Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP

The failure of normative power

You can’t always legislate around disagreement

Artillery Row

Twenty years ago the sociologist Ian Manners published a highly influential article — subsequently cited thousands of times — arguing that the European Union had the potential to export its liberal values through the use of so-called “normative power”. 

Through setting a “virtuous example” and the use of “carrots and sticks” such as trade deals or sanctions, Manners posited that the EU would be able to influence policies on capital punishment, LGBT rights and free movement, both within Europe and around the world.

Back in the heady “end of history” days of the early 21st century, this idea was popular among academics and policy makers. The EU’s “normative power” was held up as a potential asset for a smorgasbord of liberal objectives, from abolishing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia to ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

From the perspective of 2023, this seems laughably naïve: we can ask the liberal middle-classes of Warsaw, Budapest and Tel Aviv as to the effectiveness of the EU’s normative power in instilling liberal values. Yet today, some politicians, policy makers, businesses and cultural bodies still seem intent on using “normative power” to force social change — irrespective of democratic consent. There is still a tendency for those of us on the Left to think that the influence of institutions such as the government, the BBC, universities, charities and so on can achieve our goals even in the absence of public approval. 

The SNP leadership is ahead of their own members on social issues

This is best highlighted by the failed Gender Recognition Reform Bill in Scotland. Despite the SNP’s projected image of their nation, it is not the case that the people of Scotland are particularly radical on trans rights. In fact, recent polling has found that Scottish people are on average more “trans-sceptical” than the English, with the most trans-sceptical parliamentary constituencies in the UK found in Scotland. In response to the proposition that trans women should be given access to women’s toilets and changing rooms, for example, all but one of the top 10 most-opposed constituencies are in Scotland.

Meanwhile, according to the latest poll of SNP members, Kate Forbes — who not only opposes the GRR but said she would have voted against same-sex marriage — is leading the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon. This shows that the SNP leadership is ahead of their own members on this issue — never mind ordinary Scottish voters (among whom Forbes is also the preferred choice for First Minister).

Nonetheless, Sturgeon — comfortably ensconced at Holyrood with half the seats in the Scottish parliament — felt she could use her normative power to change the law and presumably shift attitudes, irrespective of what the voters wanted. Her failure should serve as a salutary lesson for those of us on the Left, for this attitude is not merely anti-democratic, but it provides a real risk of undermining or even reversing some of the liberal advances of the past 60 years.

Occasionally the use of “normative power” can succeed, with legislative change either preceding or potentially engineering a change in attitudes. This can be seen with abortion rights, which has widespread public support today compared to the time of legislation in 1967.

Alternatively, on some occasions politicians can continue to safely ignore popular sentiment, either due the unrepresentativeness of the political system (as with Westminster elections, where First-Past-the-Post prevents more socially conservative (or radical Left) parties from gaining representation), or due to the low salience of the issue. 

This is best illustrated by reintroduction of the death penalty, which is supported by over half of the population as a punishment for certain crimes, yet apart from wholesale redistribution of wealth it is hard to think of a policy less likely to pass through Parliament. 

Homophobic chants will be vanquished by organic change among the fans

In most cases, legislative changes have responded to and were prompted by changing popular sentiment. This can clearly be seen with LGBT rights: according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, as recently as 1990, fully 58 per cent of the UK thought “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “always wrong”. Yet ten years later this had fallen to 37 per cent — despite Section 28 remaining on the statute books and the legal age of consent for gay men remaining older than it was for straight couples. Equalisation of the age of consent, abolition of Section 28, civil partnerships and finally equal marriage all followed in the wake of changing public mores — they did not cause them to change. 

Similarly, overt racism became unacceptable on football terraces not because of legislation but because of a shift in the attitudes among supporters. The same will prove true of homophobic chants: they will not be vanquished by cheesy, tokenistic schemes such as rainbow laces or armbands, but by organic change among the fans. Whilst anti-discrimination legislation and equality before the law is necessary for liberal advances, it is not sufficient: meaningful social progress comes not from legal changes, but from bottom-up, organic evolution within communities. 

Because voting in UK elections has been confidential since the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, and no one knows how or for whom you vote, this limits the ability of normative or cultural pressure to affect political outcomes. People who would never dream of publicly stating support for lower immigration or criticising trans rights will nonetheless vote for candidates who do so, once they are in the privacy of the voting booth. 

Therefore, those who want to see more liberal policies on issues such as immigration, trans rights or crime and punishment would be best advised to focus on winning democratic consent — rather than relying on legislation or public bodies to force changes down the throats of ostensibly unempowered or disengaged citizens. Reducing the prevalence of certain sentiments in public discourse and causing people to self-censor is a pyrrhic victory, if you don’t actually change minds. In a democracy with secret ballots, attempts to exercise normative power may backfire in expected ways, as liberals such as myself found out on the painful morning of 24 June 2016.

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