To outsiders, Colombia’s recent referendum on ending its 53-year war with the Stalinist revolutionaries of the Farc seemed the ultimate no-brainer. Putting a merciful halt to a conflict that has killed a horrendous 220,000 souls would seem to require little thought.
Yet when earnest President Juan Manuel Santos put his peace deal to a nationwide vote, shockingly he found that it was rejected (just) by a majority of his undoubtedly war-weary countrymen.
What is going on here? Why can’t elites, seemingly almost everywhere, manage to win referenda that they themselves call on the critical issues of the day?
In the case of Colombia, following an endless half century of conflict, the voters were not prepared to trade justice for peace, not just yet. The Farc leaders – men who had sanctioned bombings, enlisted child soldiers, participated in the drug trade and chained hostages to trees for years on end – were to be given a guaranteed 10 seats in the legislature and immunity from jail (provided they made a full and complete confession of their offences).
To see bloodthirsty murderers rewarded for their crimes – given that the Farc were losing their endless guerrilla war – was an intellectual bridge too far for a majority of the referendum’s voters. The government and outside pundits around the world both made a blithe analytical error in thinking that no value mattered more to the Colombian people than peace; justice, a competing moral good, was simply ignored as all right thinking people must surely value an end to conflict above all else.
Such wrongheaded arrogance has been repeated across the world in referendum after referendum this year, with the elites holding up one common good to the exclusion of all others. Worse, such a viewpoint has denigrated any other moral interpretation as only being adhered to by the stupid, surely playing entirely into the demagogic notion that elites everywhere despise the very people they govern. Despite his referendum failure, President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace prize on Friday last week: the elite giving another of its members an award for doing what they’d like (never mind the stupid voters).
In the Netherlands – even following on from the likely Russian-backed separatist shooting down of Flight MH17 which killed almost 300 people on board, including many Dutch citizens – voters rejected an EU trade deal with Ukraine, both because they had simply been asked a rare direct question about the unaccountable goings on in Brussels, as well as out of annoyance over the EU’s pretensions to foreign policy grandeur.
For the Dutch elite, the referendum was narrowly a question of process; for the voters of the Netherlands, it was a rare chance to strike back at an institution they know governs their lives, even as its byzantine workings leave Europeans with very little sense they have political control. Two common goods – process and democratic legitimacy – came into conflict, leaving the gormless elite perpetually surprised it cannot goad its people into doing the only “smart” thing.
The Brexit vote is just another chapter in this larger story. For the cosmopolitan elite, it was self-evident that EU membership was in the UK’s best economic interests, and all right thinking people should support it. For a majority of the British people, self-government, the right for the people of Britain to make their own decisions about economics, immigration and trade, mattered more.
I was not shocked by the result – anyone reading my January 2016 prediction column knows my consulting firm correctly (and almost alone) predicted Brexit – but I was amazed by the temper tantrum of the elite that followed it. “We must vote again, as the idiots made the wrong decision.” “Depression is likely to begin immediately.” “The people didn’t understand what they were voting on.” So it went, without the gormless elite remotely realising that it was their ugly, patronising, ill-informed words which contained the key clue as to why voters rejected both the EU, and them.
Italy’s early December referendum on political reform looms on the horizon. Rather than centring on that important (if somewhat esoteric) issue, instead the vote will be determined by the Italian people’s view of their own hapless elite (growth in Italy is staggeringly not expected to return to pre-Lehman crisis levels until far-off 2025) and an unfeeling German-dominated EU establishment that is making it next to impossible for Rome to recapitalise the country’s wobbling bank system. Do not be surprised if the Renzi government falls over a “shock” defeat here, followed by the elite commentariat’s usual ignorant incredulity.
Until elites find their new Franklin Roosevelt – a man who calmly, stirringly and above all honestly explained to his people their problems and his proposed solutions for them – a man who trusted his electorate, expect this pattern of failed referenda to continue. Perhaps the greatest present political risk in the world is the sclerosis of democratic governments everywhere, who have lost their vital Jeffersonian connection with the very people they are supposed to represent.