Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.

Nightcap

  1. Russell Brand: a host who (surprisingly) demands intellectual honesty Graham McAleer, Law & Liberty
  2. What linguistics can tell us about talking to aliens Sheri Wells-Jensen (interview), Scientific American
  3. World War I and British fantasy literature Iskander Rehman, War on the Rocks
  4. The history of Ireland has moved out of its traditional comfort zones Patrick Walsh, History Today

Latest thoughts on Brexit: Its Decay, Italy (and Ireland), Cars, and Giving up British Citizenship

The slow decay of Brexit: a Rule-Taking Country

I don’t mean that the UK will stay in the EU. I fully expect it to formally depart next year. If the poor performance of the UK economy compared with the Eurozone continues, I also expect the UK to rejoin in a few decades, when the growth divergence is not just in figures, but felt in everyday life, such as when people find it too expensive to travel in Europe or buy goods from Europe; if they do travel they notice that everything seems expensive and there are more nice things abroad than at home, while European tourists will seem to have huge amounts of money to throw around.

It might or might not work out like that, but the point here is that the UK, behind headlines about soft versus hard Brexit, is moving towards an ‘alignment’ with the single market and the customs union: not formal membership but keeping nearly all the rules. The short term losses in trade from leaving both the single market and the customs union, along with the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, have combined to make de facto membership of the single market and the customs union inevitable. Hardening the border at all between the two parts of the island of Ireland is economically disruptive and very threatening to a Northern Ireland peace settlement, in which the Irish nationalist-republican side in NI can live with being part of the UK as long as the North and the Republic are unified via the EU and associated commercial agreements.

This is what I get from following Eurosceptic sources when they get round to proper conversation and analysis, rather than fighting the remain-leave battle. Brexit outbursts of premature triumphalism over Italy, or demands to abolish the upper House of Parliament because the Lords uses its constitutional rights to pass amendments they don’t agree with back to the Commons for the final decision, are a distraction from the collapse of full Brexit.

The idea of a ‘no deal’ walk-away from the EU has been abandoned and inevitably the UK will accept single market/customs union rules while the government makes a show of leaving everything. Because the UK very probably will not be a formal member of the single market (though there is a possibility of joining the EEA which would mean formally staying in the single market), it will be able to reduce migration from the EU (not a great thing to my mind), which will bring joy to a large part of the population (particularly the Brexit-voting part). No doubt the reality of moving to what Jacob Rees-Mogg (a well known, hard-Brexit Conservative MP) calls ‘vassal state’ status will be covered over with that issue, but the reality is the UK will accept rules for customs and economic regulation made by the EU indefinitely.

‘Indefinitely’ means ‘permanent’ though this is being covered up by talk of ‘transitional periods’. Alternatives to this have collapsed with the failure of ‘no deal’. The New Hard Brexit is to accept aligned rules on goods, but not on services, with the UK’s exceptional role in financial services in mind. However, there is no indication that the EU will give this kind of deal, despite the Brexiteer posturing about the UK being too powerful to push around, which has clearly been shown as empty by negotiations so far.

Over-excited Brexiteers getting Italy wrong (and Ireland)

So a new government formed without anti-Euro currency finance minister. 5 Star and the League (the coalition partners) are not impeaching President Sergio Mattarella. The idea they would is a bit of a joke anyway, as it would require the agreement of the Supreme Court and a vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament to achieve an impeachment. The issue behind the non-impeachment was that Mattarella had vetoed an anti-Euro candidate for finance minister: Paolo Savona (who now has another post in the government).

Some relevant facts here. 1. Italian presidents have the constitutional right to veto ministerial nominations and have frequently done so before 2. Recent Italian opinion polls show support for the Euro at over 60% 3. Neither coalition party ran on an anti-Euro manifesto.

Claims that Mattarella is some pathetic weak instrument of the European institutions who ordered him to keep Savona out are themselves absurd. 1. There is a shared preference of Mattarella, the Italian public, and European institutions for staying in the Euro 2. Mattarella is from a political family in Sicily, which went anti-mafia and Sergio Materall’s brother, Piersanti, who was head of the regional government, was assassinated by the mafia as a result. I think we can say Sergio is a character of substance to stay in politics after that.

Regarding constitutions and democracy, constitutions establish limits on the power of temporary majorities through rules and institutions designed to embed basic rules about rights and the use of power. This is why democracy of a kind worth having is referred to as ‘constitutional liberal democracy’. You cannot both be in favour of constitutional democracy and complain when constitutional constraints express themselves in the action that Mattarella took, which is well within his formal powers and previous precedent.

Many of the triumphalist Brexiteers in the UK, who were shouting about Mattarella as an enemy of democracy who was about to be punished, are admirers of the US ‘constitutional conservatism’ which, on the face of it, advocates very strict restraints on the actions of elected bodies according to the supposed original meaning of the constitution. You can’t have it both ways. And even if you think democracy means the unrestrained right of a majority, there is no majority support for leaving the Euro in Italy and no manifesto mandate for the coalition to leave the Euro.

You could argue that Mattarella made a mistake about perceptions and had been outplayed, that had some plausibility for a few days but does not look so correct now. Mattarella has got what he wanted and will not be impeached. It’s true that the League has strongly increased its support since the election in opinion polls, but that mostly precedes the ministerial crisis. Brexiteers are still clinging to an attempted triumphalism over Italy. The Italians are standing up to Brussels, which supposedly is a lesson to Britain to be tougher in Brexit negotiations. Well it is a bit soon to say whether the Coalition in Italy represents Eurosceptic triumph and hard to see what this has to do with Brexit negotiations.

What loud mouthed Brexiteers in the UK say about Italy is in some ways not very important, but what is important is the presumption to know more than they do and circulate false assumptions about European politics in the UK, which in turn distorts our debates and assumptions, and which can then pop up amongst Proper centre-right journalists and commentators Who Should Know Better.

Something similar has emerged with Brexiteer attitudes towards Ireland’s attempts to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. Manipulated by the EU institutions with naive and incompetent leaders (rather reminiscent of old prejudices about the Irish being stupid) has been standard opinion, and then there was the claim by a senior Conservative politician, Iain Duncan-Smith, that the Irish position is to do with a forthcoming presidential election. 1. The Irish president has no political powers whatsoever 2. There may not be an election, since no one has announced a wish to run against the incumbent so far and it may suit the major parties in Ireland to leave it like that. Funnily enough all those stupid naive Irish leaders manipulated by the EU have given Ireland much greater economic growth than the UK. What an economic miracle there would be in Ireland if they were as clever as Brexiteers!

It’s difficult to stop Brexiteers from 1. using simplistic rhetoric about majorities and Will of the People to suit their immediate anti-EU goals without concern for consistency and the values of liberal democracy 2. Living in an imagined world where European politicians they disagree with are stupid and/or slaves of the European Commission, conspiring against democracy. These views should be challenged and left with the true believers, away from informed debate.

Brexiteers and German car companies

UK enthusiasts for leaving the EU have a strange obsession with German car makers. They export so many cars to the UK, they will MAKE the German government which will MAKE the European Commission give us the exit deal we want. This has been going on from all kinds of people ever since the Leave Referendum (maybe during the campaign as well, but I missed that). It is an expectation that has obviously been falsified by the course of negotiations in which the EU has got 10s of billions of Euros from the UK to even start negotiations (though the UK tries to pretend otherwise) and has refused the kind of market access the Brexiteer enthusiasts assumed they would get automatically thanks to Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes (!).

Even today, listening to the Telegraph Brexit podcast, I heard Christopher Hope (the highly affable and mostly reasonable chair) keep on about how German carmakers were going to make Brussels gives the UK what it wants. The guests, pro-Brexit people from the Telegraph, were clearly bemused as they had been explaining how the UK was going to remain ‘aligned’ with the single market. Clearly if the UK is already de facto accepting the ‘indefinite’ (i.e. permanent) application of single market rules, German car makers have no incentive to MAKE Merkel give the UK another deal preferable to hardcore Brexiteers.

Of course the saddest expression of this muddled thinking came from Boris Johnson (the notoriously attention seeking and inconsistent foreign minister) when he claimed Italian prosecco wine manufacturers would make Rome/Brussels give the UK a Brexiteer-friendly trade deal. It turns out demand for prosecco in Italy is greater than supply and the makers can easily live with reduced demand in the UK.

The German car industry is of course much larger and not dependent on the supply of a particular kind of grape. Still, just one seventh of German cars are sold in the UK. Now obviously it would be very bad news to lose one seventh of the market, but there are no circumstances in which German manufacturers would sell no cars in the UK, the drop would never be as great as one seventh. Sales of German cars are already declining in the UK and given weak UK economic performance compared with Germany, the decline is likely to continue. Anyway, it should now just be really bloody obvious that German car manufacturers have not united to force Berlin/Brussels to accept a hardcore Brexit agenda! There is clearly a very big stream of reality distorting national self-obsession amongst Brexiteers who believe this kind of thing. Well it has now been shown to be thoroughly incorrect, let go now!

Brexit Bureaucracy and Renouncing UK Citizenship

UK nationals living outside the UK in the EU are applying for citizenship abroad to retain rights they lose after Brexit. Some of these countries forbid dual citizenship so UK citizens are renouncing UK citizenship. The Home Office takes the opportunity to raise fees for renouncing citizenship, though evidently its revenue is already increasing because of charges for renouncing citizenship. Didn’t Brexiteers tell us Brexit would reduce state bureaucracy?

Worth a gander

  1. the term ‘hippie trail’ began to circulate in the late 1960s: it referred principally to the long route from London (or sometimes Amsterdam) to Katmandu.| The Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience

  2. Flags, Chinese Pirates, and the American Navy | Naval power and trade

  3. Xi Jinping is looking more and more like Mao | The legacy of autocratic rule in China

  4. that time when North Korea saved Benin from a coup led by mercenaries | The re-privatization of security

  5. how Brexit has reopened old Irish wounds | Credit and the Great Famine of Ireland

Famine and Finance: Credit and the Great Famine of Ireland

41YjUSWp3JL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_I have recently finished reading Famine and Finance by Tyler Beck Goodspeed. While short, it should have a prominent place on the shelves of economic historians interested (obviously) in Irish history and (less obviously) in Malthusian theory.

Famine and Finance is a study of the response of Irish farmers to the potato blight. As it is known to many, many individuals simply left Ireland. However, where micro-credit was available, Goodspeed finds that farmers adapted by shifting to different types of activities – notably livestock. These areas experienced a smaller decline in population. Basically, where the institution of micro-credit was present, the demographic shock was much less severe. If only for this nuance, the book makes a sizeable contribution to the historiography of Ireland. The methods used are also elegantly simple and provide an interesting road map for anyone interested in studying the responses of local population to environmental shocks.

However, the deeper point comes from it tells us about institutions. In Goodspeed’s story, the amplitude of the collapse of the Irish population in the 19th century depends on the presence of the institution of micro-credit. Basically, the institution determined the amplitude of the shock. Since Ireland’s potato blight is often presented as the textbook case of Malthusian pressures, Goodspeed’s results are particularly interesting. In his chatper titled”Was Malthus Right?”, he shows that when controls for the institution of micro-credit is present, the typical Malthusian variables fail to explain population changes. In other words (i.e.  my words) , Malthusian pressures (the change in population) are in fact institutional failures.

This is a point I have often made elsewhere (see here, here and here and a blog post here). And because Goodspeed backs this point of mine, he has earned himself a place on my shelf of “go-to” books.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, III: British Superiority?

Continuing from my last post, before getting on to the pre-Waterloo history of Britain, some remarks on Britain as an exceptional and model state from the Hanoverian period (rule of the German Hanoverian dynasty who continued to be sovereign princes in Germany, 1714-1837) onwards. Isolating any one period as the one in which modern Britain emerges is inevitably hazardous, but there are precedents for selecting this period such as Linda Colley’s influential book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992).

The defeat of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 provides a good moment for the formation of modern British state, or perhaps better the moment at which a process of formation ends. The Jacobite Uprising was an attempt to restore the Catholic Stuart Dynasty, which had its starting point in the Scottish Highlands. It reached into the Lowlands and then England before being beaten back and then decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by forces loyal to the Hanoverian dynasty, which was Protestant and was reigning in Britain because it was the closest in line after Catholics were excluded from inheriting the throne.

Not only was it confirmed that Britain would continue to be an officially Protestant country, with a German royal family, harsh and violent measures were taken to crush the social base of Jacobitism in the Highlands. The autonomy of traditional clan chieftains (hereditary local landlord rulers), who were operating a kind of confederal state of often conflicting clans within Britain, was abolished. Soldiers were stationed in the Highlands to enforce an assimilationist state policy in which the Gaelic language was repressed, as was traditional dress and customary laws. The violence and forcible assimilation faded away once British sovereignty in the region was assured, but that does not detract from the way that the British state was stabilised through force and military occupation, not through consent and building on ‘traditional’ liberties. The idea of a British state uniquely founded on consent to institutions in a context of laws and liberties emerging from ‘tradition’ rather than state action is essential to the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of Britain and its history under examination here.

The forcible full incorporation of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles into the British state system comes out of the attempts of the British monarchy to create an integrated Britain out of of the union of English and Scottish dynasties, which goes back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as James I. James wanted a unified, integrated Britain from the beginning, and his wish was granted, if more than one hundred years after his death and the overthrow of his dynasty. The attempts of his son Charles I to impose religious uniformity on Scotland led to a war which was the prelude to the English Civil War. The two wars, and others, are sometimes grouped as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The powerful man of state to emerge from these wars was Oliver Cromwell, who incorporated the third kingdom, Ireland, into the British state, in a culmination of a history of war and colonisation going back to the Twelfth Century. This was also a process of forcible land transfer creating a Protestant English landowning class dominating a Gaelic Catholic peasantry. As in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, assimilation into the British state led to the decline of the Gaelic-Celtic languages into very small minority status, so to large degree an old culture was lost.

The forcible incorporation of Ireland into the British state system culminated in 1800 with the Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom, in abolishing the Irish parliament (not much of a loss, it only represented Protestant landlords) so that the Westminster Parliament (or crown in Parliament) had unlimited sovereignty through the islands of Britain and Ireland. The process did not bring clear benefits to the Irish before of after the Act of Union. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, when the British imposed a landholding system in Ireland and the whole British state system failed to prevent hunger and starvation for a large part of the Irish population and could be held to be at least in some measure responsible for the famine, is well known. Less well known is the Irish Famine of 1740 to 1741, which led to the deaths of an even higher proportion of the population than the Great Famine. I do not think that the Irish peasants of the eighteenth and nineteenth century felt lucky to be part of the British state system, or would have recognised it as some unique force for good in the Europe and the world.

The troubles of the Gaelic peasants of the Scottish Highlands did not end with the state reaction to the Jacobite Uprising. The disruption of traditional customs and restraints enabled the clan chieftains to forcibly remove peasants from land that had been theirs for centuries, starting a process of emigration to other parts of the British Empire. A situation in which the British state had abolished the power of chieftains to resist it while taking away traditional restraints on their power over the peasantry, led to an intensified period (“Highland Clearances”) in which peasants were sometimes taken straight from their customary homes to boats leaving Scotland for the Empire. In the later Nineteenth century, legal reforms were undertaken to improve the rights of Scottish and Irish peasants, but any discussion of the merits and otherwise of the British state system in relation to the rest of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, must take into account horrors of calculated state violence combined with laws and property rights biased towards a landowning class close to the state, that led to sufferings as great as any encountered in any European state of that era.

Next post, Britain as a supposed model European state after Waterloo, comparisons

Economic Growth in Europe: the Longer View

Economist Tyler Cowen has a post up on who has gained most from the Euro (as measured by state), but the economist Angus puts things into perspective:

Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece were all growing fast relative to Germany (and France which is not on the graph) well before the introduction of the Euro. Ireland and Spain take off somewhere around 1990 and the intro of the Euro in 2000 does not speed up their trajectory. Portugal actually falls further behind Germany in the Euro era. Greece is the only country of these 5 whose catch-up to Germany accelerates with the intro of the Euro.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Woah! Look at Ireland!
  2. I’ll bet the acceleration of growth in the 1960’s had to do with the end of World War 2 and its rebuilding efforts.

Taking a broader historical view really puts things into perspective. If the Euro was not the catalyst for the economic growth of the 1990’s, what was? My guess is that the elimination of tariffs and labor restrictions between European states led to the growth. If the Eurozone had not implemented a central bank I think we wouldn’t be looking at all of the political problems now associated with the region.

Angus (who works at Oklahoma University) got his statistics from here. I highly recommend using it in your own studies as well.