Britain has given us so much – the Magna Carta, Newton, Darwin, football, rugby, the Beatles. And now they’re set to help us with a little 21st century problem – the false choice between regionalism and populism.
This blog has been advocating populism for quite a while now. Why? One reason is that I don’t know of anyone else doing it. We hear from very serious pundits that populists are dragging Hillary Clinton to the left and the GOP candidates to the right. Who are these populists? Are they the same on the left and the right? If not, then logic dictates that left-wingers (who sometimes call themselves populists, other times call themselves Elizabeth Warren followers) are dragging Clinton to the left and right-wingers (who sometimes call themselves populists, other times call themselves Tea Party Patriots) are dragging the GOP to the right. Here I am, then, apparently all alone, advocating for something much closer to Theodore Roosevelt’s and Huey Long’s populism – the kind that’s not doctrinaire toward left or right, but instead advocates solutions made of, by, and for the 51%+. If over half of Americans want it, let’s do it. That means abortion but with restrictions, gun freedom but with background checks, and other solutions that aren’t possible now under the zero-sum game of ideological warfare at the grassroots and the two-party stranglehold at the top of our political system.
But wait, your inner Jeffersonian says. What’s to stop the 51% from trampling all over the 49%? Rights, my friend, rights. Populism begins with a recognition of human rights more or less as spelled out in the Bill of Rights and the European Charter of Human Rights. There may be room for tweaking – for example, the boundaries around a right to privacy in this digital age – but those documents are a reasonable rallying point.
Ah, but what if a given region feels consistently prejudiced against? What if some 60%, while upholding the rights of everyone, constantly levies punitive taxes and policies against some 40%? I haven’t thought of that, now, have I?
Well, actually, yes I have. We saw a glimmer of this notion last week when the governor of Texas indulged some of his more paranoid constituents in the fantasy that through a military operation called Jade Helm 15, the federal government was preparing to punish Texas for…uh, its freedom, I guess? Texas can at least claim a history: it was stripped from Mexico, then independent for a decade, then annexed by the United States. In each of those steps, blood spilled.
That’s one reason to love what’s happening right now in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron was prepared to let Scotland leave the U.K. nine months ago in a blood-free secession. Though Scotland then narrowly voted to stay, the results of last week’s British election make it look as though not only will Scotland vote to leave Great Britain, but Britain may soon vote to leave the European Union. You don’t like this polity? Go break off, go make a new one, then. Good luck with that. Sting may not be great at Broadway musicals, but he had a point; if you love something, set it free; if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours. No sentiment could be more populist, so it turns out there is no conflict between populism and regionalism.
Wait a minute, you’re saying. If every little moderately disenfranchised minority decides to secede, pretty soon we’ll have a planet of 7 billion individuals posing as states. Uh, wrong. Secession is not as easy as it looks. Populism and capitalism are symbiotically linked (much to the chagrin of some of my leftist friends) – people base their vote on what Brits call pocketbook issues. The Scots voted to stay in the U.K. at least partly because of economic benefits. Besides that, people like being defended by strong armies. Togetherness has benefits.
Let’s give the Magna Carta, coming up this summer on its 800th birthday, credit: the enshrined stalemate between lords and royalty helped create a culture of “Don’t Tread on Me”-ism that’s proven and verifiable throughout the Anglophone world, but even with that it took Scotland 300 years to properly vote to secede. And it didn’t even do it then. So don’t worry that in five years the United Nations will have to double its seating chart.
I say all this with no nostalgic sentiment about British history. People are going on and on about Princess Kate’s new daughter and the electoral routing of Labour, but I’m more interested in a far rarer, more century-bestriding milestone coming this September: the day that Queen Elizabeth II becomes both the longest-serving British monarch ever and the longest-serving female monarch anywhere, beating out the current holder of both those titles, her great-great-grandmother Victoria. If the Anglophone media on either side of the Atlantic notes this somewhat macabre milestone, I would expect long paeans to Queen Victoria, to the greatness that was Britain in the 19th century, and all that.
Rubbish. I plan to write a longer blog post about this in September, but as a preview, Lizzie is ten times the queen Vickie ever was. They will say that Elizabeth wasn’t as assertive as Victoria, as though that’s a bug and not a feature. Victoria traipsed all over the planet and stamped her name on her era (every history book says “Victorian era”; no history book will ever say “Elizabethan era” to refer to the last six decades), while Elizabeth has spent her queendom gracefully mopping up the messes her great-great-grandma made. Sure, Elizabeth has held on to a few islands here and there, but the general gist of her reign is: if you want to leave, leave. As goes Windsor, so goes Downing Street in 2015. Good.
I know some of my British friends (I lived there from 2005 to 2007) are dismayed at an unGreat Britain that may become a little England dominated by the Tories. I hope they can find a measure – say, a quantum – of solace in the beacon they’re currently offering to the world, of populist regionalism without bloodshed. Certainly, there are places and minorities that would love a chance at democratic secession, not least the Rohingya minority of Myanmar, currently risking and incurring death at sea to escape from their nation’s concentration camps. And that’s why we should hail our rights-preserving, Magna Carta-descended populism – and why we should encourage the world to watch Britain right now, and see how this sort of thing can work in practice.