Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron addresses a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria December 3, 2015, during a two-day official visit. When David Cameron urges European Union leaders on Thursday to do a deal to keep Britain in the bloc, he will face a riddle that has haunted Conservative prime ministers for three decades: a row with Europe or a row with Eurosceptics at home? Cameron's bid to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership of the bloc ahead of a referendum he has promised by the end of 2017, has hit the rocks over a demand to make working EU migrants wait four years before getting some benefits. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov Image Credit: REUTERS

On one point, if no other, Britain’s elites increasingly side with their populist tormentors. They smell a revolution coming. In corporate boardrooms and the grander ministries of state, there is an edginess about barbarians (voters) at the gate (polling stations) and the zany decisions they might make out of sheer pique. It is the classic paranoia of people with much to lose, intensified by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and other topical cases of semi-successful demagoguery abroad.

According to the received view in Westminster, last year’s vote against Scottish independence could easily have gone the other way (it was never going to). In May, big business steeled itself for Labour prime minister Ed Miliband (he did not get close). Even now, the people most persuaded of Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral potential are not friends of the socialist Labour leader but the high-fliers he would tax. To dine with eminent business leaders these days is to field clever-clever theories as to why, after another harrowing recession and a rush of blood to the head and the perfect alignment of the moon and the planets, Britain might turn red after all.

Then there is the elite’s dread of dreads: Britain voting to leave the European Union. Pro-Europeans fear they will build an intellectually unanswerable case to remain and still fail, as bloody-minded multitudes use the referendum as a free punch at their perfumed overlords.

Enough. The notion that a peasant’s revolt is always around the corner is patronising and suggests a certain guilt in the breasts of our rulers, as if they know they are getting away with something and cannot believe their luck will endure. It is also reliably wrong. At the general election, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), that populist sensation, took one seat in parliament. When all talk was of fragmentation, the two main parties actually increased their combined vote share. Perhaps a quarter of those who vote do so to protest. All that changed in 2015 was the distribution of those votes; a Liberal Democrat near-monopoly became a diversified market of grievance-mongers spanning Ukip and the Greens.

The crash, the parliamentary expenses scandal and the popular turn against immigration have drained all confidence from the establishment, which has slumped from irrational exuberance to the vigilance of hypochondriacs in under a decade. Whether they deserve to or not, they should relax. Anti-establishment politics is a paper tiger. Britons vent in local and European elections but, when they have to choose a government or settle an existential question in a referendum, they vote with colder blood than we credit. Their livelihoods are at stake in a way the livelihoods of mobile, resilient elites seldom are.

There is something else — nearer to aesthetic taste than risk calculation. Britons dislike the establishment but not as much as they dislike people who rant about the establishment. Withholding trust from MPs and fat cats is only natural; defining your worldview against them smells too much like zealotry.

Last month, campaigners for Brexit registered a fictitious company so that two of them could attend Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry. As Cameron spoke, the pair — students whose combined age was lower than his — held up a makeshift sign (“CBI = Voice of Brussels”) and heckled until they were ejected from the hall.

The Vote ‘Leave’ campaign saluted its own guerrilla wiles. The corporate hosts smarted at the apparent coup. Neither side could see how the average person would have viewed the stunt: Sincere but silly, plucky but too keen by half. There is something of the sweaty upper lip about anyone who takes the time to invent a company for the sake of a political caper on a Monday morning. Press coverage came, but there is such a thing as credibility. There is such a thing as stature. If the ‘Leave’ campaign forfeits these things to become a punk rebellion against The Man, it will do as well as the anti-establishment cause always does when it really counts.

Voters reject this kind of politics for the same reason they slyly turn up the volume on their headphones when a fellow commuter stands up in the train to start talking about God. It is not antipathy, just English embarrassment. Cameron could not be more of an establishment man if he wore a crown to work, but voters take him seriously. The Leavers would learn from that if the sheer sport of acting the rebel were not so much fun. Britons are not lucky in their elites, but the elites are lucky in their enemies.

— Financial Times