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.


  1. The Alps Rhys Griffith, History Today
  2. London: imploding with cool Ian Jack, NY Review of Books
  3. Should you start your day at 2:30 am? Bryan Lufkin, BBC
  4. Bringing back the Sabbath (against work) William Black, Aeon


  1. How cotton unraveled the Chinese patriarchy Melanie Meng Xue, Aeon
  2. Trump, conservatives, and human rights Seth Kaplan, American Affairs
  3. On paper, federations generally seem like a good idea Emiliano Travieso, Decompressing History
  4. Switzerland’s mysterious fourth language Dena Roché, BBC

English and Math

These thoughts by David Henderson over at EconLog have stuck with me since the day I read them (in 2012):

At the end, one of two hosts [of a radio program he was being interviewed at] asked me, “If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?” I think he was expecting me to say “English and Chinese.” I answered, “Two languages: English and math.”

I think of this insight often when I read, mostly because they confirm my own anecdotal experiences travelling abroad. Everybody in Ghana spoke English, and only rural Iberians and Slovenians had trouble with English in Europe. Non-Native French speakers seem only to be in parts of France’s old empire, where old customs – learning the language of the conqueror to get ahead in the rat race – still prevail. English is learned because it’s necessary to communicate these days.

Check out this excerpt from a piece on Swiss language borders in the BBC:

There are four official Swiss languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, an indigenous language with limited status that’s similar to Latin and spoken today by only a handful of Swiss. A fifth language, English, is increasingly used to bridge the linguistic divide. In a recent survey by Pro Linguis, three quarters of those queried said they use English at least three times per week.

Read the rest. That’s a lot of English used in a country that’s sandwiched between Germany, France, and Italy. I think the power of English, at least in Europe, has to do with the fact that it’s a mish-mash of Germanic and Latin; it’s a “bastard tongue,” in the words of John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. Let’s hear it for the bastards of the world!


  1. The Forgotten Everyday Origins of ‘Craft’ Sarah Archer, the Atlantic
  2. Changes in the Nature of Work Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  3. Why America Can’t Go Swiss on Guns Kevin Sullivan, RealClearWorld
  4. Eccentric culture is what makes the West unique Rémi Brague, Montréal Review

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, VI. From the 1832 Reform Act to World War One

In this post, a look at comparative growth of democracy in Europe along with Britain’s role in World War One and subsequent European diplomacy.

Britain made some progress towards extending voting rights beyond a very tiny minority in the Reform Act of 1832, which was also a law to make constituency distribution relate to the population of the time, particularly the expansion of the urban population, abolish constituencies of a few voters where the MP was in practice appointed by the local dominant landlord and even out a very inconsistent voting system, reducing the number of people who could vote in at least one case. The overall right to vote was extended from about 5 per cent to about 20 per cent of the population, which did mark a genuine shift of power from the aristocracy and put Britain in a good place in terms of comparative voting rights by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, there was working class disappointment expressed in the Chartist movement which mobilised mass support, but was ignored.

The next major change came in the 1867 Reform Act, which did not introduce universal male suffrage, but did extend voting rights to a significant part of the urban working class. Universal male suffrage at the age of twenty-one did not come until after World War One, alongside suffrage at thirty for women, followed a few years later by voting rights at twenty-one for all women as well as all men. Denmark and Switzerland introduced universal male suffrage with meaningful pluralistic elections in 1848. France reverted to the lost revolutionary republican idea of universal male suffrage, though the meaning of elections was highly constrained by the rise of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to the presidency, which he transformed into the role of Emperor. Prussia, while reserving a powers to the monarchy and preserving the power of the aristocracy through a weighting of the electoral system to the highest tax payers, did introduce universal male suffrage in 1849.

The 1867 Reform Act in Britain still left it behind these countries, particularly as France became a pluralist democracy after 1870 and a unified Germany appeared in the same year (the events are linked by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) with universal suffrage, but the same weighting towards the upper class within the Kingdom of Prussia, the largest and most powerful part of the new German Empire, which had a distinct and dominant status within the Empire. As we can see, discussion of the comparative growth of the suffrage and political pluralism soon gets into very complicated details, which also include questions of how much power elected bodies had in relation to hereditary monarchs, so that is the end of the examples.

Anyway, the general pattern is that though Britain was ahead of just about all of Europe outside Switzerland in giving power to elected institutions, there is nothing special or exemplary about the spread of voting rights in Britain. In the nineteenth century it was certainly republics, just Switzerland then France, which established the best situations, which certainly challenges any idea of a special virtue in the British combination of monarchy and parliament. The exemplary monarchical state was Denmark rather than Britain.

Moving onto the First World War, as has already been shown, British entry was not a re-entry into European politics after a complete absence after the Battle of Waterloo. Britain was constantly engaged in European affairs and would not have entered the Great War, if it had not been concerned enough with European politics to establish alliances and have a strong view about German armies invading France and neutral Belgium.

Who to blame for World War One and the question of whether Britain should have taken part are rather divisive questions across political distinctions, so it is difficult to talk about a unified sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative here, or indeed any political tendency, however defined, having a unified narrative. So it can at least be said that World War One does not add to any claim to the innate superiority of Britain and if Britain was right to intervene, that cannot make it more morally admirable than France and Belgium. The intervention right or wrong certainly reflected British views of its own interests in keeping northwestern Europe, the land mass facing it across the seas, out of the control of a hegemonic European power

It can at least be said that even for those who think on balance Britain was right to come to the full aid of France and Belgium, the continuation of the naval blockade of Germany, part the armistice which ended the war into 1919 was a horrifying policy of suffering imposed on an already defeated and impoverished German population, depriving Britain of any claim to rise morally above the other European powers.  In any case there is no denying that Britain was involved in European politics during the War and after in the Paris peace treaties, the revision of the Treaty of Sèvres, signed with the Ottoman Empire, in the Treaty of Lausanne signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1926.

Next post, World War II

Secession in Europe (but not the EU)

NOL‘s roster has blogged about secession within the EU before, but what about dissatisfied regions joining Switzerland’s cantons instead of the EU? Read more, from the WSJ, to find out…