Eight years ago I wrote a short post about Barack Obama’s inauguration. It was a banal little thing, with the saving grace that I recognised in it no-one cared about my opinion. It did, however, somewhat foreshadow my growing faith in the institutions and machinery, rather than the personnel, of government.
I’m obviously a snowflake, one of those people with the temerity to believe the world would be a better place if the UK remained in the EU and Donald Trump weren’t inaugurated as President of the United States. Perhaps it’s my curse, but I’m a proud member of the metropolitan élite.
One cannot deny democracy though. 52% of voters disagreed with me on EU membership and the US electoral college took a different view on Donald Trump’s suitability. That is the way things are, however much I and others wish it were different.
Why institutions matter
The EU referendum was a rejection of a huge set of supra-national institutions. There is still a debate on what exactly was rejected. The referendum question was not specific on which institutions:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
Just as I voted remain in the knowledge the EU was not perfect, I felt on balance we were better off in. Should we be so naïve as to think that the 52% of leave voters all shared a common purpose of hard Brexit? Of course not. That 52% would have comprised everyone from isolationalists through to the people who were only 51:49 in favour of leaving.
But did anyone seriously think that voting to leave those supra-national institutions did so thinking it meant we were also rejecting national institutions? I suspect nobody thought their vote also meant the Supreme Court would lose jurisdiction? Or that Parliamentary sovereignty was somehow overturned?
It may well be that the brand of Brexit being put forward by Theresa May is exactly what you want and you’d be happy to see it just happen. For the 48% who didn’t want to leave, and for the sizeable number who voted leave but had a different—or simply no—conception of what Brexit actually meant those institutions are there to make sure the decision is made properly and legally, not just on the meaningless soundbite of a prime minister
The best thing about a liberal democracy like ours is not the voting, it’s the rule of law: if you don’t have that, everything else is worthless.
The locker rooms of politics
One of the more depressing elements of the US election was the revelation of Donald Trump’s ‘locker room’ comments. His comments were reprehensible, but we should also fear that he’s entering a world of political locker rooms. Private spaces, defined by power, full of testosterone where everyone will be keen to show their strength and fit in.
To a degree, politics needs these locker rooms. It requires those private spaces in which policy can be safely discussed and ideas floated, and there needs to be a common bond, and sense of togetherness that binds the people in them into a team.
I know from my experience at Wandsworth—a pond of minnows on the world stage, to be sure—that those political locker rooms are full of pitfalls. The lure of groupthink is strong, the need to acknowledge power and define the in-group and the out-group irresistible. Lord Acton observed that power corrupts, he could have added that it doesn’t need that much power for the rot to set in.
I would sit in our private cabinet meetings while people guffawed at comments deriding the ability, intellect, motivations and on one rather shameful occasion the mental illness not just of opponents, but even those we should have called partners.1 The purpose was not (purely) to make derogatory comments, but instead to mituallt assert right and dominance. We do what we do because it is right and because we can.
I’m sure there were others around that table sharing my discomfort, maintaining a shameful silence for some personal reason. The locker room, or perhaps the power, or the secrecy, or the groupthink, changes people. Someone like Donald Trump might be odious anywhere, but that odium incubates and infects in those circumstances.
I worry there will be too many locker rooms in Washington, DC over the next 4 years.
What’s a snowflake to do?
We can, of course, write about our anguish. There have been plenty of blog posts and articles sharing the snowflake angst. Misery loves company so here’s another. You’re welcome.
Or we could retreat to our safe havens. Occasionally looking miserable while chewing a croissant or sipping a Pinot in an outward display of Weltschmerz, but generally taking comfort in being part of the metropolitan elite who probably won’t be the hardest hit by Brexit and knowing that geographical luck has put the whole Atlantic between us and DC. (Retreat is an option I have found very tempting, and still haven’t fully rejected.)
But perhaps the best option is to retain faith. Faith that the national institutions like the courts and parliament will long outlive governments, and throughout it all will make sure that even if we don’t always agree, at least things are done properly. Faith that a long history of judicial independence, but also judicial inventiveness, will always be on hand to ameliorate the most egregious excesses of populist governance.
And faith that continued scrutiny will make sure there are as few political locker rooms as possible. They will never be entirely eliminated, but the more scrutiny there is, the fewer the opportunities there are for terrible decisions to be made in the unquestioning arenas.
We may be humble snowflakes, but collectively there is so much we can do.
- To my shame I said nothing. I spent my last few years operating on the basis that it was better to be in and do a little good than out and do no good. I was wrong. ↩