The vote for Brexit in 2016 was always destined to deliver a political and constitutional crisis. The most significant aspect of the electoral shock was not that it signalled a sudden rupture in our country’s long relationship with the EU, but that it was the first time in our national history that a majority of people outside parliament formally asked for something that a majority of people inside parliament did not want to give. This was also a feature that set the 2016 vote firmly apart from our two earlier national referendums, on European Economic Community membership in 1975 and on introducing the alternative vote system in 2011. In both of these earlier contests, the percentage of voters and MPs that endorsed the winning outcome (which was no change) was never separated by more than three percentage points. But in 2016, when three-quarters of MPs backed Remain but less than half of voters followed suit, this gap ballooned to nearly 30 points. A tension between the rulers and ruled was there for all to see.
The late Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist and author of Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy (2013), warned about how easily democracies can fall prey to a vicious cycle whereby politicians turn away from citizens, citizens turn away from politicians, politics is “depoliticised” and democracy is stripped down. In our post-referendum era, when catastrophising has emerged as a favourite national pastime, it might be tempting to conclude that Britain has arrived at such a moment. But cooler heads will know it has not, at least not yet. One thing that can never be said about the vote for Brexit is that it was rooted in the mass apathy that Peter Mair worried about. With the highest turnout at any nationwide vote since 1992, the referendum signalled a revitalisation not weakening of democratic engagement (as did the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which had an even higher turnout of nearly 85 per cent.)
But this is also precisely what makes our political moment so fragile and is why, over the longer-term, Peter Mair may be proved right. In the nearly three years that have passed since the vote, millions of Leavers have reached the unsettling conclusion that their representatives have no real interest in delivering a meaningful Brexit or are plotting to prevent it. Such outcomes will have predictable effects. One will be a rebooted populism. After launching the Brexit Party on 12 April, it took less than a week for Nigel Farage to dominate opinion polls for the European Parliament election. So poorly have the Brexit negotiations been handled that Britain is giving the world a masterclass in how not to manage populism.
But another effect may prove to be far more important, more corrosive and more damaging to our great democracy, and that is a complete breakdown of trust.
There was never a golden era for trust. Even in the 1940s, when George Orwell was writing about old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist, many voters held views about politics that would today be associated with a populist backlash. Just as Churchill was leading Britain to victory at the end of the Second World War, Gallup found that its people were evenly divided between those who believed that politicians were out to help the country and those who believed that they were only in it for themselves.
But while the British retained a healthy scepticism towards their rulers, the risk of this mutating into a broader anti-establishment revolt was held in check by several barriers: a deferential political culture; a vibrant civil society that nurtured healthy levels of interpersonal trust; and strong, tribal loyalties to the main parties. British voters were critical of their politicians, but until the 1970s at least the share of voters who identified with a mainstream party never fell below 75 per cent.
Deference to authority and strong partisan loyalty led, in the 1960s, to a landmark academic study to present Britain as an exemplar of the “civic culture”. Written by Sidney Verba, who sadly died on 4 March this year, and Gabriel Almond, The Civic Culture (1963) presented Britain as “a pluralistic culture based on communication and persuasion, a culture of consensus and diversity, a culture that permitted change but moderated it”. What differentiated Britain from less stable states such as Germany and Italy was that its democracy was supported by a lively political and civic arena in which citizens were engaged, would participate, were deferential towards elites, trusting of others and proud of their institutions and who, crucially, believed that they and their fellow citizens could influence the decisions that were taken on their behalf.
Britain’s civic culture was still on full display during its first referendum on the Europe question, in 1975. As my colleague Vernon Bogdanor has observed, while both Labour and the Conservatives were divided over Europe, as they are today, most citizens were willing to defer to the consensus view in parliament. This is one reason why ill-fated efforts by Enoch Powell and Tony Benn to tap into populist sentiment failed. As Roy Jenkins remarked following the comprehensive referendum victory for pro-Europeans: “The people took the advice of people they were used to following.”
By the 2016 referendum, however, this feature was glaringly absent. Britain both looked and felt like a world away from the one documented by Verba and Almond. Certainly, one could argue that their description of an engaged British public has lived on, whether through protests against the war in Iraq, tuition fees or climate change, through demonstrations by the Countryside Alliance, the rise of new parties such as the Greens, Change UK and the Brexit Party, a resurgent Labour Party membership and strong turnout at the 2016 referendum.
At the same time, one does not need to look far to find darker currents. One inevitable result of the 2016 referendum is that the vote for Brexit will be routinely presented as the prime suspect for all that is wrong with our social settlement. When it comes to distrust, however, this has much deeper roots. A useful marker is the work of David Easton, an academic who, in the 1960s, drew a distinction between “specific” and “diffuse” support for politics; the former refers to our support for the government of the day, its leaders or policies; the latter our support for fundamental aspects of our political system and democracy. Democracies can absorb a loss of specific support. But their durability or even survival falls into doubt when they suffer a deep and sustained loss of diffuse support for the system overall. Citizens feeling unhappy about how the government of the day is managing the Brexit process is one thing; citizens feeling as though they no longer have a voice in the system is something else altogether.
One of the worrying things about Britain is that our diffuse support for the political system was on the wane long before the Brexit vote. As the National Centre for Social Research points out, while the British people have never expressed that much faith in their politicians, over the past 30 years their distrust of politics and unhappiness with how politics is seen to be working has been steadily rising. Between 1986 and 2013, the percentage of those who trusted government “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own party” more than halved from 38 to 18 per cent.
The proportion of voters who believed they had a duty to vote also fell, while people became more sceptical about how a range of key institutions in society, from government to the BBC, were being run.
There were other, more alarming indicators. Look at the long-term data and you will find that since the era of Winston Churchill, the overall average level of public disapproval with the government of the day has steadily increased by more than 20 points to surpass 60 per cent. So, too, has the average level of public dissatisfaction with the prime minister of the day. It is these longer-term trends, not snapshot polls, that have been worrying academics.
When Gerry Stoker, professor at the University of Southampton, and his colleagues explored what had happened during the 50 years before Britain voted for Brexit, they found “strong evidence” for a sustained growth in discontent with politics, and “the withdrawal of diffuse support”. Nor were they alone. During the 2010-15 parliament, another academic study by Paul Whiteley examined the data to see how the civic culture was holding up. The conclusion was sobering. There were not only “warning clouds on the horizon” but Britain risked becoming a “flawed democracy”. Civic engagement was in decline and people were becoming less supportive of governance.
Ordinarily, these deeper trends might not matter were citizens still anchored in the political system through party loyalty. When Almond and Verba published their book, one in two British people felt strongly aligned to the two main parties. But by the time David Cameron’s Conservatives won their surprising majority in 2015, this had crashed to just one in eight. This helps to explain why Nigel Farage has found it so easy to lure so many people away from the mainstream – Ukip won nearly four millions votes in 2015 – and why the latest polls for the European Parliament elections put the two main parties on just 45 per cent of the vote and give a majority to “the others”.
Back in the 1960s, Almond and Verba described the quintessential “allegiant” British citizen as being well informed, generally satisfied with the performance of the government on key issues of the day and who fondly recalled how well they had been treated by state officials. Today’s citizen, in sharp contrast, is still informed and engaged but is far more dissatisfied, less trusting of institutions, less deferential towards elites, more receptive to anti-establishment campaigns and, if given an opportunity, vents about how nobody is listening.
What made these trends complex is that, like any successful virus, distrust also latched itself on to other issues. Writing a decade before Britain voted for Brexit, American political scientist Robert Putnam used his 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture to set out a controversial hypothesis – that rising ethnic diversity in Western states will, in the long run, reduce trust and solidarity. People who live in more diverse neighbourhoods, or who lack interaction with other groups, will “hunker down” – withdraw from civic life, become less trusting of others – and so the civic culture is further weakened.
Putnam was widely criticised at the time yet here in Britain we now have evidence to suggest that he understood the forces in play. During the 2000s, one major driver of Britain’s growing crisis of distrust was a widely held view among voters that politicians and “the system” were unable to control the sharply rising level and pace of immigration. This was not the only factor. In only a decade, Britain’s political system was battered by the war in Iraq, a global financial crisis, a parliamentary expenses scandal, prolonged austerity, inequality, revolving-door politics and an increasingly insular legislature. But for lots of voters, particularly Leavers, it was immigration that seemed to encapsulate the failure of a remote political class to respond to their concerns. Revealed too was the growing values divide between citizens and ever-more distant, and mostly socially liberal, politicians.
This has had a much wider effect than many realise. As Lauren McLaren, a politics professor at Leicester University, pointed out in a project carried out in association with the centre-left think tank Policy Network, the challenge facing Britain is not that voters blame the main parties for a system that no longer seems responsive but that, when it comes to immigration in particular, “long-term concern about this issue and perceptions of failures of the political system to deal with it are affecting public perceptions of British institutions more generally”. So great was the collapse of trust that, for a while, the shambolic Ukip was the most trusted party on one of the most important issues for voters, namely immigration. The option of Remain with no freedom of movement would have won a handsome victory in the 2016 referendum. In the event, Leave’s message of renewed control and agency met an electorate that had largely given up on the idea that the government was able to control who was coming in or out of their country.
These intense feelings of voicelessness and growing despair at an unresponsive system ebbed and flowed throughout our society. Between Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983 and David Cameron’s first (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) in 2010, working-class voters and people without degrees were consistently twice as likely as middle-class professionals and university graduates to feel that they had no voice in our political system. Indeed, research has shown that from 2001 many working-class voters who felt excluded by Britain’s new economic and social settlement were, as Peter Mair warned, withdrawing from politics because of a system they believed was tilted towards middle-class graduates. These groups then rallied behind Brexit, which was more an attempt to register their voicelessness than a revival of the civic culture. Support for leaving the EU among people who felt that politicians were listening was just 37 per cent. But among those who felt voiceless it was nearly 60 per cent.
And these voters do have a point. Parliament has, so far, not responded to their democratic request for change, while Leavers are unlikely to get the comprehensive immigration reform they crave. Meanwhile, MPs appear increasingly detached from the very groups who are least likely to trust the system. The percentage of MPs who have experience of manual occupations has dropped to 3 per cent while the percentage who have only ever worked in politics has risen to 18 per cent. Today, with no Brexit in sight, these same groups are once again running to Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party. Farage now barely mentions the EU at all. What started as a single-issue campaign against Brussels is morphing into a far broader revolt against Westminster.
It is for all of these reasons that future historians will surely conclude that what happened during the 2016 referendum campaign was much less significant than the longer-term currents of distrust and dissatisfaction that were beneath the surface, and which found their expression in the Brexit vote and then a rebooted populism.
Guess who’s back: Nigel Farage prepares for a briefing on Brexit Party candidates for EU elections
The fallout from Brexit is now exacerbating this general collapse of confidence. The warning signs are already with us – levels of political disillusionment and distrust that are without precedent in modern times. More than four in five people say that politicians are no longer listening. Nearly eight in ten say they do not trust their representatives. And nearly seven in ten feel the established parties no longer offer an appealing choice of who to vote for at elections. Britain, we are routinely told, is more divided than ever. But when it comes to how they think about Westminster, people appear remarkably united.
Brexit is turning into a process of expectation management rather than an imaginative reply to the grievances that led us to our present impasse. Few Leavers will get the radical shake-up of the economic and social settlement that they crave and few voters overall will get the reforms that might otherwise revive their trust. When asked in March by Andrew Marr what could happen if the House of Commons failed to deliver on the 2016 referendum, David Davis, a former Brexit secretary, warned: “Britain will get its Trump moment… that will absolutely undermine belief in democracy in this country, and certainly belief in the established political parties.”
Farage and the Brexit Party will likely win the European Parliament elections, and have another crack at overcoming the first-past-the-post system. But we should remember that populism is only ever a symptom and never a root cause. What a rejuvenated Farage represents is a much deeper reservoir of distrust in society. As John Gray rightly argued in this magazine in March, while most of the political class has proven incapable of adapting its thinking to the mass disaffection that the vote for Brexit revealed, by seeking to moderate or even thwart the result they may end up deepening voter estrangement. That will, over the long run, only weaken our democracy.
In years to come, we might conclude that the most significant force unleashed by Brexit was not rebooted populism or an outbreak of civil disobedience but something less visible yet far more potent and corrosive: a collapse of trust.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent and co-author with Roger Eatwell of “National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy”