A week ago I made some intemperate remarks about the poverty of Theresa May’s language. Today I feel impelled to protest in equally strong terms at the insulting feebleness of the debate about Brexit.
Part of the trouble is that I have just been reading some of The Federalist Papers, the magisterial series of articles in which in 1787-88 James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay made the case for the new Federal Constitution of the United States, which had just been been drawn up in Philadelphia and now needed ratifying by the 13 states.
Between 1775 and 1783 the states had won, by force of arms, their independence from Great Britain, but they were now in danger of making a complete mess of self-government, with populists running riot in the state legislatures, printing paper money and undermining property rights, while the central government was so weak that men of sense feared a collapse into anarchy.
Hamilton himself said “a torrent of angry and malignant passions” had been let loose in the “great national discussion” about the Constitution. He wanted to rise above “the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives”, which he and his fellow authors proceeded to do.
We are by no means in the same situation now as the Americans were in the 1780s. We and our friends in Europe suppose we are in a less acute crisis, nor have we ever been united under the British crown, and then in opposition to George III and a Parliament which insisted on taxing us without representation.
But the referendum campaign and its aftermath have helped to arouse, or release, a torrent of angry and malignant passions, and no Madisons and Hamiltons have managed to rise above these passions by making, in lucid, rational and historically informed terms, the constitutional case for a Federal Europe.
The lamentations of the metropolitan elite at their North London dinner parties have never, in my experience, come close to explaining how a Federal European Government will acquire the checks and balances which make it the friend of freedom rather than a tyrannical concentration of power.
Nor do the Brexiteers rely, for the most part, on constitutional arguments. They believe in parliamentary sovereignty, a form of government which has the merit of making life difficult for demagogues, yet they find themselves defending the result of that most demagogic device, the referendum.
“Take back control” could, if one were charitable, be described as a constitutional point. But it is a crude imperative, understood by many who heard it as a populist demand to clamp down on immigration, and illustrative of the coarsening of political debate during the referendum.
For most of the time, both sides avoid constitutional questions, and resort instead to assertions about the economy. Just now they tell us No Deal will be a disaster, or else that No Deal will be absolutely fine.
How do they know? For these are statements about the future, which is by definition unknowable. Can they even tell us who will be Prime Minister next year? One may say one or another outcome is more probable, but there are too many variables for anyone to know for certain what will happen, and even the most astute of us may turn out to be mistaken.
As Lord Melbourne once remarked (with reference to Catholic Emancipation): “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”
During the referendum, one found the same reliance on economic assertions expressed with bogus certainty. Forecasts were passed off as facts. The Remainers told us exactly how much it would cost each man, woman and child to leave the EU, while the Leavers told us exactly how much money we would save by leaving, and could therefore spend on the NHS.
Admittedly the Remainers also warned us we were making a leap in the dark, a claim which exploded their detailed predictions. As for the Brexiteers, it became clear they had painted that figure on the side of their bus not because they believed it to be correct, but in order to provoke a furious reaction from their opponents.
But these points just added insult to injury. We were invited to accept propositions which even those making them knew to be ridiculous, or at best implausible, and to listen for month after month to childish squabbling about those assertions, each side pretending to omniscience while treating its opponents as fraudsters.
One looked in vain for senior figures prepared to admit there were serious arguments to be made on both sides. When Boris Johnson was found to have written two articles, one making the case for leaving and one the case for remaining, he was denounced as an opportunist who did not believe in anything.
Yet there were millions of people during that referendum campaign who found it hard to make up their minds, which is not surprising, given that both Labour and the Conservatives have suffered life-threatening splits on Europe, with sincere differences of opinion between people as honourable as Peter Shore and Roy Jenkins, Bill Cash and Ken Clarke. Harold Wilson and David Cameron each resorted to a referendum in order to try to keep the party intact.
Many of us are in favour of parliamentary democracy as it has evolved at Westminster, and are angered by the encroachments of Brussels on that tradition. We are content to accept a Europe of nation states, a club of democracies, but not a Europe which suppresses those nations beneath a remote pseudo-democratic bureaucracy.
But we also know that Britain has a long tradition of allowing no one power to dominate the continent of Europe, and are worried that by leaving the EU, we may increase the danger of that happening. Like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the EU may be difficult to justify in theory, but could prove preferable to what comes after it.
Neither side in the referendum spoke with conviction to those of us who were thinking along these lines. Each side tried to dragoon us into some petty-minded orthodoxy to do with trade. I do not mean that trade is unimportant. Pitt the Elder said that “when trade is at stake it is your last retrenchment; you must defend it, or perish”.
But what a dreary, narrow-minded and implausible show of expertise is made by both sides on this question of trade. Surely our trade depends not just on what is done, but on how it is done. A policy which is admirable in conception might be wrecked by clumsy implementation, or by adverse developments which nobody has foreseen, and which disrupt world trade for some reason which has nothing whatever to do with Brexit.
My friend Thomas Kielinger, for long an interpreter of Britain to Germany, the other day reminded me of a remark by Lord Nelson, which he thinks helps explain why we voted for Brexit: “Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a sea fight above all.”
This maritime mentality, the sense of knowing one is always to some extent at the mercy of the unexpected, and must be ready to cope with it as best one may when it occurs, favours the taking of risks, rather than never setting sail at all.
But did the Leavers tell us we were taking risks? In their rhetoric, they abused our confidence by pretending there were no risks.
In the year 2,000, when Larry Siedentop brought out Democracy in Europe, he identified “an extraordinary impoverishment of political language” among Europeans, and asked:
“Why has Europe failed to generate a debate which approaches, in range and depth, the debate which developed around the drafting of a Federal Constitution for the United States? Where are our Madisons?”
Eighteen years later, one may still ask: where are they?