The UK constitutional crisis: the death of liberal democracy

The United Kingdom faces a constitutional crisis created by the vote to leave the EU. The referendum outcome had many causes. For some, a quasi-Marxist view explains the outcome as caused by the recent financial crisis and the austerity that followed. Yet, other liberal democracies faced the same without a constitutional crisis. For many, the EU’s policy on the free movement of people created an “immigration crisis”. Even though areas with the highest immigration voted to Remain and those with the lowest voted to Leave, the popular view was that it was due to immigration levels. Commentators who looked deeper saw the cause in the public’s deep seated fear of being left behind by global economy. In communities where jobs were scarce, the global economy’s opportunities were hard to reach as low skilled jobs seemed to move away. In this view, the EU represented the global economy that took their opportunities and left them unable to compete with the lower wage rivals. The public believed the EU and the effort to sustain EU membership forced the government to accept these changes which had a direct impact on local community social stability. The people were no longer in control. In response to the view that the government was unable to resist the EU, the UK media waged a broad, deep, and virulent propaganda campaign to convince the public that they needed to “take back control” with a vote to leave. Despite these varied claims by myriad commentators, what has not been considered as a cause is the crisis of liberal democracy within the United Kingdom.

Since 1688, the United Kingdom has struggled with liberalism. The liberal democracy built on that liberalism struggled to find purchase on the UK’s imperial regime. The two were in tension. The imperial regime, a constitutional monarchy, and liberal democracy, in which all are equal before the law, were a mismatch that remained implicit for centuries. After the UK joined the European Community in 1973, the tension started to come to the surface. When the European Union was formed in 1993, the tension became an implicit crisis. A fault line emerged between the regime and the EU over the Human Rights Act. The gap between the UK’s founding on the hereditary rights of a monarchy and the universal rights that animates the European Union began to grow. Those who demanded British Rights, derived from the Crown, and those who embraced European rights, based on the universalism derived from the French Revolution in 1789 was irreconcilable. The former is bound to, or derived from, the Crown’s sovereignty while the latter is universal and draws its essence from human nature’s intrinsic dignity. It is beyond the Crown’s control. The referendum was a reminder of the UK’s response to the French Revolution of 1789. The central figure for this debate is Edmund Burke. In his polemics attacking the revolution and defending the Monarchical regime, he argued against the universal rights. He saw them as a direct attack on the customs, practices, and culture that animates the UK. If they succeeded the UK would cease to be what it is.

In 2016, the UK could be described as a liberal democracy. It was this liberal democracy, which expressed the desire to remain in the EU. This liberal democracy depended on Europe, and above all on Germany. The liberal democracy was marked by a corresponding embrace of everything foreign. By linking itself to Remain campaign, the UK liberal democracy was caught between two extremes. It tried to maintain the uneasy balance between the implicit principles of 1789, as expressed through the EU, and the dedication to the highest British tradition. The balance already difficult to maintain was made impossible by the UK media. The UK media was unstintingly hostile. With virulent, vicious, and dishonest attacks, it became a propaganda machine with one goal, leave the EU. The attacks, sustained over decades, had habituated the people to fear the EU and liberal democracy. They privileged foreigners, minorities, and immigrants at the expense of citizens, the majority, and British. The UK media reflected and encouraged the deepest longings of the old England, the imperial England. An England that remained unrepentantly opposed to Europe. The England founded in direct opposition to the principles of the 1789 revolution.

The Remain campaign was weak. It only displayed its potential strength, if not greatness, when it reacted to the murder of the MP Jo Cox in June 2016. The murder was a turning point not for what many expected, for a Remain vote, but for the public perception of the Remain campaign’s resolve. The murder showed what the Right could achieve if they were willing to dare it. The murder showed, to those with the eyes to see that the UK liberal democracy was in terminal decline: the old England (Leave) was stronger in will than the new UK (Remain). One only need to note the unabashed talk of “traitors” which the Leave campaign never disavowed.

The campaign showed that Remain, led by David Cameron, lacked the will and resolve to win. They believed that what mattered was common decency or the decent regard for public opinion. Their belief in common decency left them vulnerable. The right had been able to kill an outspoken advocate for Remain without consequence. Liberal democracy revealed its naïve faith in due process and decency. We saw that those who had the strongest will, daring and resolve would win for they understood the various forces in play. They could, and did win, because they dared. They dared to lie, they dared to bait their opponents with racist propaganda, they dared to foment hatred without concern for safety as they only had one goal—to win. Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster showed what was possible and what was needed to win. If you wanted to win, neither decency nor honesty would stop you.

What still needs to be investigated is why liberal democracy is so weak. Liberal democracy’s weakness should have been apparent earlier. At each previous crisis, it had found a way to limp past it. Often the vague invocation of Locke and Hobbes would be enough to salve the collective soul that liberal democracy was only reshaping itself. For many commentators, they will be surprised to learn liberal democracy’s roots are so shallow and unhealthy.

The liberal democratic regime pursued neo-liberal policies. Despite their success, they faced strong resistance. Those opposed to the economic effect and those who opposed its societal effects found common cause. They would resist the global economic and immigration movements. These policies and their effects legitimated the resolve of those who wanted to return to the old England. Even if they had no common ground with those opposed to neo-liberalism, they found a common enemy in liberal democracy. The contest returned to its previous champions Rousseau and Burke. Rousseau inspired the Remain campaign for they pursued neo-liberalism especially through the EU project. In their belief that the public would accept the liberal democratic benefits, they forgot what animated the Leave campaign. Burke was the founder of the Leave campaign. He championed British Rights against the universal rights proclaimed by the revolution of 1789. He would defend the customs, practices, and culture that were under threat.

The Remain campaign forget that beneath the democratic veneer exists cultures and customs created by the Monarchical or imperial regime. Burke’s conservatism provided a legitimate and principled defence of England’s traditions and its imperial system. For the Leave campaign, though, he was too timid. They were not Burkean conservatives. They had imbibed the Enlightenment’s disdain for tradition, custom, and continuity. Instead they appealed to something deeper than Burke had imagined. The Leave campaign under the respectable banner of conservatism had tapped deeper patterns of dissent. They had tapped into an irrational core with the focus on immigrants, refugees and foreigners. The Leave campaign, taking a lead from the demonic propaganda developed by Goebbels relied on the big lies, the fear, the hatred, but above all residual imperial ethos that pulsates beneath the public domain’s surface. Beneath the UK’s liberal democracy, which believed that reason, fair play, and due process would ensure justice, lurked something that had not changed. There is a hard sediment of a supremacist ideology which Leave has awakened. It is that residual imperial or supremacist ethos which animates the UK political system that the Leave campaign revealed. The fear of immigration made the public aware of how much it had lost and how much more it had to lose unless they “took back control”.

Liberalism is defined by the divide between state and society which requires a recognized private sphere, that is protected by the law yet is not subject to the law. The private sphere can escape the law where it becomes a realm of freedom. In return, the private sphere accepts that for the public domain to remain peaceful, it will accept that public behaviour that matches the public orthodoxy is sustained. The liberal state, though, promises to end discrimination. To overcome that private space, which is often the source for discrimination and private beliefs that flout the liberal ideas of tolerance, the liberal state has criminalized private behaviours such as hate speech or defamation. Yet, that promise to prevent discrimination requires the state to penetrate further into the private domain, thus limiting freedom and constraining that supremacist ethos. For to recognize or accept a private sphere means that some private “discrimination,” has to be accepted and protected. Yet, to prohibit such private discrimination would require the liberal state to destroy what it was create to protect the private sphere. Even as the UK liberal democracy was saying it wold tolerate foreign customs and beliefs, especially those which arrived because of UK imperialism, it was suppressing and criminalizing native customs, beliefs, and practices, like fox-hunting, on the basis of an alien idea—liberalism. Thus, the pursuit of the liberal state to end all discriminations leads to the destruction of the liberal state’s premise which is a private sphere.

Even though the EU and liberalism are blamed for the loss of control, the Crown is the more invasive. The liberal state reaches its apotheosis with the surveillance state. The state’s increases surveillance powers to look into the lives of its citizens. There is no private activity that escape the law. The liberal state is concerned with your private activity. How you raise your children, how you practice your faith, what you say about your neighbour, how you behave in your bedroom, are all subject to the law or the state. How the Leave campaign described this, though, was that the EU, not the UK liberal democracy, nor the Crown, was meddling in the private domain. The Leave campaign was dishonest for it knew that it could not show that it was fundamentally opposed to UK’s liberal democracy for that would cause the public to realize the EU was only a proxy for what Leave meant when they said they wanted to take back control.[1] Indeed, they want to return to an England before liberal democracy.

Unless liberal democracy understands this threat, it will not survive. The constitutional crisis will have unleashed forces that will consume those who fomented the Leave campaign. The campaign revealed that the Crown is concerned with self-preservation more than it is concerned with the democratic will. It will not sacrifice itself for the people or an abstract idea. The Crown has accepted liberal democratic principles to the extent they enable it to survive. They provide the necessary democratic veneer. As liberal democracy fades, we can expect the Crown’s implicit authoritarianism to emerge. However, it will cover its increased coercive power, its ability to tyrannize thought, by judicious gifts that return what liberal democracy suppressed. The desire to overturn fox-hunting ban, grammar schools, show the desire to revive cultures, practices, and customs that liberal democracy had displaced. Under the guise of reform, we will find that less individual freedoms and an increased demand for public behaviour to conform to the new orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that favours the strong at the expense of the weak for that is the imperial or supremacist ethos reborn for a post-modern age.

[1] The desire to take back control was never a claim to bring about popular sovereignty. The public would only be in control to the extent they would endorse a choice between alternatives manufactured by their rulers. Moreover, control meant that the people could no longer appeal beyond the UK to the EU. Even now as Article 50 remains unengaged the public seem barely aware that their votes did not matter for the PM will decide regardless of the vote’s outcome. Yet, each day the Article 50 is unengaged it also shows that the public have no say in what the government does. The government is resisting the public will, as expressed in the EU referendum, which further erodes the idea of liberal democracy that existed.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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4 Responses to The UK constitutional crisis: the death of liberal democracy

  1. Araham Finklestein says:

    About lawrence serewicz
    An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others and failing miserably!

  2. Ian says:

    This article dwells wholly within the public sphere of politics and takes too little account of the individual – often a common problem within the more focused political spheres and something always masked in the diplomatic arena.

    A broadly defined liberality would accept all without discrimination. If that is correct it must then be illiberal tendencies which pronounce a need to produce boundaries of acceptability in order to progress in a way seen as suitable by those whose views are being expressed, and a broad liberal view is not easy to maintain without adding illiberality to the mix and certainly would not work in any situation where social power were wielded.

    Examples of that issue exist in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, i.e. the hypocritical denunciation of Eichmann for offences which were reflected within Israeli custom and culture of that day. A liberal view would see such occasions as accommodating social paradox whilst at the same time presenting an educational item for consideration within that nation; His original kidnap in contravention of international law(a wrong which is now accepted as extra judicial rendition I believe). Both of those reflect not an individual threat, but social groups working for their own benefit frequently to the destruction of individual values and certainly liberal values as a means of imposing a wider social cohesion. (That all applies to Eichmanns and Jewish roles in the holocaust, as well as Israel’s role in the trial – and those focused observations are not meant to deride any particular moral or emotive stance, rather to recognise whilst attempting to understand the expressions behind their perspectives which a broadly liberal view facilitates but any clash between different administrations or inclusive/exclusive legal philosophies merely mask.)

    Putting those issues in a more familiar context – the traffic on the roads in Italy. Hundreds of motor cycles and scooters everywhere, Riding all over the road, lanes, road markings and signage being irrelevant, the couples with the woman/man on the rear with their head over the rider/drivers shoulder conversing or looking rapturously at each other rather than watching the road; Three people and a dog riding one motor scooter in heavy traffic; the man riding a scooter erratically weaving in and out of traffic with one hand on the handle bars and with the other constantly religiously crossing himself as traffic dodges around him into oncoming traffic(why on earth was he on the road); Motor cyclists using the central lane marking as a lane until they come to a point where opposing motor cyclists and stationary traffic stop them; undertaking and overtaking so as to get ahead of the other. The only rule of the road appears to be that if there is a space fill it, and keep making progress no matter what. This chaos does not make sense until one sees beyond it into the environment and culture which brings it about. The romanticism associated with a bike/scooter and the not so open road. The ‘very’ narrow steep hillside streets (footpath width) which only really narrow vehicles or motorcycles can traverse and even they cannot pass each other in many places, and how they are forced through around corners and junctions with horn blaring or motor revving expecting any pedestrians to move out of the way to allow their continued advance reducing the very real difficulty of stopping and having to somehow restart the journey. Then noticing that the cars/lorries/buses on the slightly wider roads accept the motor cyclists as a normal and necessary part of the traffic and frequently make way for their safe passage; But notice that it is more frequently the older more careful drivers who allow the more aggressive ones to push through until junctions become blocked to a standstill and everything necessarily has to sort itself out by individual agreements. Live and let die, or let live and let live to learn another day. Then as Vesuvius begins to vent more vigorously and the sulphur fumes become heavier with tiny pieces of ash landing all around and the local radio stations suddenly become very popular, seeing the concern in people and hearing about the humorous evacuation plans and finally realising from the look in their eyes that those bikes are percieved as something more than fundamental to people in this area and that many riders may be living their own nightmares as they learn how to progress rapidly through traffic.

    Many of Arendt’s descriptions of Eichmann’s life and his trial are of that nature, a hurly burly where given social values enforce acceptability and underlying undocumented rules are more valued than the rule of law. Those underlying social rules within distinct groups or cliques often driven by hidden vested interests rather than openly acknowledged and documented or considered philosophical ones. Boris Johnson’s about face on Assad and Syria now he is in a diplomatic role may be reflective of that same generic issue – a type of Blair or even Eichmann like rationalisation – or that he now has more information. Just as Chesterton’s comment in his Heretics “We ought to see far enough into a hypocrite to see even his sincerity. We ought to be interested in that darkest and most real part of a man in which dwell not the vices that he does not display, but the virtues that he cannot. And the more we approach the problems of human history with this keen and piercing charity, the smaller and smaller space we shall allow to pure hypocrisy of any kind. The hypocrites shall not deceive us into thinking them saints; but neither shall they deceive us into thinking them hypocrites.”[Chesterton, 1905] in the ethical and moral sense denies individual privacy and allows inflexibility of value as much as any rule of law or given political or journalistic ethical stance may state the opposite.

    So, ignoring trust and the frequent problems associated with that, it seems neither religion, the law, politics, philosophy or morality has done anything consistent for individual privacy within any society, seemingly because of each groups vested interests, fears and frequent psychological demands for what is perceived as either stability or progress in a particular direction. So to assign the blame for a reduction in individual privacy on a single political or legal factor clearly seems to be in error as no measure is provided of the other factors, and as such the article becomes a leading opinion presenting a single perspective(much like this response) rather than one illustrative of difference and differences, which intermingled compromise individuals by reducing their privacy in favour of maintaining particular social perspectives.

    • Ian
      Thank you for the long response. Please accept my apologies for the long delay in responding. I believe that politics is public. What happens in private cannot be considered politics even though it may have consequences for the public domain. However, two politicians doing something outside the public gaze or away from the public gaze is not a private matter. By contrast, what happens between two citizens, in private, is not a political matter. In this regard, the political is how the public domain is to be governed.
      The issue within Brexit is not a singularity but an ongoing dispute since at least 1688 as to how the UK is to be ruled. The individual does not exist, in the UK, outside the Crown’s gift. At its heart, Brexit is a desire to throw off the Human Rights Act for it requires the Crown, and indirectly Parliament, to be subject to the indidivual. Parliament is not subject to an individaul’s will for it is beyond the law. It recognizes no authority beyond its own will. The Human Rights Act, by asserting that humanity has an existence, a dignity beyond the state, suggests something beyond or above Parliament to which Parliament must bow.
      The tension between the city and man, as described by Leo Strauss, continues. My concern is that it is coming to an end with the mistaken belief that the individual, especially the digitally sovereign individual, no longer needs the state for digital platforms will allow it to develop and exist as an individual. Such a view is illusory for it makes the individual wholly depend on a platform which it cannot control or hold to account.
      Liberalism is not simply unlimited. Instead, it is a belief in the individual being able to self-govern within a political context. Thus, there is an illiberal element to liberalism to which it has forgotten or seeks to forget. The problem is that people want to live as if there is no limit to liberalism, to believe that they can either transcend illiberality or that all views are compatible.
      Here is how Strauss described a liberal.
      Originally, a liberal was a man who behaves in a manner becoming a free man as distinguished from a slave. According to the classic analysis, liberality is a virtue concerned with the use of wealth and therefore especially with giving: the liberal man gives gladly of his own in trie right circumstances ecause it is noble to do so, and not from calculation; hence it is not easy for him to become or to remain rich; liberality is less opposed to prodigality than to meanness (greed as well as niggardliness). It is easy to see how this narrow meaning of liberality emerged out of the broad meaning. In everyday life, which is life in peace, the most common opportunities for showing whether one has the character of a free man or of a slave are afforded by one’s dealings
      with one’s possessions; most men honor wealth and show there with that they are slaves of wealth; the man who behaves in a manner becoming a free man comes to sight primarily as a liberal man in the sense articulated by Aristotle.
      The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy Leo Strauss The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Mar., 1959), pp. 390-439
      Published by: Philosophy Education Society Inc. Stable URL:
      page 393


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