The Trouble with Elites

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, a number of journalists, political commentators, and folks not belonging to either category, have taken the time to weigh in on what exactly this vote means.

Referendum results via The Washington Post

Some, such as Quentin Letts at The Wall Street Journal and Christopher Hope of The Daily Telegraph, have called it a modern-day Peasants Revolt, referencing a series of events that occurred in England in 1381 when a number of rural English demanded better working conditions, fewer taxes, and that the king, Richard II, and his senior officials get out of the law courts. 

Others, while not referencing the Peasants Revolt, have called the Brexit vote a rejection of elite politics and experts, specifically those of London-based elites.  Tim Stanly at The Independent proclaimed that Thursday’s vote was the day that Britain “defied its jailers.”  Echoing a similar sentiment, Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept called the vote “the latest proof of the insularity and failure of western Establishment Institutions.”  After recounting the rise of anti-establishment candidates in both the UK and the US during the most recent election cycles, Greenwald came to this conclusion:

In sum, the west’s establishment credibility is dying, and their influence is precipitously eroding–all deservedly so.

As much as the historian in me would like to talk about the allusions to the Peasants Revolt and whether or not they hold water — it should be noted that the revolt was brutally quashed by Richard II in Fall 1381–it is the idea that Brexit was a rejection of “an elite” that I wish to discuss.

David Cameron as a sausage-like Georgian-Era nobleman.  Image by Steve Bell, reprinted via The Guardian

While elite-bashing is nothing new, what struck me about the anti-elite tone of these articles was how ill-defined the “elites” were as a discernible, recognized group; how this lack of a solid definition allowed journalists, commentators, and politicians to use “elites” as a short-hand for those who received the ire of the Brexit vote rather than those who are, by definition, “the best in a class” or “the socially superior part of society”; and how both principles allowed for “elites” to be set up as a straw man for all contemporary problems and woes, be they immigration, war and diplomatic relations, finance, commerce, or nationalism.

Other common features of these articles included:

  • Reference to London and the European continent as a place where elites (and non-Brexit supporters) live,
  • To party British and international political elites who thought that the Brexit vote would result in a “Remain” victory,
  • Divisions between urban and rural,
  • Divisions between elites and the working classes.

None of the articles cited above offered any real test of how elites are the source of all woes or even just the recent Brexit vote. There was mention, especially in Greenwald’s piece, of the elites being the bearers of all recent bad decisions, from the Iraq war to the 2008 economic collapse and beyond, but little mention of how the non-elites actively played into those decisions, much less the times when said elites warned of bad news.

Moreover, none of the articles discussed the elites who lead the charge for the “Leave” vote, which certainly leaves the reader with the impression that there are no elites backing “Leave”, just a group picked seemingly at random (though it is rarely that) in order to function as a straw man for an article which needed to play the role of jury, judge, and executioner all before the evidence is actually gathered, assessed, and analyzed.

For instance, none of the articles took the time to look at how Scotland and Northern Ireland, two very peripheral locations in the UK where the Brexit vote was heavily for “Remain,” fit into the notion of the vote as a refutation of elites.  This is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence since the cases of Northern Ireland and Scotland offer several test points to the whole argument.  First of all, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the two most peripheral locations in the UK.  If one was to go with the rational that the Brexit vote was a rebellion against the London elite who rarely spend time in their home districts, then these two places should have been part of the “Leave” campaign.

Leaving aside geography, if one was to go with the interpretation of the Brexit vote as a rejection of the current Conservative elites who were pro-Remain, such as David Cameron, then Scotland, which is dominated by the center-left Scottish National Party (SNP) should have voted for “Leave” in order to push back.  This didn’t happen.  For all of its desires for independence and its dislike of the United Kingdom as a political organization, Scots across the country want to stay in a union that keeps them within the EU.

Nicola Stergon, SNP leader. Image via the Daily Record

Finally, if one wishes to argue that the Brexit vote was a push against elites who wanted to subject the UK to EU business regulations and “red tape,” then Scotland, which currently has oil fields subject to EU regulation, and Northern Ireland, which shares a physical border with the EU via Ireland and must allow for easier movement of goods via common regulation, ought to have embraced the opportunity to “take back their businesses.”

Aside from the Scotland and Northern Ireland, none of these articles addressed the position of elites within the “Leave” campaign, be they party elites such as Conservative MP and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, business and trade elites who view EU regulations as bad for British businesses and workers.

Based on this short exploration, it is at least clear that the argument for the Brexit vote as a push back against “elites” within a number of articles is decidedly a rhetorical one.

What remains to be seen is whether or not anyone will recognize that rhetorical use.  Given that a literal reading of the term seems to be gaining ground despite its rhetorical use by the press and populous alike, I suspect that the Brexit finger pointing and blame game shall continue by “elites” and non-elites long after Britain has left the EU.

Image via Politico