On 30th December (or thereabouts) Sam Freedman (former Govian SpAd and now head of TeachFirst) posted this intriguing question on Twitter:
So here goes. What could happen by 2020 for me to admit that I was wrong both to campaign and to vote for Brexit?
The short answer is, “Nothing,” for the simple reason that my reasons for supporting the UK’s departure from the EU were about sovereignty and democracy. I cannot think of any circumstances under which the UK could be less sovereign and less democratic in 2020 as a result of the Brexit vote. I suppose that in some kind of bizarre, alternative-universe scenario, the crazed triumvirate of Tim Farron, David Lammy and Anna Soubry might be so angered by Brexit that they assissinate the Prime Minister and most of the cabinet before seizing power in a bloody coup, backed by a Europhile military phalanx. But that’s hardly likely.
Though I have been in favour of the UK withdrawing from membership of the EU since Maastricht (1992/93), many people who don’t know me well are more inclined to ask why I am not a Remainer. For one thing, I am a Catholic, and the EU is often accused of being a Catholic project. Schumann was a devout Catholic (though Monnet wasn’t), heavily influenced by Jacques Maritain and the 1939 encyclical of Pius XI Summi Pontificatus (On the Unity of Human Society). Love for the EU has perhaps been more fulsomely expressed by the traditionally Catholic nations of southern Europe, Belgium, and the German CDU (with its rural Catholic hinterland), than it has by the Protestant nations of Scandinavia, Holland and the UK.
Second, I regard myself as European. I think that there is such a thing as ‘European Culture’ — which has its roots in Graeco-Roman antiquity, mediated through the Judeo-Christian tradition — the flowering of which was seen during the foundation of the universities in the High Middle Ages. The English (and British) have a great deal of which to be proud, but I am cautious when it comes to exceptionalist claims. Some like to argue that Free Trade was basically a British invention, but they forget the role played by the Salamanca school in the development of monetary theory (fl. late 16th c.). Whatever the brilliance of the British, we have been shaped by the continent of which we are part.
Third, I’m in favour of free markets. There is no example of which I am aware, anywhere in the world or at any time in history, where human flourishing has significantly increased without trade being a major factor. I’m not a Libertarian (because I’m no longer a teenager) and I accept the case for some regulation of the market by governments. Many would argue that the EU Single Market, beloved of Mrs Thatcher, is one of the most successful examples of the free market in action anywhere in the world — with trade barriers reduced or eliminated while sensible regulation means (e.g.) that consumers aren’t eating poisonous foodstuffs.
Add to these the fact that I am in favour of the free movement of labour, speak languages other than English, am fairly widely travelled, and have degrees from two universities, then I would seem to be an obvious Remain voter.
If I had to distill my many reasons for voting Leave into one word, it would be ‘Democracy’. I know that ‘Sovereignty’ is the word more usually chosen, but a nation can be sovereign without being democratic, while no nation can be truly democratic if it is not sovereign. North Korea is sovereign, you might say (despite their reliance upon China) — no one tells them what they can and can’t do — but it’s certainly not democratic. We have seen the dangers inherent in obsessing over the idea of ‘sovereignty’ in the aftermath of the EURef. Sovereignty seems to mean, according to some, jealously guarding every detail of independence to the point of isolation — never entering into alliances or striking deals. In this case, sovereignty becomes like a prize in a glass case — something to be looked at and admired, but not made use of. It is like a suitcase full of banknotes under the bed — essentially useless and without value, because the value of money is only realised when it is given in exchange or put to work in some way; otherwise it is just paper.
Sovereignty is routinely ‘traded’ through agreements. The UK effectively trades sovereignty through her membership of NATO, the Good Friday Agreement, the UK/IE Common Travel Area, membership of myriad international agreements, extradition treaties, etc. On the other hand, the UK remains sovereign because withdrawing from any of those agreements is theoretically possible (though not without consequences). Such sovereignty is democratic because, ultimately, the electorate has the power to force a change (even if that means campaigning for decades to secure a change, as with the EU Referendum).
This is not to say that ‘real democracy’ necessarily means a never-ending round of plebiscites (though I remain a fan of the Swiss system of popular referendums). Even in our own system — government by the executive scrutinised by the legislature — we have the opportunity to remove governments of which we disapprove, eventually.
Our membership of the EU, at least after Maastricht, involved an increasing loss of democratic oversight and control due to the way that EU law is transposed into UK law. No one can credibly claim that the EU is like Royston Vasey and that “You’ll never leave” because the UK was sufficiently democratic and sovereign to hold a referendum and (so far) honour the result; and yet, as time went on, leaving would have become more and more difficult as an ever increasing swathe of competencies were assumed by the EU (legal jurisdiction, currency, VAT, fiscal policy, defence, diplomacy, etc.).
No democratic system is perfect (Aristotle’s Athenian democracy floated on a sea of disenfranchised slaves), and while the EU has democratic deficits, so does the UK. One of my particular objections to the EU concerns something that Eurocrats love to talk about a great deal, yet misunderstand: Subsidiarity (q.v. §5 of TEU). It’s a term that was first coined by 19th century Catholic moral theologians and as an idea came to international notice in the 1931 encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno:
“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” [QA §79]
Although an idea from Catholic Social Teaching, this doesn’t mean it’s a theological idea. If anything, it is Aristotelean, and humanist — i.e. it is about making society more ‘person-centred’ (as opposed to centred upon governments or corporations).
I supported (and support) Brexit because I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which I would describe simply as the principle whereby decision-making takes place at the lowest or most local level practicable, as close as possible to those affected by the decision. What is often overlooked is that subsidiarity is not simply ‘hard localism’ but retains a vertical dimension. After all, the word comes from the Latin subsidium, meaning ‘help’. While decisions should be made at the lowest/smallest level possible, there will always be circumstances where higher/larger bodies and associations need to step in to offer that ‘help’.
As the legal scholar Robert K. Vischer explains:
Subsidiarity charts a course between the Scylla of individualism and Charybdis of collectivism by locating the responsibilities and privileges of social life in the smallest unit of organisation at which they will function. Larger social bodies, be they the state or otherwise, are permitted and required to intervene only when smaller ones cannot carry out the tasks themselves. Even in this case, the intervention must be temporary and for the purpose of empowering the smaller social body to be able to carry out such functions on its own.
Although the EU pays lip-service to the principle of subsidiarity, it has managed to convince itself, in practice, that the EU always needs to intervene to ‘help’ smaller bodies (viz. member states).
The reason why this principle is important is shown by the referendum result itself. I am saying nothing new when I observe that the vote revealed ‘a divided nation’. I attribute that, in part, to a lack of subsidiarity nationally (and I do not only blame the EU for this). Pushing decision making higher and higher up the chain of authority is a problem for all governments. Left-wing governments are ideologically keen on national centralisation, but Conservative governments, even though they talk the talk on decentralisation and localism in opposition tend to fall in love with the centralised state once they are in charge of it.
A fear of decentralisation (and concomitant love of centralisation) is a problem in the UK, but it is therefore an even greater (and more damaging) problem in the EU. Some decisions, of course, should be made at national and international levels. It would be nonsense to have a Lancastrian nuclear deterrent or a Kentish Intelligence Agency. Similarly, some decisions should sensibly be made at a European (though not necessarily EU), or even international level. An example might be agreeing a baseline policy on refugees in a time of crisis (currently the war in Syria and unrest in Libya and Iraq). Just because the EU has made a thorough mess of working out such a policy does not mean that attempts to agree a Europe-wide approach are mistaken or doomed in principle.
I voted to leave the EU so that the UK might be able to make her own decisions at a national level. It would be a missed opportunity if that new freedom from EU interference (in the guise of ‘help’) was left to atrophy in Westminster and not pushed further down to counties, local authorities, parish councils, the third sector, and individuals. It also follows that leaving the EU should not mean that we should proudly (and foolishly) go it alone in glorious isolation instead of pursuing shared goals with the EU and other European Nations when appropriate and conducive to the flourishing of our citizens.
Many people, I am aware, voted to leave the EU because of some imagined, discrete ‘benefit’, e.g. it would free up £350m per week for the NHS, it would lead to lower (or no) immigration, we would leave the Single Market, or whatever. I did not vote for any of those ‘reasons’. My ballot paper asked about leaving the EU. It said nothing about immigration, a Europe-wide single market, membership of organisations like OECD, allied bodies like Euratom or schemes like Erasmus. People also voted to remain for similarly diverse reasons. A friend of mine is a long-time eurosceptic but voted to remain because as a believer in free markets he is also in favour of a substantial measure of free movement. So am I; yet I could not countenance remaining yoked to an undemocratic EU simply because I felt unable to trust my own government to have a sensible immigration policy (though I do not, as a matter of fact, trust our current government or, more precisely, Mrs May on that score). Moreover, while I have no problem with free movement of labour, I think that ‘EU Citizenship’ is a fundamentally different notion, and it is this difference that lies behind the ways that freedom of movement is understood in the EU on the one hand and in EFTA/EEA countries on the other. I have been in favour of leaving the EU for 20 years, but it was the borderline racist rhetoric of UKIP risked tipping me into the ‘Remain’ camp.
My hope had been that we would leave the EU by rejoining EFTA and continuing to participate in the EEA. That would have been manageable in a short time frame and it would have meant comparatively little economic shock. Not much would change in the first few years, but we would be out, just as surely as Norway and Iceland are ‘out’. It would have given us breathing space to work on a longer term strategy, to repair our under-skilled and under-resourced civil service, and make trade deals internationally (preferably grandfathering those we currently enjoy by virtue of EU membership). This might still be possible, but I suspect it is now unlikely. Any kind of continued EEA participation has been trashed as a possibility — partly by the lie constantly repeated by Remainers (and Leavers) that “we voted to leave the Single Market” but also by ‘Project Fear’. It was, ironically, the Remain side which made a ‘Hard Brexit’ all the more likely by linking the Single Market so strongly with the EU and by rubbishing Norwegian-type arrangements with nonsense about ‘fax diplomacy’. In my view, though it remains the best option for Britain and for Europe, if it is to be resuscitated it will need some influential supporters and require MPs to learn the facts, not simply parrot slogans.
Certainly, it is possible that Brexit, badly handled, will do real damage to the UK economy, at least in the short to medium term. It may result in the unnecessary and unjust expulsion of foreign workers. It may embolden a Home Secretary to vastly reduce the number of foreign students coming to the UK to study. It may allow a future Corbynite administration to nationalise swathes of British industry. It might lead to a breakdown in negotiations leaving the UK with nowhere to go save ‘WTO Rules’, which would be an economic catastrophe. All of these things would be foolish and regrettable. Nonetheless, they are decisions that we ultimately (albeit retrospectively) have some influence over given that we elect our own politicians in a way that we never elected Juncker, Tusk, et al. The referendum showed that.
The people spoke, and with one or two exceptions (Soubry, Farron, Lammy, etc.), parliament listened. Even the Prime Minister resigned. In the EU, it is hard to think of any circumstances in which eurocrats in the Commission might be similarly responsive to the popular will. Whole nations have rejected treaties, economies have almost collapsed, unemployment among young people has reached almost unimaginable levels, immigration by refugees is unmanaged and chaotic, and now one of the largest economies in the EU is on the verge of leaving; and yet there has been no sign that the EU has reconsidered its quasi-religious belief in the 65-year-old theories and certainties of Monnet and Schuman. The EU is not a modern, democratic organisation ready for the challenges of the 21st century — it is a technocracy clinging to a still-born dogma.
During the Referendum campaign, and since, there was much talk of the Maastricht Treaty (when the EU took a more decisive turn towards political union), of tariffs, and of regulation. The Maastricht Treaty entered into force in 1993. Two years later, after years of talks, the World Trade Organisation was founded. Since then, tariffs have been reducing worldwide, and regulation (setting of standards) is increasingly international. Mrs May, in her recent Tory Party Conference speech, tried to suggest that leaving the EU would somehow lead to new freedoms in the way our food is labelled, apparently unaware that such things are now a matter for the U.N. Codex Alimentarius and decided in the shadow of the Palatine Hill (Rome), not in Brussels. Trade is increasingly global, and while there is still a place for Trade Agreements and Regional Trade Blocs (e.g. EEA, EFTA, NAFTA, MERCOSUR, etc.), the EU, almost alone in the world, clings to the notion that political union is a necessary condition for economic cooperation.
The Maastricht Treaty is not a prophetic document that will prepare the nations of Europe to meet the challenges of an increasingly globalised world, but rather the dying embers of a vision of the world rescued from the rubble of the Second World War. The world has moved on because the world has changed. Britain has an opportunity to make the most of those changes as a long-term champion of free trade with unparalleled links around the globe through the Commonwealth. If she retreats into isolationism and mercantilism (as some in UKIP seem keen to do) then she will squander that opportunity. But if she joins forces with other free-trading nations in EFTA while escaping the political project of the EU, then the UK can be at the heart of Europe and open to the world. If that happens, then ‘Global Britain’ might be something more than a slogan.