Stephen Davies, the political historian whom I’ve cited a few times on the politics of Brexit and political realignment more generally, has a new book out: The Economics and Politics of Brexit: the Realignment of British Public Life. I’m sure it’ll be a good read, but since I haven’t read it yet myself, what follows is based on the essay in which he presents his main argument.
Davies says that, not just in Britain but “in almost every democracy,” there’s a realignment under way in which “the question of identity and, above all, of nationalism versus cosmopolitanism and globalism,” is becoming the main issue around which politics is oriented, replacing (he says) the previously dominant question of economic policy.
As he puts it:
With economics now the secondary question this produces four new groups of voters; globalists who favour free markets (Cosmopolitan Liberals); nationalists who favour an active state (National Collectivists); globalists who reject free markets (Radical Left); nationalists who favour free markets and what we might call ‘capitalism in one country.’ The first two are the two dominant poles of the new alignment because they contain the bulk of voters in most countries – including the US and the UK.
I think this is basically right, but it raises a few points that I think are worth exploring, and where I disagree with Davies at least in emphasis.
First is the story of how Brexit came about and why it took so long to implement the referendum result. Davies attributes the “leave” vote, fairly uncontroversially, to the rise of nationalist discontent with liberal cosmopolitanism, and then argues that “a key element in this story was the refusal of large parts of the Remain establishment to accept the legitimacy of the outcome and their complete misunderstanding of both the motives for it and their own position.”
I’m afraid I don’t see this at all. I think “remain” supporters understood perfectly well that their opponents were largely driven by reactionary nationalism. Granted, they dealt with that fact badly, but I don’t think they misunderstood where Brexit was coming from. And I don’t think they refused to accept its legitimacy: throughout 2017 and well into 2018 large majorities were resigned to Brexit happening.
The problem arose because the Brexit vote had been won on the basis of contradictory promises, so when it came to actually reaching an agreement to leave there was no consensus on what it should look like. The Brexiters, never having expected to win, had no serious plan for what to do next. Eventually, their opponents tried (unsuccessfully) to exploit that confusion to have the decision reversed, but only after more than two years of dithering.
This might seem like ancient history, but I think it matters for Davies’s account of realignment. The problem wasn’t that people didn’t realise that nationalism was suddenly important, it’s that the nationalist camp was divided (and still is) on just how far it was willing to take its nationalism.
That harks back to the question of when realignment started to happen. Davies says that it is replacing the previous alignment, which dated from the “later 1960s and 1970s” and was based on the division between free-marketers and government interventionists. It therefore depended, on the free-market pole, on an “alliance between classical liberals and conservatives,” which by the turn of the century* was “under growing strain.”
There’s an obvious culprit for this development, although Davies doesn’t mention it, namely the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. It was the Cold War more than anything that had pushed liberals and conservatives together; without it, their differences started to look more important than their similarities.
Nor was this just about the removal of a defining foreign policy issue. It also opened up the economic debate by finally discrediting “socialism”, in the traditional sense of central planning and collective ownership. Once that was off the table, many parties of the centre-left embraced free-market policies more enthusiastically than their centre-right rivals.
By the mid-1990s, democratic politics was already starting to reorient itself around a liberal vs conservative divide. To the extent that “classical liberals” remained (as many did) in alliance with conservatives, they consigned themselves to irrelevance: conservatism was the predominant strand on the centre-right, and it became more so as cultural issues like immigration and national “sovereignty” moved to centre stage.
Meanwhile, a string of centre-left politicians – Paul Keating, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, and others – made their names as basically pro-market reformers. Sometimes they made compromises with authoritarian elements as well, but they went a long way towards making their parties the natural home for liberalism.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 interrupted this process, by giving a revived impetus to policies that could be called “socialist” (although they were mostly well removed from the traditional full-blooded version). But attempts to marry those policies to a generally liberal sensibility (this, I think, is John Quiggin’s project) have mostly failed.
Instead we have seen the appearance of a sort of politics – let’s call it “Corbynite” for convenience – that doesn’t fit neatly in Davies’s schema. It’s hostile to both the free market and to cosmopolitan liberal ideals. “National collectivist” seems like a good description, but these people are actually quite different from the Boris Johnsons and Donald Trumps of the world: their collectivism is left-wing, at least insofar as it’s supposed to benefit the masses rather than the rich and powerful.
Perhaps Corbynism is a dying faith, and its scattered adherents will eventually be absorbed by either the Trumpists or the liberal cosmopolitans. But I wouldn’t be too confident.
So I think that Davies’s bifurcation between nationalists and cosmopolitans is not as new as he makes out, and in a way is actually a bit less clear than it was a decade or so ago. But I agree that now and for the foreseeable future it’s going to be the most useful axis for understanding democratic politics.
* Davies doesn’t specify exactly when he started thinking along these lines, but he credits Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies, which was published in 1998.