Elitist Rage With the Pro-Brexit Masses Echoes Longstanding British Suspicion of Democracy

Reptiles, insects, shit flowing from the busted sewer of bad ideas-this is how the media elite views the minds and actions of Brexit voters.


Rob Browne/Mirrorpix/Newscom

Hell hath no fury like an establishment spurned. If you didn't know this already, you certainly know it now, following the British people's vote for a "Brexit." A whopping 17.5 million of us voted last week to cut our nation's ties with the European Union (E.U.), against 16 million who voted to stay. And we did so against the advice of most of the political class, media "experts," the Brussels bureaucracy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), President Barack Obama, and virtually every other Western leader. Most shockingly of all—against the advice of celebs—not even Benedict Cumberbatch's earnest, crumpled face could make us want to stay. We defied them all. We rejected every E.U.-loving overture from the great and good and well-educated. And boy, are they mad.

In the three days since this modern-day peasants' revolt—the poor and working-class voted for a Brexit in far large numbers than the well-to-do and well-connected—the political and media elites have rained damnation upon the little people. Their language has crossed the line from irritated to full-on misanthropic. They're calling into question the ability of ordinary people to rationally weigh up hefty political matters, and are even suggesting the referendum result be overturned in the name of the "national interest." 

David Lammy, a member of Parliament (MP) representing the Labour Party, has been most explicit. He says we must "stop this madness" and "bring this nightmare to an end." The nightmare he's talking about is people voting for things he doesn't agree with. He says the people's will must now be overridden by a "vote in Parliament." It's terrifying that an elected MP doesn't seem to know how democracy works.

Peter Sutherland, a United Nations (U.N.) Special Representative, likewise thinks the Brexit vote "must be overturned," because voters were led astray by a "distortion of facts." U.N. officials normally slam the thwarting of a people's will; now they promote it.

And Tony Blair's former spin-doctor says he has "lawyers on the case" to see if a legal challenge can be mounted against the masses and their dumb decision. Lawyers v. the People: Bring it on.

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, has threatened to veto the Brexit as it works its way through Parliament. This is a woman whose party received 1.5 million votes in the General Election last year, now saying she will usurp the will of 17.5million Brits who said screw-you to the E.U.

Media commentary, meanwhile, has become positively unhinged and Victorian in its attitude to the throng. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, finding that she didn't like some of the pro-Brexit arguments, said Brexiteers have "lifted several stones" and let out a "rude, crude… extremism." We all know what lives under stones. An Observer columnist, perusing the Brexit chatter, said "it is as if the sewers have burst." Over at the New Statesman—house magazine of the British left—a columnist claims it was "the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain [that] voted out, out, out."

Reptiles, insects, shit flowing from the busted sewer of bad ideas—this is how the media elite views the minds and actions of Brexit people.

A recurring theme in the elitist rage with the pro-Brexit crowd has been the idea that ordinary people aren't sufficiently clued-up to make big political decisions. We have witnessed a "populist paean to ignorance," says one observer. Apparently populist demagogues—like Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), and Boris Johnson, everyone's favorite bumbling, toffish politician—preyed on the anxieties of the little people and made them vote for something bad and stupid. For these little people, "fear counts above reason; anger above evidence," opined a writer for the Financial Times. A writer for The Guardian suggested that for anti-E.U. types, emotions "play a larger part than rationality."

This idea that the less well-educated sections of society are ripe for exploitation by emotion-stoking demagogues is not new. It's the prejudice that has motored most elite campaigns against the expansion of democracy. The Chartists, Britain's brilliant nineteenth-century warriors for universal male suffrage, encountered this nasty prejudice all the time. Their critics insisted that "the lower orders of the people" do not have a "ripened wisdom," and therefore they are "more exposed than any other class in the community to be tainted by corruption, and converted to the vicious ends of faction." Others said that "spouters at the meetings of the working classes" could easily exploit the "astonishing ignorance and credulity on the part of the hearers."

The Chartists raged against such nasty elitism. How horrified they would be to know that, 150 years later, it is back with a vengeance, in the idea that the scared British people are "ripe for canny right-wing operators to manipulate." 

Indeed, much of the elitist rage with the masses who voted for Brexit echoes a longstanding suspicion of democracy. Among the upper echelons of society there has never been a willing acceptance of the idea that ordinary people should have an equal say in political life. As John Carey notes in his classic 1992 book The Intellectuals and the Masses, late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers and writers feared nothing more than mass democracy. Carey describes how numerous European writers and artists warmed to Nietzsche's view of democracy as a "tyranny of the least and the dumbest."

Sure, in these politically correct times, few would use such ugly language to describe ordinary people. But the angry petition calling for a second referendum, the planned middle-class march on Parliament to demand that MPs reject the Brexit, and the suggestion that young people in particular have had their futures destroyed by "some of the oldest and whitest people on Earth [voting] against their monsters in their heads," all speak to an elitist disgust with the "tyranny of the least and the dumbest," and a desire to prevent their democratically stated views from becoming reality.

This is as ugly an anti-masses sentiment as I can remember. And the consequences of it are likely to be dire. Ordinary people are effectively being told they're too dumb for politics. And democracy is being treated as a negotiable commodity that can be cast aside if we the stupid people make the wrong decision. This is a species of tyranny. The mask has slipped. Our normally conscientious elite, feeling bruised and aloof after the referendum, has dispensed with its usual platitudes about "respecting all views," and shown that beneath the polite veneer there lurks an ancient fury with the least and the dumbest; with the masses; with the people.