter to them are ignored. This pattern, in which leftists and
liberal political thinkers and activists belittle the mental capacities
of ordinary people, is strange in a culture that professes to be
Stereotyping of this kind would meet with condemnation if it was
directed at minorities. That may be why the contempt is often transmitted
in euphemisms, nods and winks. In the Sixties, critics of populism
pointed the finger at "hard hats" and "materialist"
working people. Today in the US, the same attitudes find expression
in terms such as "Nascar dads", "Valley girls",
"Joe Six-pack" and the venerable "redneck".
In Britain we have "chavs", "white van men",
"Worcester Women" and "tabloid readers". The
message is clear: these are people who cannot be mobilised for progressive
causes, so the best course is to isolate them and minimise their
All of this betrays a feeble attachment to democratic politics,
not on the part of white van man but of his detractors. The supporters
of populism are part of society and they need to be taken no less
seriously than those whose views appear more enlightened. Remember
that populist movements may be expressing a great variety of feelings.
Disenchantment with the political system and the elites can lead
people to adopt a narrow-minded, resentful, them-and-us attitude.
But equally, populist movements can reflect an aspiration for social
solidarity and even an egalitarian impulse. Historically, many populist
movements - the Chartists, for example - were associated with the
Rather than demonising people whose views they do not like, liberals
and the left need to show a genuine commitment to democratic engagement.
That so many people adopted such strong views against the EU constitutional
treaty is no bad thing. It is certainly preferable to the scourge
of voter apathy and political disengagement. And it provides an
opportunity for dialogue and democratic renewal. Unfortunately,
it appears that the political class that wrings its hands over falling
voter turnout would rather people were apathetic than that they
voted against the EU constitution. That sort of response will not
make populism go away.
in the New Statesman, 13 June 2005