The rest and the West: thoughts on Brexit and migration. Part Two

We
need more than a tv debate on the future of Britain and Europe.

lead Screenshot: the seven-way BBC election debate, May 2017. YouTube.

“I don’t think there is a silver
bullet, but the market-place of ideas is at the heart of democracy. We all
bring ideas and opinions into that market-place and we talk and discuss, and we
argue, but we bargain and we compromise. That is what is collapsing.”
 Matthew
Goodwin on preventing the rage of the US parcel-bomber from spreading, BBC2 Newsnight, October
26, 2018

After ducking out of the
televised seven-way general election debate of 2017, on the grounds that “the
debates where the politicians are squabbling amongst themselves don’t do
anything for the process of electioneering”, Theresa May gained a reputation
for ‘not doing debate’. The Brexit tv debate she has proposed for December 9 in
front of millions of viewers who will have no say in the outcome, was “consuming
Westminster’s political advisers and the nation’s broadcasters” four
days ago
, but has not yet been agreed. Caroline Lucas, calling for another
public vote on Brexit is taking a principled position on this: saying that any
debate "must be cross-party, featuring a diverse range of voices
representing every nation, as well as every stance on this deal and our
relationship with the EU". The BBC version appears to be “10 prominent
supporters of May’s deal and 10 opponents who would have the chance to ask
questions”, described as “messy” by Labour, since the opposition would precisely
be seen as squabbling among themselves. But as Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director
of communications put it, a television debate is not a debate: “It becomes a
basic method of message delivery rather than a real debate.”

Meanwhile,
the real debate with which Theresa May has
not engaged during her lonely tour of duty in one-way persuasion, is
surely the
one at the heart of a liberal democracy: democratic debate leading to
compromise between legitimate political adversaries. Setting aside her
preference for conducting the Brexit process as a secretive Whitehall
operation, everything May has done since inheriting the binary
referendum result on the UK’s future relationship to the EU has been an
avoidance
of debate, from the resistance of the UK government to seeking
parliamentary
approval for Article 50 or to a “meaningful debate” on the final deal,
to the ministerial
power grab over the Withdrawal Bill and secretive plans for trade deals,
the
marginalisation of the devolved nations, the refusal of plan-B
discussions, and
the insistence that “Brexit means Brexit” through months and years in
which it
has become increasingly clear that no-one really knows what Brexit
means.

Yesterday like the proverbial worm, the despised and
marginalised ‘squabbling politicians’, turned, aided by carefully timed advice
from the Advocate General to the European Court of Justice. This was the first
mention of anyone officially involved in the negotiations that Britain might
change its mind. Faced by a no-deal, a Member-State could change its intention
to withdraw from the EU and revoke Article 50, since Article 50 is invoked in
the first place “to
notify the European Council of ‘its intention’– and not of its decision – to
withdraw, and such an intention may change.” Not only this, but in accordance
with our parliamentary sovereignty, and, Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona adds, in
the interests of European integration, the decision indeed rests with the
squabbling politicians of a Member State to choose to “reverse its initial
decision.”

Today, May’s ‘triple
defeat’ by parliament has elicited a warning from leading Brexit-backing
Cabinet Minister, Liam Fox, that Remainer MPs are trying to “steal Brexit from
the British people” which he describes as a “democratic affront”. But the truth
is that MP’s supporting the legal action in Luxembourg, like Caroline Lucas and
Chris Bryant, in their campaign for a second referendum, have been fighting a
valiant battle against the odds and the Government, to give the British people
a say. Under the desert conditions for democracy created by those conducting
the Brexit negotiations, they are the ones who have insisted on keeping some
sort of public space open and ticking. Bryant’s response to the legal advice
was to express the hope that the final say on Brexit would be handed back to
the public, “because only the people of the United Kingdom can sort this out.” It
is being argued that the Advocate General’s opinion, by the same token, gives the
EU every reason to extend Article 50 for such an outcome, since a choice to
remain made by the people might well be considered a stronger mandate than a
decision to remain made by MPs alone.

But whether Brexit is
to be stolen from the British people or sorted out by them, the invocation of a
unitary people’s will in both cases should raise alarm bells. Just how should a
large and diverse, not to mention increasingly polarised people “change its
mind” or “have a say”? Albert Weale’s pithy
answer
to the question, 'Can 'a people' have 'a will"? is decisively in the negative There is no singular will of the people
emerging from a plurality of people
There
is no one super-individual – the people – that has changed its mind
There is no will of the people independently
of the rules used to combine different opinions
”. He reminds us that a people
does not change its mind, but that in a democracy, under a set of rules chosen in a decision that is supremely political, people do. Whatever the
outcome to the roller coaster in which we are now engaged and even at this late
and bewildering stage, we can only begin to “take back control” to the extent
that our voices can finally be heard in a way that can persuade and effect
meaningful change. The question, for both parliament and people, is what is a “meaningful
debate”?

My
own conviction is that all selective versions of a Brexit debate proliferate
enemy images. We see only too well the cumulative dehumanising impact on
‘migrants’ when they are only ever spoken about, and, in the Windrush case for
example, how shocking the effect when we finally hear directly from them. The
speed at which “Europeans” began to be sucked into the “hostile environment” came
as another, more recent shock. Don’t we need a debate that can “out”, identify
and encompass all these points of view, one that brings Leavers and Remainers,
ordinary and elite, face to face across all the boundaries and borders so far
erected by the multiple toxic polarisations of the issue? 

This
would be a public debate at least as ambitious and inclusive as the Scottish referendum
debate was at its best. One that included the 16 to 18 year olds who were
included in that process, and not in the EU referendum, on the grounds that
this is their future we are talking about. A debate that welcomes the voices of
the many migrants and fellow-Europeans in our midst, elite and ordinary as
well. But above all, voices open to each other in all their diversity, willing to listen,
even to care, and yes, even to change their minds.

What is a “meaningful debate”
?

Only
a comprehensive, extended and inclusive People’s Debate can effect this process
of citizen empowerment. Anthony Barnett’s ‘open
letter to Remainers’
this June on openDemocracy was the first
sign of movement towards the kind of listening that would be involved. By
September, Neal Lawson was on openDemocracy warning supporters of the People’s
Vote to be
careful what they wished for
, and extending Barnett’s argument
in the direction of a four-point agenda for democratising the process that
included citizens’
assemblies
, a constitutional
convention
for the UK and a new policy agenda for
Europe. Lawson also demanded a “systemic domestic policy response to the causes
of Brexit”. Recently, as the Brexit deadlines threatened, another breakthrough
moment was Caroline Lucas’s closing contribution to the Channel
4 Big Brexit Debate
: What does the UK really think? as
a key proponent of the People’s Vote:


What we need to be doing is recognising as well that many of the people who
voted ‘leave’ have very legitimate grievances that need to be tackled. So the
People’s Vote campaign isn’t just saying 
– ‘Let’s just swap and see if we can get a vote like this that changes
the balance…’. It’s massively important that the People’s Vote campaign and all
of us who want to seize the opportunity for people to have a say, recognise
that this is not about turning the clock back two years, but about saying let
us make sure that we address those underlying reasons that drove so many people
to feel that the only solution was to leave the EU, when in fact leaving the EU
will make things worse for them.”

Fellow
People’s Vote advocate and openDemocracy columnist, Mary Kaldor, reiterated this point in her advice to the Labour
Party: “if
we are to address the real concerns of the leave voters we need to be inside
the EU campaigning for a change of rules.” But she also called for “a genuine
constitutional debate throughout the country – a debate about the kind of
society we want to live in and how to tackle the deep-seated problems linked to
jobs, housing, health, and, above all, democracy that led to the howl of
anguish represented by the Brexit vote.”

But
it took Gordon Brown, in his capacity as former UK prime minister, to go further in thinking about what is needed over
and above any second public vote or even beyond a general election, if we are
to have a democratic Brexit process at last. Divisions could “merely worsen” in
an already “bitterly divided country”, since “at least two and possibly many
more years of acrimonious EU negotiations still lie ahead”, he warns, in To calm the Brexit storm, we must listen to
the UK’s views again,
FT, November 16.

Because
“the deadlock in parliament seems unlikely to be broken by MPs alone”, Brown
proposes bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few
hundred citizens, together constituting a “platform to allow discussion of
important issues such as immigration, sovereignty, the state of our industrial
towns and regions. Through it, by exploring both the causes and consequences of
Brexit, we can see whether any consensus can be forged.”

Brown
proposes the creation of a “new kind of royal commission” in order to be
credible, authoritative and impartial. But I would argue instead for
parliamentarians to become joint custodians of this new politics of persuasion in
a constitution that devolved their most precious function to the citizens ­– what
Albert Weale calls the “institutionalised debate in which competing views are
expressed within a set of rules”. Citizens already have voices in ways without
parallel before the internet era. Becoming the guarantors and enablers of such an
inclusive, pluralist debate could be the best way to rescue democratic representation
from its ‘gatekeeping’ crisis, with a useful knock-on effect on an overweening
media.

All it
would take is the simple acknowledgement that who picks the subjects and frames
the debate is the democratic crux of the matter, as the political theorist Stuart
White pointed out on openDemocracy
three years ago

in his survey of constitutional conventions:

“If we are in
a constitutional moment, then it is not appropriate to let the key questions be
settled just through the processes of ‘normal’ politics. Democratic theory says
that this is a time when ‘We the people’ have a right to settle what happens
precisely because what is at stake is a set of very basic questions about how
we are ruled. A constitutional convention (CC) is potentially one way of giving
‘We the people’ this leading role…  If a convention is to be
genuinely ‘people-led’ mustn’t its agenda be responsive to the people? Allowing
the convention a wide remit, or allowing it to identify issues for itself, gives
us all an opportunity to campaign to the convention to address issues we think
important. It draws us all into the discussion and thereby helps to create a
democratic constitutional moment… A key principle here is that devolution and
decentralisation ought to be bottom-up processes with real accountability to
local people.”

White had an encouraging message for us when it came
to Labour and the Greens:

“First,
as I think Labour (and the Greens) already accept, membership of the convention
– or conventions – should be drawn largely from members of the general public,
chosen by lot but in a way that is designed to be broadly representative of the
population. (Exactly which population? The standard assumption is that the
relevant population consists of UK citizens, but David Owen argues forcefully that non-citizen residents and
non-residents should also have representation in a CC.)”

Gordon
Brown’s choice of subjects for his debating platform, ought he thinks to
“particularly examine those contentious issues where the situation has changed
significantly since 2016”, citing both “national identity” and freedom of
movement. Yet if Brown acknowledges the evidence of shifting opinions on the
latter, Theresa May certainly does not. 
We learn that she rejects any Norway-style compromise deal with the
Labour party. Why? On the grounds that ending freedom of movement is the hardest
of the prime minister’s red lines. Again why? – we don’t know. Maybe it is for
the same reason that Kramp-Karrenbauer, hailed as the most Merkel-like of her
successor candidates, has announced that she would be much “stricter” on
migration than Merkel.

But
can’t we do better than that? Couldn’t we hope instead, taking inspiration from
Ada Colau’s PAH movement
, that one advantage of a People’s Debate over a
People’s Vote is the chance to include non-citizen residents and non-residents in
this inclusive, empowering national debate? And that those pluralist encounters
might similarly lead in a mutually enabling direction?

Brown’s
proposal is a breakthrough, first and foremost, in the recognition that Brexit is
a historic process in which people need to have a say. It pays the referendum due
respect for being a democratic prompt for a “unique consultation”, a multi-faceted
process of exchange that “by opening a dialogue across the country and engaging
in a constructive, outward-looking conversation about our future” might help us
discover “a road back to a more cohesive country, reuniting around shared
values and rediscovered common interests.”

How not to frame a democratic
debate

“So we need to think about what
institutions, what mechanisms can we put in place that support that
market-place of ideas. And that means mixing our friendship groups and our
social networks – it means having better political leadership – it means
starting early at university and at school level and making sure people are
exposed to different perspectives…”
 Matthew
Goodwin on preventing the rage of the US parcel-bomber from spreading, BBC2
Newsnight
, October 26, 2018

If
this is what is needed then one way not to frame that People’s Debate is
highlighted by the interesting spat that recently
broke out
on openDemocracy among other places, between academics protesting
at a panel debate billed for December 6 by Claire Fox’s Academy of Ideas and
UnHerd.

A
number of academics, journalists and commentators are planning to take part in a
‘debate’ originally titled and intended to answer the question: “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the
West?”
. Speakers include Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann, Claire Fox, Trevor
Phillips and David Aaronovitch. (The title has now changed.)

Their
critics accuse them of framing diversity as a threat, when it is perfectly
possible to “discuss far right language without using it yourself”.  Their open letter
protests

that: "This debate shuts itself down, as no other alternative factor or
scenario is identified as a ‘threat’, and it is hard to recognise much in the
way of a diversity of opinion on a panel where most of the speakers are on the
record as blaming immigration and multiculturalism for complex and
multi-faceted social problems ". In the comment spaces of openDemocracy, the
ongoing argument soon arrives at the key issue of democratic debate: “The
people hosting this debate, so narrowly framed in such a way, seemingly provide
a platform for arguments that can only draw one possible and predefined
conclusion. So. Not much of a 'debate' then...”,“To reiterate, we are not
seeking to shut down debate or evade difficult arguments – these issues are
widely discussed in academia and in public fora. We are simply asking that we
do not give yet more ground to those who seek to shift the blame for systemic
failures onto communities who are already subject to oppression and hostility,
and legitimise hate and scapegoating as if that is analysis.”

Critics
of the critics, for their part, are determined to defend free speech, “Because
in order to think we have to be free to speak. Freedom of thought and freedom
of speech is a dialectical process in which we express and explore ideas, and
as a society how we reach solutions for complex issues. Having to tolerate
ideas that you do not agree with is the cost of freedom of speech.”

A dialectical process is one in which both sides cross
boundaries, and a third term emerges which goes beyond them, into new territory.
It's certainly what is needed. But how exactly can this take place? With polling indicating a widening gulf
between Remain voters determined to ‘stop Brexit’ and Leave voters reconciling
themselves to crashing out, what can stop this runaway process of polarisation?

Some of us have been asking this for some time.

On openDemocracy the indefatigable journalists, Adam Ramsay, Peter Geoghegan and others, who have for many months been investigating questions about the
funding and the political influences behind the Leave campaigns, have recently secured
the grim satisfaction of the Electoral Commission belatedly referring Aaron
Banks to the National Crime Agency for investigation. Whatever the outcome –
and Laura Kuenssberg told us on the same day that this was “unlikely to affect
the Brexit process” – it is precisely at this point that we need to remind
ourselves of the article Adam Ramsay wrote a year ago, to say, “Remainers:
don’t use our investigations as an excuse
”– an excuse, that is, not to ask
much deeper questions about why they lost the EU referendum to 17 million
voters in the first place.

One of the speakers participating in the Academy of
Ideas/UnHerd debate, Matthew Goodwin, has been making
exactly the same important point
. Goodwin complained this August about “a clear and concerted attempt
to try and delegitimize the result by implying that either voters were duped or
that the Leave campaign was crooked; and absolutely no engagement whatsoever
with the growing pile of evidence that we now have on why people actually voted
for Brexit.” At the time he concluded, “To many on the liberal left –
Brexit is to be opposed not understood.”

Goodwin is an expert in the deep roots of English
euroscepticism, the rise of UKIP and the Brexit result. His disappointment that
the referendum didn't pave the way for a long-overdue national debate focused
on addressing the divides, inequalities and grievances that had led to this
moment is palpable and surely justified. What better candidate might one seek
for framing a Brexit People’s Debate, particularly as together with Roger
Eatwell, Goodwin has just published a new book entitled National
Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy
,
promoted as a “compellingcase for serious, respectful engagement
with the supporters and ideas of national populism.”

The
signs were promising. Here were authors willing to challenge the longue durée
of  “the deep-rooted suspicion of the
‘masses’ which lies at the heart of liberal democracy”.  Here we have not only the expertise and the
research base, but the manifest concern for the people they were studying and commitment
to reversing their political disenfranchisement. Roger Eatwell’s The rising tide of national populism: we
need to talk seriously about immigration,
summarises the key democracy argument that runs through the book
for openDemocracy, and urges a braver generation of politicians to embark on “serious
talk about immigration”. Matthew Goodwin, publishing his overview on UnHerd on October 23, ends with a refreshing call for “more room
for deliberation and input from across society through devolution, the roll-out
of citizens initiatives or making greater use of referendums at the local
level.”

On
that same day, however, openDemocracy published the open letter citing Goodwin as
one of the speakers and organisers of the debate planned for December 6 and
originally billed, “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?” Could it really
be that at this critical conjuncture, some of our best
intellectuals, commentators and journalists, including those most alert to
‘national populist’ alienation, were seemingly absorbed in another round of “How
can we play with xenophobia without being xenophobic ?”

Is
an answer to be found in Goodwin and Eatwell’s accounts of National Populism. Or might they instead give us just what we need
to frame our inclusive, national, People’s Debate on Brexit and migration?

‘National populism’ – what is
going on?

James
Meek
 in the October 11 issue of the LRB
had raised his own concerns over Goodwin’s framing of the Brexit debate. Pointing
out that his reading of Brexit tended to oppose “ordinary Leave voters against an arrogant Remainer elite as
if those were the two sides at issue”, Meek argued that in doing this, Goodwin
not only overlooked, “ordinary Remain voters, many of whom, though typically
younger and better educated, feel as powerless, angry and betrayed as their
counterparts on the other side”, but also ignored “an arrogant Leave elite, the
Brexiteers”.  Every day brings further revelations about their motivation, role and reach at
work in British politics and its decision-making processes. Surely, for
example, it is important for the British public, and not them alone, to be
alert to the
foreign and domestic backers of Tommy Robinson as well
as to his plans?

But
looking more closely at Goodwin’s argument in UnHerd, there is one additional
strand in his framing of the Brexit debate here which sure enough leads him
inexorably to “Diversity [as] a Threat”,
despite the fact that as a filter, it can only be self-defeating with regard to
the very “deliberation and input from across society” which Goodwin and Eatwell
seek. It is an argument that by the same token plunges us back into the increasingly
stark choice of our times between horizontal empowerment and the monocultural
National Us with which my argument began.

The strand
begins by narrowing in on a particular definition of the UK’s excluded and
unrepresented:


you will see record numbers of
women and ethnic minorities in the corridors of power. This should be
applauded. But when it comes to others in society, who have also been the most
likely to vote for national populists ­– the working-class and non-graduates –
it is an entirely different story.”

These
are the people that Trump, Farage, Salvini and Le Pen claim to speak for, and Goodwin
says that they “have a point.” However it is a rather selective point, if we
consider the strange Leaver coalition which actually spatched together genuine victims
of austerity and internationalisation with much more affluent leavers in the southern
counties nostalgic for a Greater Britain. This is then accompanied by an
equally selective definition of the defining opposition:

“As those with advanced
qualifications have acquired more representation and power, governments have
over time become more empathetic toward their desires and shaped more around ‘cosmopolitan
standards’.”

Soon
we are presented with the European elites, including those in the UK, backing
everyone but their own working class and non-graduates, due to their
‘cosmopolitan standards’. This makes a certain sense, given that:

“ while 57% of elites across
Europe felt that immigration had been good for their respective country only
25% of voters felt the same way. Political, business and media elites were far
more likely to feel they had benefited from being in the EU, to back further
integration and support refugees and the role of Islam in Europe.”

Education
plays a crucial role in this division. But the role that it plays has nothing
to do with the way that a technocratic political class hand in hand with their
media might manipulate the fears of the less educated to consolidate their
power, leaving only the better educated relatively unscathed. Instead, Goodwin
quotes Boven and Wille approvingly, whose study of
‘diploma democracy’ in the Netherlands (2011), was broadened to cover Europe in 2017. Their concern is that
education is exclusionary at the level of political debate:

“In a diploma democracy the
well-educated voice resonates much more strongly at the ballot box; in
deliberative sessions and expert meetings; in parliaments and cabinets”.

and their
conclusion that the educated can moreover, be narrowly self-interested:

“Yet whereas Plato’s idealised
ruling class was an ascetic brotherhood working for the common good in small
city states, today’s rulers are increasingly cosmopolitan, insular and at times
self-serving.”

There
are many reasons why political representation is in crisis today, and an
inability to serve the common good must be a dominant factor. But can a
cosmopolitan tendency really bear the explanatory weight that it is given here?
It is a convenient descriptive, to be sure, since a sense of relative ease with
‘the other’ is perhaps the sole factor seeming to unite the advantage of EU
membership with further European integration, welcoming refugees and being happy
to live side by side with people of the Muslim faith. Moreover, in itself, the
consequent willingness to accept change provides a ready if not obviously
irresponsible point of contrast to the “socially conservative views” that
Eatwell informs us are “common” among national populist supporters and “deeply
held”.

However,
for researchers so alert to homogenising biases and stereotypes, this choice of
unifying trait seems hasty, if only and in particular because everything we
might assume about the self-serving nature of political élites today suggests a marked inability to empathise with
another ‘other’ – namely the very people whom Goodwin and Eatwell have
committed themselves to understanding, caring about and empowering. Why draw
the ‘cosmopolitan’ line at them?

Yet
this is where Goodwin’s argument ends, in a quotation carefully chosen to urge an
opponent that by now is a curious amalgam of European élites and ‘the liberal left’, to “reflect on” the “pluralist
heaven” of the former and their distance from the real people:

“The academic E.E.
Schattschneider once observed that a key risk that faces democracies is that
they become dominated by the privileged and ignore the less well off. “The flaw
in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong
upper-class accent”, he wrote. Today, the heavenly chorus might sing
with a middle-class accent, but its members are now holding degree
certificates.”

Goodwin’s
preoccupation with education and representation gives this choice of
antagonists a particular twist, but the framing underlying this strand of
argument is familiar enough. It is the opposition between rooted Somewhere
people and rootless Anywhere people packaged by David Goodhart, and chosen as
Book of the Year for 2017 by The Guardian
and the Economist, just in time to be
coopted into Theresa May’s campaign to become prime
minister
as
her own personal brand of patriotism: “If you believe you are a citizen of the
world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

The Road to Somewhere, as Jon Bloomfield points
out in his highly critical openDemocracy
review
, relies
on a similar “mixture of selective facts and figures” to construct Goodhart’s
particular version of a divided society, in which the working class is pitted
against an “Anywheres” category that lumps together “everyone from those who go
on to do low grade office and administrative work through to hedge fund
managers and senior executives” via three years at university which are “apparently
sufficiently formative to mould all these diverse people into one homogenous
bloc”.

Here
too, an “unbridgeable gulf between the working and professional classes” takes
centre stage, moving neoliberal globalisation, financial crisis, the concerted austerity
drive and forty years of changing attitudes conveniently to one side, while it invokes
a timeless “bedrock” and yes, the unitary National Us.

Here
too Jon Bloomfield finds the far right being treated with “kid gloves” in the
process. Goodwin and Eatwell are eager to abjure words such as ‘racist’ or
‘fascist’ to describe UKIP members, the far right and populism in general,
though they may not have anticipated UKIP’s most recent ‘metamorphosis into an
outright, unapologetic far-right party
’ at the advice of the Bannonite ‘Tommy Robinson’, now
explicitly aiming to head up an aggrieved majoritarian movement in response to what
he calls the ‘Great Brexit Betrayal’. Goodhart, before them, had designated
UKIP, Trump and Le Pen alike “decent populists”, arguing that “UKIP and the
Front National have been dragged sharply to the left in recent years” and that
Trump is no “white supremacist”.

But
the selective concern with some dangers and not with others is not the only
problem with this approach. When it comes to democratic debate, foregrounding “pluralist
heaven” as a no-go-area can only lead to a series of missed opportunities.

The immigration debate

Take
Roger Eatwell’s call for a “bottom-up” conversation “about immigration and how
best to live together.”

In
his attempt to persuade us that “the vast majority of British people are
‘balancers’ who recognise the rights of genuine asylum seekers and need for
migration”, Eatwell is surely right to ask his readers not to assume that
racism is at play among the “many voters” for whom immigration is indeed “a
major concern” and to seek to understand what is. One example we are asked to
give a sympathetic hearing to is that national populist supporters think immigrants
“should be expected to assimilate into the dominant culture, which many people
still strongly identify with (though their conceptions of Britishness often
differ).” The closing qualification here is a mere aside, the postscript of a
scrupulous researcher. But isn’t Eatwell neglecting a more interesting line of
inquiry? Looked at another way, conceptions of Britishness in the plural pose challenging
questions about how coherent the ‘dominant culture’ is in our ‘hyper-diverse’
modern societies; questions about who is to decide which Britishness should
dominate; and about who decides, if at all, who should assimilate to what?

Furthermore,
if we admit that the plurality here is a reality and not a cosmopolitan
indulgence, couldn’t this recognition precisely take us in the direction of a
mutually vulnerable, inclusive debate, open to ‘the other’ – in which even
migrants or Europeans might have something to contribute to our changing
perceptions of who British people are?

Eatwell,
in fact, agrees. His article concludes with an “urgent” call for a serious
“bottom-up” conversation about “a new and more inclusive conception of national
identity” that can “combine old aspects of British identity with the new
realities of migration and multicultural communities”. But much more effort
goes into urging educated readers to understand assumptions about assimilation,
than goes into exploring what it would take in a democracy to have such a
serious conversation that could change people’s minds. Which brings us back to
the whole question of  ‘contact’.

This
missed opportunity occurs when Eatwell is mapping concerns over immigration. He
explains that “Concerns are often greatest in areas where people have recently
arrived, or where there are fears about such an influx”, or where, as in a
South Wales former mining village, “The only foreigners were inside the Daily
Mail”.  He moves on to the apparent
anomaly that “the Brexit vote was often lowest in parts of Britain, like London
which have relatively large ethnic minorities”, and provides one possible
explanation, nodding to “social-psychological ‘contact theory” which “holds
that over time people from different ethnic groups accommodate to each other
through direct interaction.”

But
again, wouldn’t we do well to linger? Isn’t the contrast at work here the same
one that underpins the choice between two ways of building community with which
I began my argument: on the one hand the
horizontal empowerment of direct citizen involvement as a contact sport,
working across borders and boundaries over time; and on the other, the rapid
balloonings of the imagined monocultural National Us, under sudden threat from
some imagined but never quite encountered enemy? If it is true that ‘contact’
makes such a difference, and bearing in mind for example, how every partial and
selective version of the Brexit debate proliferates its own lethal enemy
images, then mustn’t this be one priority for the proactively implemented
“suite of packages” that Goodwin calls for, adding to
his emphasis on what the populists get right, an accompanying emphasis on the
need to be “exposed to different perspectives” that is pretty well indistinguishable
from “cosmopolitan standards.”

Goodwin
and Eatwell are always worth reading, because their work contains so many of
the relevant facts. Take for example, Goodwin’s scrupulous qualification to his
proposal for “making greater use of local referendums”, that “Such initiatives
would not necessarily halt populism, as countries like Switzerland with its
long tradition of direct democracy show.” So what advance on local referenda is conducive to the “meaningful
discussion among citizens about political reform” that Goodwin seeks, that might
respond to the “lack of voice” and sense of “distant elites that united many
Leave voters”?

Turn
your back on pluralist encounter, or fail to question “assimilation” and are
you really helping anybody? Isn’t it at least worth wondering what would happen
if we dropped the Somewhere: Anywhere
binary, and thought instead about a deeply polarised but hugely diverse
society, divided between people like the leavers and
remainers brought together

in the Citizens Assembly on Brexit in Manchester last September, who were relieved
to hear each other out, able to change their minds, and honoured to have the
opportunity to think about the interests of the country as a whole; and those
who are determined neither to persuade or to be persuaded, for whom reliance on
force of number, a strong man, crashing out of the EU, or failing these, the lurking
possibility of violence, seem the only hope?

If
that is truer to the reality in which we live, as I believe, then a framing of debate
that pits those who are privileged by dint of their sheer capacity for debate
against those who are not, perversely leaves national populist supporters with
little to fall back on but stubborn silence and a gathering sense of betrayal.
Eatwell asks us not to “ignore the views of national populist voters who have
relatively low levels of education, and are not greatly interested in politics”
– fair enough as far as it goes. But in this reductive straitjacket of a
stand-off, don’t we begin to ask ourselves what is cause and what is effect? Framing
the immigration debate in a way that assumes assimilation is the name of the
game can only exacerbate the unpreparedness and fears of people panicking at
the prospect of further, disempowering change. “Brexit means Brexit” is such a
counterproductive dictum of majority reassurance precisely because it promises
that you won’t have to change your mind. “Stopping Brexit”, reversing it or
getting it over and done with plays exactly to the same humiliations and sense
of powerlessness. So why should people be interested in politics, or democracy,
when it only offers further loss of control over their lives?

Cas
Mudde writes this week in openDemocracy that, “Today, the far right has established itself at the
center of European politics, while scholarship is predominantly “neutral”,
although most scholars remain hostile to the far right itself (but increasingly
sympathetic to its voters).” Unfortunately, it seems true that these scholars
also prefer to dwell on our need to understand the “strong identification” of
such voters with a non-existent or imaginary monocultural National Us, at a
time when Tommy Robinson is busy inflating that balloon, by claiming that his
far right will lead “the 52% who opted for leave in
the referendum
”.

Aren’t
we doing Robinson’s work for him, when we encourage people to ignore the
diversity in their own ranks; when we reassure people that they don’t have to
change their minds or take minority viewpoints into account; and when we create
an enemy image out of the ‘other’? 

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