Several months after the Brexit referendum, while I was working in Downing Street, one permanent secretary sidled up to another and confessed in a quiet voice, “do you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re doing to have to do this.” Refusing to implement the outcome of the largest democratic exercise in British history was clearly an option the mandarin had entertained.
This kind of conversation was common back in 2016. As time moved on and Britain still had not left the European Union, those who wanted to stop Brexit became more emboldened. Privately, one British ambassador told a friend with a wink, “don’t worry, we’ll put a stop to it.” And publicly, of course, things were little better. Parliament did everything it could to thwart the referendum, right until Boris Johnson’s crushing election victory in December.
Do we really understand why our leaders behaved like this? Do we know why so many of our politicians and senior officials are so enchanted by the European project? Do we know why they were so scornful of the British people for voting to go our own way?
Part of the answer, I argue in my new book, lies in the philosophical assumptions that shape the beliefs and policies of our leaders. Of course, many politicians – and almost all civil servants and technocratic experts called upon to shape policy – deny they follow any ideology. They say they believe in “what works”. But while this is a nice line, it is completely untrue. They are shaped and conditioned by the assumptions of liberal philosophy, and increasingly extreme forms of ultra-liberalism that span left, right and centre.
The response to Brexit is just one example of this phenomenon. Elite liberals – who for years have led the major political parties and occupied senior positions in our civil service, judiciary, universities and other institutions – stand for policies that are rejected by the public in opinion polls and at the ballot box. From mass immigration and multiculturalism to the marketization of public services and deregulation of the labour market, our leaders stand for liberal positions that most of us reject.
And that is not all. For politicians on left and right have served to create a ratchet that keeps propelling ultra-liberalism forward. On the right, market fundamentalists think mainly of the economy, while left-liberals pursue their agenda of cultural liberalism and militant identity politics. The two sides might attempt to reverse some changes made by the other, but generally speaking, most remain, leaving us with economic dislocation, social atomisation and a state left trying to pick up the pieces.
The result is policy failure, democratic disenchantment, and political crisis. Workers have been squeezed by the twin forces of globalization and new technologies across the West. British workers in particular have been left horribly exposed thanks to our appalling neglect of technical and vocational education, our poor record when it comes to R&D, productivity and competitiveness, and the cynical disregard for the regions outside London and the South East.
At the same time, our society has become fractured as elites have ignored the crisis of the white working class and instead promoted militant identity politics that attack so-called white and male privilege. Ignoring the many communities left without the social capital, confidence, finance or political autonomy to revive themselves, they have contented themselves with the complacent belief that we live in a meritocratic society. But meritocracy is often little more than a mirage: our prospects are still determined – to an unacceptable degree – by the education and prosperity of our parents. Yet the meritocratic myth allows the rich and successful to believe their achievements are thanks only to themselves.
And so we have liberal commentators describing how Londoners look at the rest of the country and believe they are “shackled to a corpse”. We have others who generously concede that we should not be careless of the needs of those who lost the great meritocratic race, but insist nonetheless that “we should be careless of their opinions.” And we all know how elite liberals think Brexit voters are racist, stupid, or too old to have a stake in the future.
Whether they realize it or not, this illiberal liberalism betrays how our elites are still influenced by some of the flaws in old philosophical thought. For liberalism, like other ideologies, is based on a conception of humanity that is not real. Right from the beginning, it was built on the false premise that there are not only universal values but also natural and universal rights.
Early liberals made this argument by imagining a “state of nature”, or life without any kind of government at all. They argued that in the state of nature – life in which was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – humans would come together to form a social contract setting out the government’s powers and the rights of citizens.
This means liberalism has always had several features hard-wired into it. Citizens are autonomous and rational individuals. Their consent to liberal government is assumed. And rights are natural and universal.
This is why modern-day liberals fall into the trap of believing that the historical, cultural and institutional context of government is irrelevant. Institutions and traditions that impose obligations on us can simply be cast off. All that matters, as far as government is concerned, is the freedom of the individual and the preservation of their property. It matters little, they think, if we are governed by our fellow citizens in our country’s capital, or by technocrats from another country.
Liberals ignore the relational essence of humanity: our dependence on others and our reliance on the institutions and norms of community life. They take both community and nation for granted, and have little to say about the obligations as well as rights of citizenship. The nation state can therefore hand over its powers to remote and unaccountable supranational institutions, like the EU and ECHR. Transnational citizenship rights can be bestowed upon foreign nationals. Public services should be freely available to those who have never contributed to them.
With later liberal thinkers came further flawed ideas about humanity. John Stuart Mill, for example, sometimes made the case for pluralism and tolerance on the basis that the trial and error they make possible leads to truth and an increasingly perfect society. It is this teleological fallacy – this assumption that one’s own beliefs stand for “progress” – that leads liberalism towards illiberalism: its intolerance of supposedly backward opinions, norms and institutions can quickly become intolerance of the people who remain loyal to those traditional ways of life.
This is something Brexit voters know very well, of course. But the problem is not limited to the battle over Britain’s departure from the European Union. As the coronavirus crisis is showing so clearly, many of our problems as a country – from economics to foreign policy – stem from these mistaken assumptions about humanity. And yet few of our politicians and elites recognize, understand or admit the origins of their beliefs and attitudes. Paradoxically, we are governed by a political class that manages at once to be ideological yet uninterested in ideas. Casting off that ideology is the first step on a long journey towards better government and a better future for Britain.
Nick Timothy is a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May, and now a journalist and writer. His book Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism, is published by Polity Press and available to buy now.