Many leftist remainers accuse Brexiters of being neoliberal. In one sense, this is questionable: "fuck business" is not a neoliberal sentiment, and nor is a desire for harsh immigration controls. In another sense, however, I suspect it is true: the Brexit campaign represents a triumph for a view of politics as mere marketing.
To see my point, start with an idealized conception of politics as the management of the public sphere. On this view, politicians are motivated by a sense of public service and they debate rationally and honestly about different conceptions of the public good and how to implement those conceptions.
(Many) Brexiters, however, have a different conception. To them, politics is simply about getting what you want by whatever means you can, regardless of cost. Politicians with a sense of public service would not have broken electoral law on spending limits, or lied about immigration or about the economic effects of Brexit. We could have had a rational debate in the referendum about the trade-off between sovereignty and prosperity. But we didn’t. Those Brexiters who now privately claim that the loss of ‘hundreds of thousands of jobs’ would be worth it didn’t say so at the time. For them, getting what they wanted trumped duties of honesty. Of course, the Brexiters might have won an honest and legal campaign, but they never took that chance.
In this sense, Brexit is like spivs mis-selling financial products. All that matters is that the sale gets booked, that the seller gets his bonus. The cost of achieving those sales – the future fines that’ll be paid by some other mugs - doesn’t matter
Nor does it matter whether those sales represent the interests of the customer. The “will of the people” must be obeyed regardless of how that will is formed or at what cost to the public realm. It is only after you’ve convinced people to buy your snake-oil that the customer is king.
Nor do practicalities such as the difficulty of achieving Brexit matter. Implementation requires hard work and a diligent regard for the public good. Such virtues fit uneasily with the mentality of the salesman. In this sense, there’s an analogy between Brexit and Build-A-Bear’s recent “pay your age” promotion. Both were great marketing tricks marred only by a neglect of whether one could actually deliver the offer. But who cares when marketing is all that matters? Delivery is somebody's else's problem.
I call this neoliberal because one feature of that much-abused idea is the belief that all of society must be dominated by the crudest conception of corporate behaviour – that of the spiv conning his punters regardless of consequences - rather than by any sense of public duty.
It’s neoliberal in another sense. For me, one feature of neoliberalism is the elevation of the goods of effectiveness over the goods of excellence, to use MacIntyre’s distinction. An excellent politician would be one capable of rational persuasion and good administration. For the effective politician, all that matters is winning, achieving power however you do so.
It’s in this context that we should understand Brexiters contempt for the Electoral Commission, experts and civil servants. All of these are (imperfectly of course) custodians of the public good. But this doesn’t matter: the sale is everything.
Here, I’d distinguish sharply between Thatcher and Thatcherite Brexiters. Thatcher might have subscribed to what we now call neoliberal ideas. But she didn’t use the neoliberal methods I’m discussing here. Although I disagree with almost everything she did, I wouldn’t call her dishonest nor heedless of the difficulties of implementing her ideas. These huge differences between her and her epigones tell us how far politics has declined during my adult lifetime.