Nigel Farage and Arron Banks are starting to agree with many Remainers that there should be a second referendum. Both sides, of course, do so for the same motive – the belief they would win.
What this misses is that the first referendum was, as Robert Harris said, “the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime.” It was dominated by lies and by ignorance of basic facts. The result in effect went simply to the highest bidder. There’s no reason to suppose that a second referendum will be any better.
Worse still, the result conveyed very little information. What sort of Brexit did voters want? Why did they want it? Was it because they regarded increased sovereignty as an intrinsic good for which they are willing to sacrifice some income? Or did they believe that Brexit would make them better off? Or did they regard Brexit as a means of controlling immigration? If so, why did they want such controls. Was it as a means of raising wages in which case might there be better ways of achieving that goal? Or was it because of cultural concerns? If so, are these justified and are they worth paying for? Or was Brexit just a way of signalling discontent with elites? If so, are there more effective ways of getting elites to change, if change they should?
The referendum told us nothing about these questions, though opinion polls might have. We learned less from it than Tesco learns from a shopper’s most quotidian visit to one of its stores.
Before having a second referendum we should ask: how can decisions be better informed and more informative? This poses important questions. What organizational changes do we need to reduce plutocracy and achieve the democratic ideal of equal say? How can we get better decisions, informed by evidence? How can we ensure that experts are respected servants of the people rather than (seen as?) out-of-touch elites? How can we get a better media? (The BBC falls far short here, not just because it makes a fetish of a deformed conception of impartiality but because too many of its current affairs shows are merely the bantz of posh mediocrities – people who are the problem not the solution.)
And underpinning these questions is a deeper one: is healthy deliberative democracy even compatible with (actually-existing) capitalism?
Politics has become like a game of football in which the only thing that matters is that our side wins and nobody cares about the quality or even basic honesty of the game. Most of us have forgotten that we are citizens as well as partisans.
In this sense, we are all neoliberals now. For me, one feature of neoliberalism is the elevation of what MacIntyre called external goods – power, wealth and fame – over internal goods of excellence. Almost everybody wants the external good of winning power to the neglect of the internal one of arriving at good decisions. Even many people who claim to oppose neoliberalism have, paradoxically, unthinkingly accepted one of its tenets.
The stakes here might be higher than generally supposed. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out, we cannot take the survival of democracy for granted. Democracies, they say, “die slowly, in barely visible steps.” Constitutions and institutions are insufficient protection against this. What we also need, they say, are “norms of mutual toleration.” These, though, are weakening. As Edward Luce writes, democracy “is only as good as the people who uphold it.” And we must question whether they (we) are good enough.