How to deliver a conservative Brexit | Jake Scott
Theresa May’s lame-duck deal for us to exit the European Union has been (on multiple occasions at the time of writing) resoundingly defeated in the British parliament. And of course, questions followed on what exactly should be the government’s Plan B option: some saying we should #GoWTO (Leave on ‘No Deal’ terms with the EU, and default to WTO trading rules with the rest of the world); others argue a second referendum should now be fought on the terms of either remaining in the EU, or leaving without a deal.
Others, mostly amateur politicos such as myself, present plans or suggestions for how the government should proceed. I think we should applaud these contributions, as they show a real engagement with the issue beyond sound bites and silly posturing. So, here I attempt to outline what I believe should be guiding principles for the UK’s withdrawal. I do not pretend to offer detailed policies, nor exact terms of how we should do this, but I aim to show how the government can, and should, deliver a principled conservative Brexit.
NB: I have spent most of my academic life surrounded by liberal-leftists or outright radicals, and so for that reason I find it easier to discuss political ideas in post-structuralist terms, typically through linguistics and rhetoric. Consequently, this article is largely going to discuss changing the national dialogue.
- Recognise that national determination has been articulated as related to economic protectionism.
The European Union, NAFTA, TTIP, oil dependency – all these major flashpoints of what Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin call the “national-populist revolt” – have had their debates captured by language that puts them in direct competition to the rights, livelihood, and independence of the nation. These institutions have involved greater and greater integration on multiple fronts, but most specifically economic, and this has been articulated as threatening the integrity of the nation-state. The Single Market in the European Union, for instance, is a particularly important example of this as a nation cannot trade within the Single Market without being subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This essentially undermines national self-determination in the legal sphere.
Most people still consider themselves in terms national identity, some choosing multiple layers of identity (indeed, it is possible to be both British and European but, as I explain in a forthcoming article, only one can be defined in legal, and therefore citizenship, terms). Consequently, a threat to the nation is a threat to the identity of those people who occupy it; in practical terms as well as rhetorical. Much international relations theory recognises that economic sanctions imposed on countries will always affect the poorest the hardest, because they are typically institutionally excluded and therefore relatively “expendable”. The same is true of regressive measures such as (dead-horse beaten) Sugar Taxes.
Moreover, especially with the European Union, the debate has expanded far beyond economic questions. Immigration has been articulated as a threat to national stability, advanced welfare states, and socio-cultural cohesion; as all significant sea-changes, this is not merely a “revolt” (a rather dismissive term that paints opponents as cultural Luddites), but nor is it a whipping-up of national fervour from above (also a dismissive idea, because it provides an image of the people as dumb animals who listen to the loudest voice). Instead, this is a case of the grassroots reaching up, and elements of the establishment reaching down to meet them: people are not stupid, and the longer the establishment acts as if they are, the deeper this division will drive. Most people who have seen their relative circumstances in relation to immigration shift massively have had negative reactions; in London, or similar metropoles, where immigration has been a consistent part of life for decades, reaction is less knee-jerk. In places like Boston in Lincolnshire, for instance, where the immigrant population has increased from 3% to 15% in the space of ten years (Eatwell and Goodwin, 166), reactions have been less predictable, due to the sheer volatility of the immigration.
And the millennial messiah, Jeremy Corbyn, is just as concerned as many ardent Eurosceptics over the impact of the EU project on workers’ rights, something national democracy has a successful history in protecting (note: I don’t mean the nation inherently, but as a method by which the working classes have been able to promote and defend their interests). Many of Corbyn’s comrades in the Old Left who see the EU as a neoliberal project, capable only of furthering the goals of international corporations, share the worries many working class people do, that their livelihoods are being lost on two fronts: unsustainable levels of low-skilled immigrations from post-Communist countries that compound wage stagnation; and a blue-collar industry exodus to the East, where regulations are minimal, and most manufacturing has been moving for a long time. It is important to note that the post-Communist countries, Poland especially, are fearful of the exact reverse: their young working-class people fleeing as parasitic industries move in to prey on the workers’ desperation.
These factors together have meant that the nation is seen as distinctly threatened by the processes of globalisation as exemplified by the supranational European Union, and a strengthening of the nation-state is the answer. But a specific form of strengthening: a rejection of unfettered global trade, a desire to turn inward from the world market, and risk a knee-jerk reaction in the form of ultra-strict immigration policies (consider Hungary’s Fidezs Party).
If we recognise this articulation, we can begin to undo it. I am sympathetic to the socio-cultural opposition to mass immigration, and I believe this is an area that conservatives must be stronger in their arguments.
- Articulate economic liberation as the route to national autonomy – as Thatcher did in the 1980s.
As significant as cultural autonomy is, economics is the method by which nations (the ultimate expression of a cultural group) can effectively provide for and protect its members. A strong economy is not the basis of social order, much the reverse, but it does allow a nation to implement those safety-net welfare states that have become expected in Western Europe.
In direct contrast to the above point and the aforementioned reactionaries of Eastern Europe, an alternative vision of economic globalisation needs to be formulated. I’m not an economist, and I can’t pretend to be, but the cultural tides are unmistakable; as long as the erosion of national identity (still a powerful determinant in an individual’s identity) is tied to the strength and direction of economic globalisation in its current form, conservatives will be torn between defending the nation and defending the market. And this is a decision that does not necessarily need to be made.
Some conservatives are making the right points, that Brexit will allow us to move towards a model propagated by Singapore or Chile, which necessarily involves low corporation tax to encourage service economies into the UK. I believe this is distinctly lacking, as it misses the point of Brexit – people don’t really care if the rich get super rich, provided the poor get less poor. And as it stands under the current economic consensus, poor people have not gotten less poor, but rich people have certainly gotten richer.
Consider Phillip Whyman’s book, For a Left Brexit. Whyman makes the point that Brexit is an opportunity to fundamentally re-organise the British economy and address the deeper, structural problems it faces, such as low productivity. Certainly leaving the European Union is not going to solve these problems overnight, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not a serious political actor. But it will allow us greater agency to do so. Economic problems are tied to particular circumstances, especially those such as low productivity, because they are expressions of a particular cultural attitude. Other European countries know this, and they’ve never pretended otherwise, lest the siesta become a relic of the past, or the Confédération générale du travail be crushed under the neoliberal boot of the European Union.
Still, the case needs to be made for economic liberalisation, not protectionism. It may be working in America where industries are being flooded with cheap Chinese competition, but in Britain where the service and finance industries are unparalleled, protectionism would only make us less competitive on the world stage. As I mention though, liberalisation for liberalisation’s sake would only lead us back to where we are now. The conservative case needs to be made for paternalist capitalism again. We need businesses to look after their workers, value and respect them, and if the route to that is to adopt some quasi-socialist policies, then so be it. Whyman’s book offers more economic insight than I ever could, but we cannot continue to act as if the market will provide for everything when it clearly hasn’t.
- Identify that the form of globalism that exists has failed because it denies the benefits of nationhood in favour of supranational blocs.
And to aid in this, conservatives must be more strident in their defence of the nation.
The first thing to push aside is the idea that being attached to the nation is nationalism and nothing else. As I have explained elsewhere, mythology and symbolism do as much to encourage a sense of belonging as any tribalism or cultism would. And this is part of the value of the nation: it long ago left behind tribal membership as it’s basis in favour of one based on legalism. Consider that the word used for national membership is “citizen”, because it denotes a relationship with the law, rather than the family or tribe (“brother”), religion (“faithful”), monarchy (“subject”) or ideology (“comrade”).
Once we move past the universariat’s obsessive criticism of any national sentiment as nationalism, we can begin again to defend the nation as a method by which communities and cultures can sustain themselves.
Most significantly, the EU has failed to inspire loyalty because there is no fundamental sense of unity underlying it. As I mention, the form of relationship between individuals and the political institution of the state is one based on law, but the tradition in the UK has been one of organic law forming between individuals in the desire to remain associated despite conflict. In the continent, however, the organic Common Law tradition has been eroded over the last two centuries, mostly begun by Napoleon in the Code napoleon that tore away the legal heritages of the central European states, and organised them instead on the whim of a dictatorial madman.
A recovery was made, in ways, but the instability of the 19th century created a context in which stability was only ever enforced by powerful states, thus ushering in a model of statism that would form the basis of political thinking in the 1920s leading to the hyper-authoritarianism of Fascism, National Socialism and Stalinism.
The point of all this is that national sentiment should not be discarded, because it reflects the deeper pre-political desire of association despite difference, not because of it. And when that national sentiment is reinforced, and its basis in legalism, not essentialist identity, communities can flourish once more.
- Freedom within the global economy, not freedom from.
The conclusion to be taken from the above points is that economic freedom should be understood much in the same way conservatives understand human freedom.
Freedom does not come from an absence of others, but from the enriching presence of them, and active involvement within the society that forms between yourself and others. Freedom, as a metaphysical concept, is only achieved through the interaction with others that allows for the development of the faculties of judgement, taste, conscience, even (and especially) speech.
Similarly, “freedom” is not the licentiousness of vice, but the liberty of virtue. When conservatives discuss freedom, we do not mean the will to act however we wish, but the ability to overcome the base desires of our passions and direct them in a more productive manner. Conservatives would not call someone who drinks away their life, engages in promiscuity, poisons their body with narcotics and fails to look after themselves free, because he is a slave to his basic desires, and wrapped in the miasma of euphoria. Instead, conservatives would look at someone who has discipline with a view to the long-term cultivation of happiness as being truly free, because they have a love of liberty in their heart.
The same principle can apply to the economy. Selfish individualism will be the death of any community, and the love of money is one of the purest expressions of this vice. When one sacrifices everything in pursuit of money, he does not build with a view to the future of his community, or even his family. This abandonment of the inheritance of the past to the whim of capriciousness can lead to an economy that eats itself; rather than a sustainable economy in which basic services (farming, clothing, the production of real products) are valued, the parasitic economies of mortgage, debt and credit will undermine the agency of the nation (consider the sub-prime mortgage crisis that contributed significantly the credit crunch in 2008). Furthermore, the hollowness of a market economy based on such individualism will erode the bonds of community. Instead, the free voluntarism of charity cannot be discarded, but must be championed and encouraged.
So, Britain should not see Brexit as an opportunity to recede into itself economically, but a chance to set a course and become (as many have said in the past) the guiding light in global trade and aid – but it can only do that if it engages with the world as an autonomous nation once again.
- Reinstitute the nation as the fundamental actor in global politics, as a method of mobilising markets and protecting workers at the same time
All of this would be useless if we left one protectionist bloc for another, sacrificing our sovereignty on the way. But of course, what does “sovereignty” even mean?
Sovereignty means many things, but I think the most recognisable is institutional autonomy. As a nation-state, we must be autonomous enough to make our own decisions, and that means decisions guided by two key concerns: one, the concerns of the people; and two, the concerns of tradition.
The relationship between “the people” and “tradition” is not inherently antithetical, but the two are often counter-posed as if they are in opposition. But the reality is more subtle, for the two provide a suitable balance on each other. Each generation has the capacity to question the traditions that came before it, and ultimately reform them if the need is so great; but traditions also remind us the link between our past and, therefore, ourselves. A modern community is one of strangers, and a community of strangers can be bound together by two things: tradition; or project.
Since we are not all united around a single project (one of the great political truths that has led to the structural instability of totalitarian regimes), we must be reminded of our association by tradition. And I don’t mean tradition in that we all perform the same rituals and wear the same symbols, but that we are all descended from an historically-perpetuating community, that has been forced together by circumstance but remained together through choice.
This all means that sovereignty is a web of relations, not just between the current, in-this-moment community that bears the same name as one that came before, but the society that has emerged over the course of generations.