One of the reasons that Remain lost the EU referendum is that its cause was associated with “the establishment” – the elites. The charge was unfair. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are no more or less part of an elite than David Cameron or George Osborne. And there is no establishment, in the sense that there was one at the time of, say, the Profumo Affair: that’s to say, a cluster of top politicians, judges, academics and editors, nearly all drawn from a very small group of private schools. Instead, there are lots of different establishments. There is far more TV than there was 50 years ago. There are many more universities. The role of the judiciary has changed.
Privately-educated men are still strikingly over-represented in Parliament, in terms of their number in the rest of the population, but the long-term shift in the Party associated with them, the Conservatives, is worth noting. Cameron’s Children, ConservativeHome’s study of the 2015 Tory intake, noted that that the study of state-educated Tory MPs that year was about a third, and that in 2010 it was roughly half. One fact from that year gives a bit of the flavour: not a single Old Etonian seems to have made it on to the Tory benches, with the exception of Victoria Borwick, the beneficiary of an admissions experiment at the school during the 1970s.
But if is unfair to hurl the charge of representing the elites at Remain, it is accurate to describe the campaign to stay in the EU as representing an Ascendancy. David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Nick Clegg, the CBI, the TUC, the Archbishop of Canterbury, nine out of ten academics, Gary Lineker, J.K.Rowling, Cara Delevingne, Stephen Hawking, James Bond, sorry, Daniel Craig: all were for Remain. They fairly and squarely represented the consensus since the previous referendum in 1975, institutionally rooted in the Foreign Office, the top of the civil service, and much of the security world.
The referendum result came as a psychological shock to this Ascendancy. Some members of it, such as Theresa May, argue that the people have spoken, and are thus now working for Leave. Others are going with the flow – like most voters who backed Remain. Some are not, and a few, as Guido Fawkes has written, seem to have been driven mad by Brexit. At any rate, it has not been helpful to the depleted Remain campaign, in terms of persuading Leave voters that they made a mistake in 2016, to be associated with elites or establishments or an Ascendancy or however you want to put it.
The point will be reinforced during the next few months. The EU Withdrawal Bill is about to go the Lords. The Upper House is overwhelmingly for Remain. It will vote to amend the Bill – probably often. The pro-EU cause will thus become linked by voters (in so far as most voters are following the Bill’s progress at all) to the Upper House and its members. They are about to see Remain personified by what many are bound to see as privileged toffs. This is an inaccurate way of describing, say, Lords Ashdown, Heseltine, Kerr, Hannay, Wheatcroft, Altmann and Smith (i.e: Angela Smith, Labour’s leader there).
But that a view is wide of the mark doesn’t necessarily stop people holding it. This problem for Remain will be accentuated by the gap between how people vote and how the Lords works. The Coalition aimed to create a Second Chamber “that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties at the last general election”. That objective reflects the spirit of the age, and has not been realised: in particular, the Liberal Democrats are over-represented in the Lords. Their older peers are the heartland of Remainery. They have no interest in compromising with the electorate, who didn’t put them in the Upper House, and can’t remove them either. None of all this will be good for the legitimacy of the Upper House which, like all such, depends ultimately on public consent.