How, in a representative democracy, has it come about that an overwhelming preponderance of MPs supports remain? (One would have thought that the ballot box would have ensured virtual parity.) This disproportion – at the heart of the current constitutional crisis – demands an explanation. There seem to me to be three factors.
- The predominance of remainer opinions in academe and the BBC. Despite suspicion of the EU as a ‘capitalist conspiracy’ among left-wingers in the Labour movement, the left-leaning academy has demonstrated enthusiasm for the EU for many years. To a community with extensive internationalist connections opposition to the European project has seemed narrow and xenophobic. The BBC recruits predominantly from this class (and disproportionately from Oxbridge) and has assumed its prejudices. MPs, increasingly, are university educated and symbiotic with establishment broadcasters. What is sometimes decried as the ‘Westminster Bubble’ is simply the crowd self-affirmation of an educated meritocracy.
- Repudiation, by that class, of Britain’s colonial past. The largest empire in world history has largely been written off as racist, oppressive and mistaken. Historians who identify positive attitudes and achievements are routinely derided by their colleagues. The post imperial history of Great Britain has been portrayed as one of diminution and decline (until the Thatcher era, a self-fulfilling prophecy). Incorporation in a supranational arrangement has thus seemed attractive, perhaps even inevitable. These attitudes have filtered down. They are routinely taught in primary and secondary schools, often as part of programmes of ‘racism awareness’.
- Antipathy among educated elites to the nation state. The nation is routinely portrayed as malign and destructive. From this prejudice derives the extravagant claim that the EU has kept the peace in Europe since the Second World War. This is evidently not the case. The cessation of two centuries of Franco-German antagonism (in which the UK was only incidentally and tangentially involved) could better be attributed to exhaustion than idealism.
In these three ways the governing class has lost contact with the majority of the British people – as evidence the hubris of David Cameron’s sanctioning a referendum, blithely confident of its result.