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. 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.
 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.