Brexit may appear to shake the foundations of our political order, but history tells us that the system will endure. Guy Davies writes
As a nation, we are undoubtedly aware that Brexit poses a significant break from recent history. Its advocates have cast the referendum result as a protest vote against the shortcomings of our political system. The ‘system’, however, has as of yet only been measured as a ‘liberal elite’, a ‘Westminster bubble’ or an ‘unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy’. Rhetorical slogans such as these, while giving an insight into our discontent, fail to demonstrate what the ‘system’ actually is. The EU is part of that system, yes, but the Brexit vote was clearly about more than a national dissatisfaction with the workings of the Brussels bureaucracy (see Google’s spike in ‘What is the EU?’ searches after the vote). While Vote Leave managed to portray the ‘elites’ of the European Union as the root of all our ills, it is the inadequacies of our own sacred institution – parliamentary democracy – that have been exposed.
Now faced with the prospect of enormous political change, it should be easier to trace back what the system we are emerging from is. One side failed to make the positive case for remaining and nearly bored us to death, while the other got too bandy around phoney facts and figures like a group of tipsy fascists at a party no one really expected them to attend. But in terms of the longue durée there has been next to no national soul searching. We don’t understand or we don’t care. Confusion is the order of the day, and an incompetent government remains as aloof and beyond reproach as ever, despite the horror show we are about to see.
The consensus politics of the post-war settlement – based on an incontrovertible marriage of capitalism, welfarism and parliamentarianism – gave rise to bureaucratic and increasingly managerial forms of government in Western Europe and the British Isles. Welfare states swallowed up dissent – liberal capitalism and mixed economies were beyond rebuke, nor, in the democracy prescribed, was rebellion even possible. This model depended on increasingly technocratic modes of government (technocracy meaning the ‘rule by experts’ that we have come to loathe). The system proved extremely durable through the ups and downs of the twentieth century. Even as the Keynesian consensus gave way to Thatcherism in 1980s Britain, the political system, based on a universal suffrage but limited democratic voice, held firm.
There are obvious exceptions to this rather neat reading of history. The demise of the French Fourth Republic over the Algeria Question in 1958 and the authoritarian regimes that ruled the Iberian Peninsula until the late 1970s are the main examples. Generally, though, countries united around the values of limited democracy and capitalism after the Allied victory in Europe. In many ways this mirrored what United States President Woodrow Wilson had intended to do after the First World War. However, there was a subtle but significant change to his vision. The outbreak of the Second World War had proved that unbridled democracy alone could not provide the stability nations craved after three such tumultuous decades. In 1939, the American professor of political philosophy and law Max Ascoli published Fascism for Whom?, a highly influential book that blamed the rise of fascism in Europe on ‘democratic decay’. The instability of proportional democratic government, he argued, prioritised confrontation over communication. The rise of the Nazis had exposed democracy’s potential for volatility in the interwar years. The lessons were clear. If extremists were allowed given voice in parliament, their demagogy would triumph over rational debate. Democracy, then as now, was in need of a reboot. The solution came not from Brussels, but from across the Atlantic.
American isolationism had hung Europe out to dry after the First World War. The catastrophic result was a fractured continent, ravaged by mass scale war and ideological fissure. The advent of the Cold War, the United States now had an even greater interest in European affairs. In the words of Mark Mazower in his masterly analysis on 20th Century Europe Dark Continent, democracy’s ‘rebirth’ after 1945 was ‘profoundly altered as a result of the region’s memories both of war and the pre-war democratic crisis’. The founding fathers of the European Union had a clear and immediate history to define themselves against. Integration and stability were the priority. Crucially these aspirations were shared with our benefactors in the US.
On December 19th, 1947, President Harry S Truman outlined a new foreign policy vision for Europe in Congress. He said ‘Our sympathy is undiminished, but we know that we cannot give relief indefinitely, and so we seek practical measures which will eliminate Europe’s need for further relief.’ The Marshall Plan was born. Marshall Aid, which became available by 1951 totalled $11 billion (approximately $120 billion in today’s money), dispensed to shore up Western European economies. Hard cash succeeded where Wilsonian democracy had failed. The key provisions of this bailout advanced European integration and consensus, which after two major continental wars, governments readily accepted. In this context, the growth of the EU can be interpreted as one of the greatest American foreign policy successes of the 20th century. This came at a price, however, and one we are arguably still paying today. The cost for European stability was, ironically, pure democratic freedom.
The purge of extremism in European politics began under the auspices of America’s Cold War warriors: the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination. Armed with a rather shady remit that included the ‘support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world’, they engaged in covert operations, ‘psychology warfare’ (nicknamed ‘psywar’) and propaganda to help realign Europe on the political centre ground. Their budget boomed from $4.7 million in 1949 to $200 million by 1953, and the activities stretched far beyond the merely political. The ‘Truman Doctrine’, as it became known, sought to contain communism to the confines of the USSR. They gave $400 million in military and economic aid to shore up Greece and Turkey against Soviet expansion. Under American supervision, anti-communism trumped free and fair democracy.
Communists were frequently discriminated against and marginalised from the political process, although it was only in West Germany that the Party was formally banned. At the same time, 34% of German Foreign Ministry officials in 1952 had been Nazi party members, while the most senior figures in the Third Reich were publically dealt with in the Nuremberg trials. The OPC even funded the 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a sort of cartoon version of American Sniper – complete with an alternate ending in which the pig-led revolution collapsed. This was a marked difference from the free and fair democracy that had allowed for the rise of fascism after 1918. The age of consensus politics was born.
This was reflected in the democratic process across the continent. The Grand Coalition of Left and Right dominated Austrian politics from 1945 to 1966, and in Denmark and Italy coalitions concealed the continued hold on power of at least one of the major parties until the 1990s. Christian Democrat parties (who despite their name stressed their areligious character), the most influential continental political movement of the time, ruled in Germany until 1969 and governed alone or in coalition in Italy until 1994. Ideological difference was offset by a managerial, consultative form of politics, in which the fundamentals of the post-war settlement were beyond reproach.
Governments, although now armed with a fuller mandate based on universal suffrage, were checked by stronger executives to stop the ferment of ‘democratic decay’. The governments of Western Europe proved extremely durable, enjoying continuity of policy even when power changed hands. Particularly striking was the uniformity of economic policy across the continent. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Britain, Norway, France and Italy all nationalised key industries and a number of major banks. In Britain, neither dominant party (with the exception of a few nationalisations) reversed the policy of the other until 1979.
Now, at this point we generally conceive of history as experiencing a fundamental, Thatcher-driven change. In terms of economics – with a clear shift from Keynesianism to monetarism – this holds true. However, the substance of Western democracy remained profoundly unaffected. Thatcherism – despite emphasising privatisation and ‘rolling back the state’ – did not amount to any kind of revolution in government. State expenditure in the UK, which made up 42.5% of GDP in 1977/8, only fell imperceptibly to 41.7% after a decade in power. The percentage of this allocated for welfare hovered around the 55% mark, as did its proportion of the GDP (23%). Policy consensus in fact became more secure on the continent in the 1980s, organised under the expanding provisions of the EU’s predecessor, European Economic Community.
In this system, either two parties with similar general views competed for power (as in Britain), or different parties with opposing views (often representing distinct groups) governed in coalition (as on the continent). The electoral system in Britain ensured that one party could govern effectively without a majority of the vote. In the 1951 General Election, Labour secured 48.8% of the vote compared to the Conservative 48%, but ended up with 25 less seats in parliament. In France, the apparentement law of 1951 excluded the communists (who had played a key role in the Resistance) and gave certain parties disproportionate numbers of seats. This was the climate in which Rene Pleven became the French prime minister in 1950, despite his party only winning 9 seats in the National Assembly. All politics now took place in a society where market capitalism and welfarism were beyond rebuke. The parameters of debate had narrowed in the 1940s.
Television became crucial to the culture of consensus. Only a limited number of channels were available so extreme views could not be represented. The leisure society boomed. By 1948 3.1 million British manual workers enjoyed two weeks paid holiday, economies grew, and people were generally better off. Harold MacMillan proclaimed that people in Britain ‘had never had it so good’. Politics, consequently, was left to ‘men in suits’. On a continent that had been ravaged by two world wars in a quarter of a century, people were more than happy to adjust to looking after their own and family interests. If this state of affairs appears too good to be true, that’s because it was.
But in 1968, all that looked set to change. The world erupted in protest as the side-lined Left fought back. The protests of 1968 were not confined to Western Europe – in the United States the Civil Rights Movement reached boiling point over Vietnam, and in Eastern Bloc countries (particularly in Prague) dissidents engaged in mass civil unrest against the oppression of the Soviet Regime.
In the West, however, protest took on a much different form. Their tactics were the same – students occupied university buildings, held street demonstrations and engaged in mass strikes across the continent. Their causes, however, were markedly different. They railed against the Vietnam War, environmental degradation and imperialism – united under the broad tent of New Left politics. West German students in particular raged against the machine – where students from 108 universities demanded recognition for the East German state and the removal of ex-Nazi government ministers. It was in that historic epicentre of revolutionary activity, France, where the students mutinied most. The police brutality that followed the mass protests elicited a wave of national sympathy, and crucially the workers spontaneously followed suit. Premier Charles de Gaulle was forced into exile when 11 million workers went on strike for two weeks in May. A glimmer of hope for the disenfranchised flickered across Europe.
But if the ‘sixty eighters’ (as they became known) thought they were going to herald in a new era of political change, they were wrong. Just as quickly as the protests flared up they dissipated, and what appeared to be the first dramatic challenge to the new system in fact merely consolidated it. A year later the French elections produced a majority for the centre right, and in Spain the alliance between socialists and students that had formed helped smooth the Iberian Peninsula’s eventual democratic transition. The current centrist French President Emmanuel Macron summed this quandary up perfectly. ‘It  helped liberate things within French society’, but ‘then it perhaps broke something that you need to protect.’
It was the very ability of liberal democracy to soak up dissent that both sparked and cindered the revolution of 1968. Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual force behind the ‘sixty eighters’, wrote in his seminal book One Dimensional Man of a new ‘technological order’ underpinning Western society. He railed against the ‘comfortable, smooth, democratic unfreedom’ of the post-war order, which had rendered ‘non-conformity within the system socially useless’. The failure to effect any meaningful political change through revolutionary student protest proved him right. After all, a government need not be authoritarian to exert social control. The ‘elites’ were nigh on untouchable, as all policy discussion took place within the status quo despite the supposed representative agenda of European legislatures. Although Western Europe succeeded in securing people’s negative freedoms, the positive freedoms of genuine political engagement were shelved. Aldous Huxley’s hedonistically controlled Brave New World, rather than George Orwell’s 1984, emerged as the more appropriate allegory of advanced industrial civilisation.
In 20th century Europe, as today, politics took place at a considerable distance from the electorate. Nation states relied on an increasingly technocratic mode of government. In France (so often the starting point for considering the state of Europe), state planning was largely undertaken by this bureaucracy – behind the backs of the National Assembly but with its consent. The loi programme drafted in 1954 allowed the civil service to draw on public funds independently of the parliamentary budget. The Centre for the Study of Economic Programmes, established in 1957, directed French economic policy. Until 1963 the German equivalent, The Economic Council (a major business association) directed German affairs. International organisations such as the IMF, the EU and UN grew in influence.
This seizure of the democratic order – the lack of choice in the polling booth coupled with consensus behind the scenes – may go some way to explaining the political crisis today. After all, when Michael Gove announced in the run up to the 2016 EU Referendum that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’, he was roundly derided by the media and his fellow politicians – but not, oddly enough, by the disenchanted millions that voted with him.
But while ‘experts’ may be a thing of the past, the unfolding horror-show of the Brexit negotiations shows that we are still ruled by a largely unaccountable elite. If the past can teach us anything, it is that after the dust has settled on Brexit, that system will endure.
Brexit may appear as a challenge to that ‘system’ established after 1945. But in reality the bureaucracy of the EU will be replaced by thousands of new recruits to our own civil service, while its judicial hierarchy and laws will be reintroduced through our own Supreme Court. The European Union’s prosperity and future has and will always remain inextricably tangled with our own. The system and the state, while appearing to teeter, have so far and will continue to endure. Democratic reform which (after the inadequacies of a two-party system have been laid bare in the last three elections) should be the top of our national agenda, will be continually ignored, as it does not serve in the interests of the country’s two dominant parties.
Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent likewise appeared to offer a radical alternative to this state of affairs. Yet with no coherent line on Brexit, electoral reform at the bottom of the agenda and key social issues of addiction and homelessness continually neglected, Labour remain hamstrung by a system that both gives and deprives their membership of genuine influence.
Today we face a different challenge to our forebears of 1945. Politicians in 2017 have not even attempted to maintain a coherent policy-line to the public, keeping us in a perpetual state of unknowing. Politics is fast descending into a theatre of absurdity, confusion and incompetence. History is rarely the answer to the problems we face today, though an understanding of where we come from is certainly essential to making better choices in the future. The foundations of our Brave New World are shaking, but the ‘system’ will likely endure.