In Fear of Populism: Referendums and Neoliberal Democracy

James Foley, Pete Ramand

Abstract


Referendums have grown sharply in Europe. While in the 1970s they ran at a rate of three per year, the annual figure is now eight, excluding countries like Switzerland where direct democracy is a regular part of government.  Several recent referendums have indeed been focuses for ‘anti-establishment’ backlash. Examples include the Italian constitutional poll (2017) and Greece’s oxi (2015), both of which allowed anger at the bank bailouts and cuts programmes to coalesce and in turn inspire gloomy meditations on the dangers of unchecked popular participation. However, perhaps the biggest source of unease has been the two interconnected referendums in the United Kingdom, on Scottish independence (2014) and leaving the European Union (2016).  

Sadly, there are few precedents for a socialist analysis of referendums.  We believe that, in all cases, socialists must take a stance on referendums that distinguishes our approach from knee-jerk liberal unease about a populist backlash. Liberals undoubtedly have some well-founded concerns about racism, and while such concerns can be abused – Nick Clegg was one of many liberals who liken Scottish nationalism, which favours increased immigration, with UKIP’s actively racist goals – they should not be ignored. But although many populist movements are indeed racist, simply crowding in behind liberals is problematic. We risk legitimising the neoliberal consensus of previous decades (which has its own brand of racism) and becoming intellectually complicit with a failing parliamentary system in capitalist states. Most worrying of all, we risk handing the banner of democratic renewal to the radical right.

Here, we aim to develop the beginnings of a class analysis of what referendums mean for capitalist democracy, and what class forces they are bringing into being in the post-2008 context with special reference to Scotland and Brexit. We will consider the historical development where, after the defeat of communism, referendums went from being instruments of harmony to being new grounds for fear of the masses. We then consider whether ‘populism’ can be a theoretically useful explanation, either for descriptive purposes or for explaining the tactical success of ‘outsider’ movements. Last, we look at working-class voting patterns in the recent British referendums; at the use of populist rhetoric in both; and at the implications for socialist strategy.


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