In Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790, Edmund Burke concluded that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”.
That’s exactly what we learned in 2016. If the politicians won’t change the system, voters will change the politicians. The phenomena of Brexit and Donald Trump smashed the so-called political “centre” of both countries – and not before time. Consensus is fine as long as it’s a consensus of the whole community – but the consensus against Brexit and against Trump was the consensus of an increasingly self-interested and solipsistic political class.
The “centre” of politics is much overrated. None of three greatest 20th century post-war political leaders took their cue from what passed for the centre, or the consensus, or the received wisdom of the time. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II were great precisely because they bucked the centre. Change doesn’t come from the centre – it comes from the margins.
If a policy is of the political “centre” it’s usually just more of the same. And it’s usually mediocre. There’s no halfway house between cutting taxes and raising taxes. It’s a simple binary choice.
In Australia, every politician from every side of politics will do well to ponder what might be the lessons of Brexit and Trump – results that could well come to define a new age of politics. Two votes half a world way will hardly influence how any Australian will vote in any future state or federal election. But Brexit and Trump demonstrate what could happen when politicians stop listening.
The context of Burke’s remark two centuries ago is very relevant to today. He was discussing the relationship between rulers and the ruled, and what could happen if eventually the people who were being ruled had enough of the people ruling them, and he drew a comparison between Britain and France. In the seventeenth century two British kings – Charles I and James II – had been forcibly removed from the throne, yet in Britain the monarchy as an institution had endured. According to Burke this was because the monarchy was able to adapt and change and respond to the popular will.
France, on the other hand, had a system of kingship that on the surface was more secure than that which existed across the Channel. But it was a system that was inflexible and brittle. Removing a king involved overthrowing the entire system. And what really disturbed Burke was that once the French monarchy was done away with, there was nothing to replace it.
Burke wasn’t willing to go as far as the radical democrats who supported the French Revolution and who argued for the right of the populace “1 – To choose our own governors; 2 – To cashier them for misconduct; 3 – To frame a government for ourselves”. For Burke “consent” was more nuanced than simply guillotining someone you disagreed with. Nonetheless he acknowledged the legitimacy of government derived ultimately from the consent of the people. Burke put it nicely when he said “The speculative line of demarcation, where obedience ought to end, and resistance must begin, is faint, obscure, and not easily definable”.
To Burke, a good system of government was one which combined together the “two principles of conservation and correction”. Or to put it another way, governing must apply “the use both of a fixed rule and an occasional deviation … with a power of change in its application in cases of extreme emergency”.
In the case of Brexit, the greater the discontent of the people with the way the European Union was operating, the less opportunity they were given by the political class to remedy the situation.
In the case of Trump, the longer the United States economy stagnated, the longer successive administrations persisted with failed policies. The median income in America in 2016 is in real terms less than it was in 1999.
In 2016, the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump demonstrate what happens when a regime is unable to change – it runs the risk of being put to the electoral guillotine.
This article originally appeard in the Australian Financial Review