Democracy is too important to be left to the people.
That is the global elite’s collective reaction to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, which is being portrayed as the work of ill-informed xenophobes who never should have been entrusted with a decision of such world-historical importance.
Judging by their dismissive tone, critics of Brexit believe that the EU’s lack of basic democratic accountability is one of its institutional advantages — the better to insulate consequential decisions from backward and shortsighted voters.
The opiate of the Western political class is cosmopolitanism, making it almost impossible for elites to understand the Brexit vote on its own terms.
Britain gave us Magna Carta and such foundational thinkers on the road to democratic rule as John Locke, Algernon Sidney and John Milton. It resisted centralizing monarchs in the turbulence of the 17th century, and defeated continental threats to its sovereignty emanating from Spain (King Philip II), France (Napoleon) and Germany (Hitler). Should it be shocking that it said “no thanks” to continuing to subsume itself in a budding European superstate?
Maintaining British sovereignty, broadly construed, was the overwhelming rationale for Brexit. According to a survey by Lord Ashcroft Polls, 49 percent of leave voters said the biggest reason for exiting the EU was “that decisions about the U.K. should be taken in the U.K.” Another 33 percent said it was the best way to regain power over the U.K.’s borders, and 13 percent said they worried the U.K. couldn’t control how the EU “expanded its membership or its powers.”
All the critics of Brexit see in the vote, though, is hostility to immigrants. There is no doubt that immigration played a large role. But a country controlling its own borders is a necessary element of sovereignty. The foreign-born population of Britain has doubled in the past 20 years, with the government powerless to stop much of the influx. It, self-evidently, should be the right of the British people to decide whether they want less or more immigration.
A constant refrain of Brexit critics is that leaving the EU was much too complex and important an issue to put to a referendum. But at bottom the question was simple: Shall parliament remain the supreme lawmaking body in Britain or not? This is a foundational decision that it makes sense to put directly before the voters.
Princeton historian David Bell is a critic of government by referenda, but has noted how referenda are appropriate when fundamental constitutional questions are at stake: “They represent instances when sovereign power, always ultimately held by the people, but mediated by constitutional structures, temporarily reverts to the people directly, so that they can modify or replace these structures.”
The British people voted to reject the EU superstructure that had been hoisted on top of their traditional political institutions.
The vote roiled the markets, and another theme of Brexit critics is that leave voters now regret their temper tantrum. But a poll for the Sunday Mirror newspaper found that 92 percent of leave voters were happy with the outcome of the referendum.
There may indeed be an economic cost to Brexit, but politics isn’t reducible to a stock index — something that Americans, having once made their own tumultuous exit from an offshore power, should reflexively understand. “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured,” Patrick Henry declared during a 1788 debate over ratifying the Constitution, “for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.”
In the Brexit vote, a free people insisted, despite the risks, that they will govern themselves. That is an admirable thing, made even more stirring by the fact that the great and good regard the move with such bemusement and derision.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.