A non-xenophobic Brexit
I voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, and for the Brexit Party in the European election in May. This has become somewhat of a sin for a middle class person, or a generation Zer (of which I am both) to admit in the long, cruel years since we decided upon a departure. I fondly remember the period of campaigning leading up to the historic plebiscite - Leave and Remain were generally quite respectful of one another; far more so than they are now. I was a sixth form Politics student at the time. Our class was divided between Leavers and Remainers. Quite extraordinarily, in an organised college debate in which a speaker from each campaign was invited to put forth their case, a quick vote among the students at the end resulted in a Leave victory. Quite extraordinary, because we were a very middle class college in a county that later went on to vote overwhelmingly for Remain.
I miss that calm before the storm. I also acutely remember when it ended. The morning of 24th June 2016 I awoke to an apocalyptic atmosphere. The radio crackled with excitement, chattering about "triggering Article 50", a phrase which sounded like something from a science fiction movie. But as soon as I logged on to the internet, I found there was no room to gloat. The Remain reaction was vicious. I cannot get this across enough. The atmosphere of democracy and respect had been utterly obliterated, it turned out, as soon as the vote count had started going our way. I tend not to use the term "Remoaner" anymore because I don't seek to be inflammatory in this already-inflamed discussion, but on that day they really earned the title.
Petitions were circulated demanding the independence of regions that voted mostly for Remain, such as London, or (even more ridiculously) Cambridge. There had never been a day yet when so few people in Britain identified as British. I think part of the excitement came down to the shock - politics simply didn't change like that in England. We were a people used to a lack of change. Either the Tories won, or Labour. Either way it didn't make much difference. Then suddenly, a democratic vote had actually achieved something. If you were on the side of the victors, a glorious surprise. For the losers, a horrific shock.
I'm not saying Leave would have been entirely sensible had we lost - we would have had our own hysterics, for sure - but I think it would have been anticipated. It would have been "same old, same old", and the downtrodden working class people who composed the majority of the Leave vote would have returned sighing to a Labour Party which has for so long neglected their interests.
The referendum was won, of course, by the working class. Brexit was sold to them by the United Kingdom Independence Party as a method of regaining sovereignty over our borders. Add to this mass a percentage of rural conservatives and an insignificant number of white collar free marketeers, and you have a Leave victory. Meanwhile, Remain was and is constituted of the well-to-do, who easily dismissed the workers' border concerns as mere xenophobia; being by and large unaffected by the negative aspects of immigration themselves. Reacting to this perceived "xenophobia", whereas before had they been mostly ambivalent to the EU issue, these people started to see in that great Union all their half-baked, cosmopolitan, "Hampstead hippie" ideals epitomised.
Excessive immigration from poorer EU countries such as Poland will cause ghettoisation in the UK and the lowering of wages for British workers. I fully empathise with that, which is something the Remainers too often fail to do. Nevertheless, it is true that a minority of people - the stupider kind - translate these legitimate social and economic concerns into genuine xenophobia. This small percentage of the Leave vote I condemn utterly and refuse to associate with. They have given Brexit a bad name before it has even occurred, and have contributed to the increasing taboo of admitting Leave support in public.
The purpose of this article is to elucidate why I support British withdrawal from the European Union. While the immigration concerns as I have already mentioned seem to me perfectly valid, thanks to the populist influence of UKIP they have, I feel, obscured more urgent reasons for escaping the bloc. I hope here to present an argument for leaving the European Union free of the divisive debate on migration, and therefore also free from the xenophobia and accusations thereof which have regrettably tarnished an issue close to my heart.
The way I see it, Britain is home to many political traditions and institutions which are lacking on the continent. These are what make the United Kingdom as a nation-state vital to maintain; I have a great fear that, should we continue with our EU membership, these hallmarks of our constitution will be abandoned in favour of greater European integration.
Perhaps most importantly of all, England is the home and birthplace of common law. This is contrasted with civil law, which dominates the continent and the vast majority of the world. In our common law system, after being accused of a crime we are permitted to appoint an independent defence lawyer to fight for our innocence. After that, a jury composed of randomly selected members of the public will decide our fate. The judge, meanwhile, acts only as an impartial referee, and does not make the final decision.
In the civil law system, however, juries are rare - it is a state-appointed judge who decides the verdict. Likewise, the prosecutor and the defence lawyer are civil servants appointed by the state. Can you see the difference? Common law contains various safeguards - an independent jury, an independent defence, an impartial judge - to prevent innocent men going to prison. Civil law has none of these. The defence lawyer in a civil law system is a state-appointed bureaucrat - in other words, while his duty is ostensibly to defend you, in practice he's on the same team as the prosecutor, the judge, and the police. He may therefore see his job as making things easy for the latter to strike a conviction.
The right to jury trial has already come under attack in England in recent decades by the abandonment of the necessity for a unanimous verdict. I do worry that, in an attempt to unify the different legal systems of EU members under EU law, the UK, Ireland and Cyprus (the three common law member-states; a minority) will be slowly but surely pressured into ditching the system that has kept us free since time immemorial.
Likewise, I worry europeanisation may eventually result in the abolition of the Westminster system of government. This would begin with the scrapping of first past the post (FPTP) and its replacement with the proportional representation voting systems (PR) favoured in continental countries and in the European Parliament itself. FPTP has come under a lot of flack in recent years, so you may be surprised to hear me defend it. For that I will defer to an excellent article written by the political commentator Peter Hitchens upon the outcome of the 2015 general election, in which the Tories gained a majority in the House of Commons but not a majority of the vote. Many blamed FPTP, but Hitchens wisely stepped in to blame our unpopular political parties, instead. The full article may be read here.
"The electoral system is not there for the good of the parties, but for the good of the country.
It has two irreplaceable and unique characteristics. The first is that it provides strong government, constantly challenged by a vigilant and ambitious opposition.
The next is that it allows the people, when enraged or otherwise disappointed by a bad government, to turn it out completely. A peaceful revolution, immensely good for the people and the politicians themselves, is possible every five years and likely every 15 or so.
I cannot tell you what joy it gives me to see a man who was Prime Minister yesterday, powerless the next, supervising only the removal of his furniture from Downing Street.
Proportional systems cannot do this, except in very exceptional circumstances. In a proportional system, the leader you loathe could well end up premier of a new and different coalition later.
All such coalitions tend to be ludicrously unprincipled, based upon short-term deals. Israel offers the best example of this, with governments often the prisoners of factions they hate."
"The point about FPTP is that it favours two strong parties, and has hiccups when it does not have two strong parties. But that is not an argument for getting rid of FPTP. It is an argument for hastening the collapse of those dying parties, by banning millionaire contributions, by ending state aid, by reducing the airtime they get on TV, and for us ceasing to vote for those dying parties.
It is not an argument for destroying our constitution. Why should we do that because Tory and Labour Parties have both ceased to speak for anyone? Surely they, not we, should pay the price for their failure?"
Blame our unpopular political parties for recent hiccups in our electoral system. First past the post has a tendency towards efficient, highly accountable government - it a great boon to our democracy and is therefore vital to maintain. Think of Angela Merkel, who has been Chancellor of Germany for nigh on fourteen years, riding on the back of various unaccountable coalitions. No British Prime Minister has served so long since The Earl of Liverpool in 1827, and that was before universal suffrage democracy. Additionally, in first past the post, you vote for an individual who belongs to a party; this gives your local MP a degree of personal accountability. In proportional representation, the situation is reversed: you vote for the party, which appoints your MP/MEP for you. It places all the power in the hands of party machines. I would hate to see our ancient Parliament ruined by such a system.
That said, proportional representation is the least of the EU's issues with democracy. The President of the European Commission (effectively the EU prime minister) is chosen by the European Council - the heads of government of the member-states, themselves each elected by their own respective parliaments and electorates. Now I support parliamentary democracy - I don't believe the government should be appointed directly by the people as it is in presidential systems; but this is a little too distant even for my tastes. No wonder nobody in Britain had heard of Jean-Claude Juncker, or his successor Ursula von der Leyen, before they were appointed. The actual influence of the British people in their appointment was this: we elected a political party which chose a Prime Minister who would have taken part in the negotiations for the next President. Indirect indeed. After being appointed by the Council, the President of the Commission is then formally "elected" by the European Parliament, but this is little more than a rubber stamping. The ultimate decision over who is appointed President rests with a gaggle of national leaders. By the time the voices of the peoples of Europe reach the top they can hardly be heard.
Where did Jean-Claude Juncker or Ursula von der Leyen come from, anyway? They didn't have the largest majority in the European Parliament. They weren't even the leaders of any European political parties, in any case. They appear to be random European politicians plucked out of thin air by the European Council because they satisfy a rather arbitrary list of criteria, taking into account such things as: the region of Europe they originate from, their "political influence", whether their home country is both a member of the eurozone and the Schengen Area (thereby necessarily excluding any Briton from being appointed), and whether they can speak French (a criterion demanded by France).
Of course, if the President of the Commission were chosen fully by the European Parliament, or by the EU populace directly, smaller countries with smaller populations would have less of an influence. The European Council, I suppose, serves as a kind of electoral college, sacrificing democracy to balance out the interests of the different nation-states that compose the EU. This is the problem with multi-national superstates - they must be consociational rather than democratic. Unless the EU wants to create a new Austria-Hungary, in order to survive it will have to homogenise Europe to some extent, thereby destroying the cultural diversity which made the continent great in the first place. However, I think the former is far more likely. I'm sure the EU's regional policy is borne at least partially out of that old tactic of "divide and rule". Perhaps British devolution was established in part back in the 1990s as a way to make the UK more digestible for the gaping jaws of Europe. It's certainly done its job - by weakening the loyalty of the Scots towards our own Union, Scotland has only moved further in the direction of Brussels. Maybe this is why the Welsh separatist party Plaid Cymru cannot abandon its support for the EU despite the fact Wales voted Leave.
Our country has already been europeanised (and thereby, in my view, deliberalised) to some extent. Our ancient political tradition of state-wary negative freedom has been gradually subverted by the more continental concept of state-granted positive freedom. I.e., while the former implies that we are free to do all things the state does not restrict, the latter implies that even our freedoms are ultimately granted by the state.
This is partially the fault of the European Convention on Human Rights (and the subsequent Human Rights Act 1998), which grant obscene amounts of power to unaccountable judges, both British and European, to decide on matters which are more properly reserved to the political realm (a violation of the British principle of Parliamentary sovereignty). This has been excellently detailed in this year's Reith Lectures by former Justice of the Supreme Court Lord Sumption, called Law and the Decline of Politics. I would thoroughly recommend this lecture series; I do not have time to explain it in depth here, as the European Convention and Court of Human Rights are obviously separate to the EU and a mostly separate issue. Lord Sumption, I strongly suspect, is a Remainer. Nevertheless, the European Convention issue he describes perfectly represents the trouble with positive freedoms: any bogus "Human Right" can be invented by an opinionated judge if he or she reads hard enough into a Convention, Bill of Rights or Constitution. Not only is this undemocratic, but we must question where the authority to define such inviolable Rights comes from. In the old days, it was believed certain Rights were granted by God; but when the Supreme Court of the United States holds that there is a right to abortion, this can no longer be considered satisfactory for our modern secular society. Lord Sumption suggests there is little basis for taking certain political decisions from the people and giving them to the courts; that it is elitist, ideological, and damaging to the conciliatory nature of a democracy. Personally, I believe Bills of Rights, such as our own of 1689, should only ever have the authority to explicitly restrict the actions of the state, rather than the actions of its subjects (which are political matters).
Additionally, the replacement of negative freedom with a more European positive freedom has occurred, very subtly, in our nationality laws. Very few people today are "British subjects" - by and large, traditional British subjectship has been replaced with British citizenship. Here I must again defer to comments made by Peter Hitchens, this time on the extrajudicial revocation of Shamima Begum's citizenship earlier this year. Hitchens writes,
"I was born a British subject, loyal to His Majesty King George VI, and never wanted to be a citizen anyway. I was forced to become a British citizen by political meddlers in 1971, as the first step to becoming another thing I never wanted to be, a citizen of the EU.
A subject is a free man who lives under the law but otherwise acts as he wishes. A citizen owes what freedoms he is allowed to the state, which decides how free he may be and requires duties from him. Sometimes I think despots only grant us citizenship because they enjoy taking it away so much. I associate the stripping of citizenship most of all with the Soviet tyranny. They used this method on one of the greatest men of our age, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in 1974.
So my gorge and hackles rose when the Home Secretary announced he was removing the citizenship of Shamima Begum. Ms Begum is a fool and worse than a fool. She has a big mouth out of which some very nasty sentiments come tumbling. She is open to criminal investigation if she returns here, and that would be perfectly proper.
But it is ridiculous to pretend that she was not born or raised here. And it is cheap, crowd-pleasing mob politics to leave her (and her newborn baby) trapped for ever in some Syrian camp.
I know some people, notably a British Muslim of my acquaintance, think she deserves what she has got. But they are forgetting a basic rule. What you allow to be done to others will eventually be done to you too.
If we allow politicians to strip Shamima Begum’s citizenship from her, they will get a taste for it. And so will our own, home-grown mob. And those who think they are leading mobs always end up discovering that they are, in fact, being chased by them. That never ends well."
Article 20, Paragraph 2 of the Treaty of Rome states that European citizens are "subject to the duties" required of them by the EU. While those duties do not exist - yet - this is a perfect example of how the European concept of citizenship is so contradictory to freedom. Under the British tradition of negative freedom, Britons have no right to be told what to do by any higher power, provided they commit no crime. This is a frightening violation of that. Citizenship as we know it was invented in the French Revolution, as was conscription, and a range of other nasty statist tools of control. It is regrettable that our British political culture of negative freedom and subjectship has already been infringed upon in this way.
But that is not all. Are you aware that the British Parliament was historically very resistant to the idea of introducing a police force in this country? Despite mounting crime in industrialised urban areas in the Victorian era, Parliament feared any such force would be a military, political gendarmerie, able to crush any resistance to tyranny - much like those of the kings of Europe. It was Sir Robert Peel who founded the Metropolitan Police as an apolitical, civilian organisation of traditional British constables, oathbound to serve the law (rather than the state). The British policeman was to be armed only with a truncheon and a whistle; his duty was not merely to catch criminals and certainly not to dish out justice (leaving that to the courts), but to prevent crime with watchful and community-friendly foot patrols (the "bobby on the beat"). Sadly, police foot patrols were largely abolished in this country in favour of police cars in the 1960s. This has more to do with the scrapping of the railways (and the subsequent de-pedestrianisation and motorisation of Britain) than it does with the EU. It is also important to point out that traditionally the British police force is highly decentralised - almost entirely under the control of local counties and boroughs.
These days - and I'm not saying this is a direct result of European integration either - the police are increasingly centralised, armed and political. The introduction of Government-controlled civil servants into the Force (police community support officers) was an infringement upon the vital idea of policemen being civilians, and subsequently on the rule of law. Likewise was the militarisation of the police in the War on Terror while ordinary Britons were simultaneously being deprived of their firearms - if policemen are merely uniformed civilians, then logically they should have the same gun rights as civilians!
Centralisation, meanwhile, has been the result of budget cuts which have closed rural stations and merged urban ones. And from 2020 all ordinary police bobbies will require university degrees. What use could someone whose only rightful function is to prevent crime and catch criminals - more athletic abilities than anything - have in a university degree? I'm uncomfortable with ordinary policemen being intellectuals, especially with how seeped the modern police force is in censoriousness and political correctness. I fear we are heading toward what would have been unthinkable in Robert Peel's Britain - a Government-owned legion of heavily armed, politically literate justiciars.
Increasingly we see the police move into a justicial role. This has been most blatantly and horrifyingly apparent in the great paedophile witch-hunt, in which police have utterly disregarded the presumption of innocence to ruin the lives and careers of many innocent men, including D-Day veteran Lord Bramall and former Tory MP Harvey Proctor. The police have the power to defame anyone's name; they even publicly announced they would have taken Edward Heath in for questioning on child molestation charges (an extrajudicial statement which proves absolutely nothing and helps no one), twelve years after his death!
On top of this, we have mass surveillance, another Orwellian obscenity excused by the "War on Terror". Again, this violates the British principle of negative freedom - the state has no right to interfere in the lives of law-abiding subjects. You may question why I support "watchful" police foot patrols and not the mass introduction of CCTV cameras. As previously mentioned, policemen are supposed to be civilians, while public CCTV footage so often ends up in the hands of the state (GCHQ in this country, or the NSA in America). And that's another thing; CCTV records footage which may be permanent; policeman's eyes do not (though this is due to change with the alarming introduction of police wearable cameras). Most fundamentally, however, it is a matter of purpose. The primary function of police foot patrols is to prevent crime from happening in the first place by keeping guard. What purpose, then, does mass surveillance have? CCTV can't stop someone from robbing a bank; it is only there to provide evidence should someone happen to do just that, while recording thousands of innocent people in the process. Is the violation of our privacy en masse really worth it just to put a few burglars in prison? You know the old saying: it is better that a thousand guilty men walk free than for one innocent man to go to prison. Well, we have deemed it worthwhile to imprison a population of some 70 million innocents within a police state just to catch a few thousand crooks after the damage of their crimes has already been done. What fools we have become.
I doubt the EU had any involvement in the corruption of British policing, but as political, statist gendarmeries are the norm for Europe, continuing our EU membership wouldn't exactly help us if we ever sought a return to traditional British ways. Quite the opposite, especially if European police forces become more integrated in future (the European Arrest Warrant, which allows a British citizen to be carted off to face trial in a post-communist kangaroo court in Bulgaria, being an early indication of this).
Britain has always resisted continental domination, and in doing so developed a unique freedom-based political culture.* The barons who established Magna Carta in the Middle Ages believed they were restoring a liberal Anglo-Saxon constitution suppressed by continental Norman rule. After Henry VIII's split with Rome, English and later British identity was shaped by a fiercely independent Protestantism that resisted all perceived attempts at continental Catholic control, from the Spanish Armada to the Jacobite risings. In the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War, Britain alone stood free while the continent was ravaged by one imperial power or another. "We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed", wrote Winston Churchill in 1930. Yet, after a thousand years of demanding our independence from whatever yoke - Norman or otherwise - we happened to be afflicted by, we have suddenly, by choice, sacrificed our freedoms to join a continental empire. What happened to Splendid Isolation? To no-nonsense, self-interested Perfidious Albion?
Brexit is the last chance we will get to rediscover our liberal political culture and what it means to be British. The above is not intended to be a comprehensive list of the values and institutions which make Britain great - only those which I perceive are under threat from European integration. For example, constitutional monarchy is another of our excellent innovations, but as six other monarchies are also EU member-states we must assume the EU has no desire to inflict republicanism upon anyone (though republican ideology is inherent in the idea of citizenship, described above. Even Her Majesty The Queen is an EU citizen by this point. There is no clearer symbol of the loss of British sovereignty: our own Sovereign, now a citizen of a foreign power).
For the record, I agree the way Brexit has been carried out thus far is a shambles. Referenda are instruments of direct democracy, totally contradictory to the parliamentary representative democracy we have here in Britain. Representative democracy is based on compromise - between MPs and their constituents, within and in-between political parties, and between the Government and the Opposition. Our system was never meant for a winner-takes-all referendum, which has perhaps irreversibly rent our population in two in such a fashion that has not been seen since the English Civil War (the last time political factions could not put aside their differences and learn to compromise). Instead of Cavaliers and Roundheads, we have Brexiteers and Remainers. Britain won't be able to function as a newly independent nation-state with a large portion of its population trying to subvert it. As the victors, we in the Leave camp need to be the better men and think of something at least vaguely acceptable for everyone. Personally, I would have been happy with the Norway option - sacrificing some of our economic control while maintaining our sovereignty as an independent nation. But this brings me to another problem with the referendum.
As there can be no compromise in direct democracy and referenda, neither can there be any nuance. "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" was the question asked on our ballot paper back in 2016. But leaving (or staying, for that matter) in the European Union means different things to different people. For the majority of Leavers, it meant regaining sovereignty over our borders. Then there were the free marketeers who want to turn Britain into a giant tax haven. And then there's me, who merely asks for liberty. No possible Brexit deal could satisfy us all. For example, I'd be quite happy to struggle through any number of economic hardships if it means leaving the EU and reclaiming our freedoms. But free-market Brexiteers, who only voted Leave for financial reasons, might rather remain. Likewise, myself and Boris Johnson couldn't be less alike. While I seek to leave the EU to protect the British constitution, Johnson seems eager to tear said constitution apart so long as it achieves his dangerous hard Brexit ideal.**
Regardless, we cannot change history. If a referendum is the way we're finally leaving the EU, then so be it. My hope now is that a possible no-deal or hard Brexit does not cause severe economic difficulties. As I mentioned, I would be able to stomach it because I hold higher principles than money; but most people don't, and you can be sure that the smallest economic downturn post-Brexit could trigger a Remainer coup and a second referendum. Another referendum, but one without the atmosphere of democracy and respect that briefly touched the last. The second would be bilious and divisive from the beginning. The Remainers (or "Rejoiners", as they would more properly be referred to post-Brexit) would be seething with a desire for cathartic retribution. The Brexiteers would see the thing as an attack on democracy, and may try to boycott it - in which case a Remain victory would have no democratic value, and what then? Democracy itself would have broken down - I can honestly see our staying in or rejoining the EU leading to militant insurrection from working class Leavers.
If I have not convinced you of the necessity of EU departure, hopefully I have at least demonstrated that the European issue goes far beyond immigration. Border control is but one aspect of the relentless sapping of British sovereignty. It will not stop until Britain is free of Brussels and its promise, enshrined in 1983's Solemn Declaration, of "ever closer union".
I daresay I am more European than most Remainers out there. I am of German and Danish descent, with Ukrainian family to boot. I love this continent, the greatest on earth, and all its achievements. I am a francophile, an italophile, a germanophile... I believe our neighbours have much to teach us with regard to cuisine, art, style, and culture. But they have nothing to teach us about politics. Europe has always looked to Britain as a model of stability, liberty and democracy, but it has never really understood us. Positive freedom, human rights, proportional representation democracy - these are but crude imitations of the true freedom found in Great Britain and the wider Anglosphere.
The fact of the matter is, a nation - a political community - can only exist so long as it knows what it exists for. In postwar prosperity we have become lax and complacent, ignorant of our long history of hard-won liberties or why they are any different to the state-granted rights of the continent. The only way Brexit - that is, British independence - can be achieved indefinitely, is if we remember who and what we are. Are we the great nation of Magna Carta, habeas corpus, Glorious Revolution and common law, or just another European island bobbing in the Atlantic? The fate is ours to decide.
I would like to thank Peter Hitchens and Lord Sumption, whose political thinking obviously influenced this article.
*The similarly freedom-based political culture of the United States was the fruit of our own. The American independence movement was begun by colonists who believed the liberties due to them as Englishmen had been infringed upon.
**I wrote the majority of this article before the constitutional crises of the last month. Therefore at this time in history it may seem hypocritical for me to declare my support for Brexit on the basis of defending our constitution, while our Prime Minister is doing what he's doing. Of course if the alternative to EU membership is a tin-pot dictatorship, then I will begrudgingly accept EU membership as the preferable option. That said, I think only the most hysterical Remainers think this will be the case. It seems Johnson will be restrained in his unconstitutional ambitions by a strong Parliament and a principled common law legal system, which, paradoxically, only strengthens my love for the British political system and my desire to see it safe from future European meddling. Meanwhile, I will continue to assert that the solution to the current impasse in Parliament is compromise, a compromise which only the Leave faction, with their democratic mandate, can offer.***
***Added 24.9.19: Merely a few days after the publication of this article and already I regret some of my words, such is the frequency of political change in these trying times. Today the Supreme Court proclaimed Boris Johnson's prorogation of Parliament as, I quote, "unlawful, void and of no effect". But the prorogation in constitutional terms was only advised by Boris Johnson; it was Her Majesty the Queen, our Sovereign, who did the actual proroguing. It is constitutionally impossible to bind a Sovereign, let alone to nullify one of her acts. It was within the Supreme Court's preexisting power to reject Johnson's reasons for prorogation and advise a recall. But this nullification is a ridiculous overstepping of authority. The Sovereign cannot be subjected to the rulings of her own courts. That's Constitutional Politics 101. Again I am reminded of the English Civil War, when on these grounds did King Charles I reject the authority of the High Court of Justice that was formed to sentence him to death. In this the Remainers have proven themselves just as constitutionally unscrupulous as Johnson.