There is an increasing chasm between the attitudes of political elites and the public at large across the globe that the economic crisis since 2007 has exacerbated. What was acceptable behaviour by the elites in 2002 is no longer the case in 2012 largely because those elites have, with some justification, been blamed for a crisis in living standards for which some, at least, still appear to be in denial. Corruption and sleaze challenges their moral legitimacy; economic crisis challenges their economic competence while the failure to sort out the problem threatens their political legitimacy. There is a growing sense that not only are existing political elites unable to find solutions to global economic problems but that the scale of the problems is so great that any solutions they do come up with have little long-term effect. It’s not simply a question of austerity and finding growth mechanisms that are sustainable, it’s the broader question of the legitimacy of the market economy.
At the root of the problem is the democratic deficit that lies at the heart of democracy. This is nothing new. There has always been a tension between the political elites elected within a democratic system and the often transient concerns of the electorate. When economic conditions are good this is not a problem but when the economy slumps, the electorate seeks to assert its democratic credentials over and above those of the elites it elected and now seeks to control. That the feeding frenzy associated with MPs’ expenses and phone hacking occurred after the economy slumped is no coincidence and is an attack on the moral competence of the elite. The long recognised democratic deficit at the heart of the EU may have been acceptable (barely) when the organisation appeared to function at least competently (if not efficiently) but the euro crisis has made clear what most of us have known for decades that the EU was never an economic project but a political one for greater European integration and this challenges not only the notion of democracy but the nationalism of individual states.
It is clear than the recreation of Christendom as Eurodom is unacceptable to most Europeans but the elite ploughs on regardless unwilling to listen to the people and unable to countenance that there could be an alternative vision. When the people do assert their power, as for instance in the Irish referendums on the Lisbon treaty, then they are asked to vote again until they give the ‘right’ answer. The attitude of successive British governments to a referendum on the EU (whatever the question) is evidence that the elite does not trust the people to come up with the right answer. In the case of the Lisbon treaty this led to weasel words from the government that the treaty did not represent fundamental constitutional change (something few believed) and that, as a result, no referendum was necessary. All you have to do is read the Lisbon treaty (something most MPs admit to never doing) to recognise that it did represent fundamental constitutional change and that a referendum should have occurred. Politicians, it appears, expect us to trust them but they are unwilling to return the favour. The consequence of this prevarication could well be that when there is a referendum, increasingly probable in the next five years, those wishing to come out of the EU could win, something that ten years ago would not have been the case.