Most Leavers want to bring back the death penalty. This confirms Remainers’ prejudices that Leavers are a bunch of social conservatives who want to turn the clock back to 1955. I suspect, though, that there might also be a more interesting division here – about attitudes towards the competence of the UK state.
What I mean is that I’m opposed to the death penalty not so much because of romantic notions of human rights but because I just don’t trust the state to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. I doubt its competence, whereas its advocates are less sceptical.
Similar doubts contribute to me being a Remainer. I’m not sure the Great Whitehall Power Grab – David Allan Green’s term for the “Great Repeal Bill” – will be conducted wisely. I’m not confident that the process of transferring EU law to UK law – which has been described as "a civil service legal exercise on a scale that has not been encountered at any other time in our recent legal history" – will go at all smoothly. I don’t believe the government can implement immigration controls humanely or efficiently. I doubt that complex trade negotiations can go well, or yield great returns even if they do. I agree with Ian Dunt (who is compulsory reading) that the government’s attitude to Article 50 has so far been “stupid.” And the attractions of returning sovereignty to the UK are for me diminished by the likelihood that it will be exercised by buffoons*.
Herein lies an under-appreciated divide between some of us Remainers and some Leavers. On the one hand, some of us are pessimistic about state capacity. On the other, there are Leavers like Dan Hannan who decry our pessimism.
Yes, I know that all of my doubts about state competence could apply as well to the EU itself. But whilst I am a Marxist, I also feel the force of Michael Oakeshott’s scepticism of change (pdf)**:
The conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes.
This raises two paradoxes. One is that many Remainers cannot comfortably use this argument. The statist left, for example, needs to believe in state competence. And it cannot hide behind the claim that we would be well-governed if only the right people were in change, as this is silly managerialism.
The other is that the case for Remain I’ve sketched here is a conservative one and yet it is antithetical to the position of very many Conservatives, some of whom look more like fanatical cultists than the melancholy sceptics of Oakeshottian conservatism. Which just reminds us that, as Jonathan says, the Conservative party no longer believes in conservatism.
* I'm not sure my misgivings will resolved beyond everybody's doubt. Everything succeeds by sufficiently low standards, and fails by sufficiently high ones.
** Yes, there might be a contradiction here. But as Niels Bohr said, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. We should all be capable of having two ideas in our head at the same time.