Earlier this summer, after the Brexit vote and in the context of the anger heaped on the electorate by those who wished to remain, the philosopher Roger Scruton broadcast the only coherent account on the BBC we heard explaining why the EU is such an affront to the democratic process. He has kindly given us his permission to reproduce our text of his broadcast in three parts.
In the first, today, he reflects on the significance of national identity for democracy and why one is contingent on the other and the lack of belief in that democracy held by the social and business elites of our country.
What a shame it is that the BBC have been ignoring wholesale his observations ever since.
The argument was made during the recent debate that the European Union lacks democratic accountability, and that no reforms would ever change this. Those seeking to remain in the Union dismissed the argument as a populist ploy. In such an important matter, they implied, the people should not be consulted since they don’t understand what is at stake. It is the experts who must decide.
In fact, it was the experts, or at least those wheeled on by the Remainers, who didn’t get it. For they failed to see that the British people are profoundly democratic, and do not accept being governed by bureaucrats who are not accountable for their mistakes. Indeed, reading the quantities of anger that have been heaped on the electorate since the vote, we may reasonably wonder whether the social and business elites of our country really believe in democracy.
Some have been calling for a second referendum, thereby mimicking the behaviour of the European Union which, when defeated in a popular vote, calls for the vote to be repeated so as to give the people the chance to correct their mistake. But it is precisely because the European Union distrusts the people that people distrust the European Union.
In modern conditions, in which governments rarely enjoy a majority vote, most of us are living under a government of which we don’t approve. We accept to be ruled by laws and decisions made by politicians with whom we disagree, and whom we perhaps deeply dislike. How is that possible? Why don’t democracies constantly collapse as people refuse to be governed by those they never voted for?
Clearly, a democracy must be held together by something stronger than politics. There has to be a first person plural, a pre-political loyalty which causes neighbours who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens for whom the government is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’ but ‘ours’ – whether or not we approve of it.
It is true that a country’s stability depends to a great extent on economic growth, but it also depends upon social trust, the sense that we belong together and that we will stand by each other in the real emergencies. Social trust comes from shared language, shared customs, instinctive law-abidingness; procedures for resolving disputes and grievances; public spirit; and the ability of the people to change their own government by a process that is transparent to the core.
Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects, cooperation across borders and what the philosopher John Stuart Mill called ‘experiments in living’. Like the aristocrats of old, they form their networks without reference to national boundaries. They do not, on the whole, depend on a particular place, a particular faith, or a particular routine for their sense of membership. In the recent vote, they would have experienced little reluctance in saying ‘yes’ to the European Union, since it threatens their way of life, if it all, only at the margins.
However, even in modern conditions, this urban elite depends upon others who do not belong to it: the farmers, manufacturers, clothiers, mechanics, soldiers and administrators for whom attachment to a place and its customs is implicit in all that they do. It is surely not difficult to imagine that in a question of identity, these people will very likely vote in another way from the urban elite, on whom they depend, nevertheless the government.
An inclusive first person plural is the residue of cooperation and trust generations. Those who have guided and inspired with the European project have tried to create such a first person plural by gimmicks and subsidies, while suppressing the national loyalties of the European people. But it is nationality, the home country and its shared culture that define the true European identity. It astonishes me that so many people fail to see this, or to understand that democracy and national identity in the end depend on each other.