On Brexit, the British "ragbag populists" are right

John Kane-Berman says this was a legitimate revolt against an undemocratic EU project

A recent article in the British weekly magazine The Economist claimed that British politics was being "profoundly reshaped by populism". The strongest evidence for this that the paper mustered was that the country had decided to use "the most powerful tool in the populist toolbox" when it held a referendum in June last year to decide on whether or not the United Kingdom (UK) should remain in the European Union (EU).

The "subsequent debate pitted Britain's entire ruling class, from the leaders of the three main political parties to the heads of multinational companies, against a ragbag army of rebels, troublemakers, and mavericks".

The Economist was of course strongly opposed to leaving the EU, and has subsequently never missed an opportunity to denounce the decision. But its attempt to stigmatise those who wished to quit as a "ragbag army" neatly illustrates one of that army's fundamental objections to the EU – its contempt for democracy.

In 2005 both the French and the Dutch rejected the proposed EU constitution in referendums, only for it to be smuggled in via the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. In 2008 the Irish rejected that treaty, but were bullied into reversing their decision the following year. Earlier this year we had a former British prime minister, Tony Blair, calling on British voters to "rise up" to stop the UK leaving the EU. Mr Blair, presumably, is not guilty of the populism that The Economist derides. Presumably, also, that paper would not have denounced the referendum as a "populist tool" had the result gone the other way.      

True believers in the EU want Europe to eventually become a fiscal and political union. A great many of those who voted for the British exit did so because they did not want to see their own parliament reduced to little more than a rubber stamp for a bureaucracy in Brussels.             

Referendums should be sparingly used, as has been the British practice. But for the parliament of a nation state to surrender its sovereignty to a superior body entails a profound change in the way in which that state is governed. The fact that the surrender of sovereignty has been an incremental process makes it particularly insidious. The British electorate was right to attempt to call a halt to this process – even if they did so in what The Economist thinks is a "populist revolution".

The growth of the state – enacting more and more regulations, extracting more and more taxes – is one of the dominating trends across the world today. At least when this happens at national level, voters have some form of remedy through national elections. We can see this in the United States, where President Donald Trump has embarked on a campaign of deregulation.

But where regulations are made by supranational institutions, loosening their grip becomes more difficult. The remoteness of bureaucrats, which has grown as the size of government has grown, helps to shield them from accountability. This is a problem at national level, but an even bigger one if the bureaucrats are even further removed in supranational regional institutions. 

The EU has long been accused of suffering from a "democratic deficit". Its response has been to assume more and more power. It cannot help itself. It has created various institutions across Europe, which, like most institutions, seek to increase their power, not to mention their budgets. The anomaly of having a monetary union in some countries without a fiscal union is obvious. So is the logic that sooner or later a fiscal union must lead to a political union. This will be resisted by many EU members, with the result that the whole project will be mired in perpetual contradiction.

No doubt the European "ruling class" of whose wisdom The Economist is so convinced will try to stitch up whatever deals and deceptions it can to keep the show on the road. Fortunately, democracy will ensure that the "ragbag army" of populists is always there to keep an eye on them.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.