Too much of the argument for and against Brexit has been taken up with specious claims about nationalism, internationalism, identity politics, living in the past, looking to the future, and so on and so forth. I think it is time to take another look, and see why it is that Brexit was inevitable, pretty much from the moment that the idea of a European Union (as opposed to an European Economic Community) was first mooted.
Europeans know the truth; Britons aren’t sure
It is fair to say that Britain has never had an easy time of it in the EU. Rather than rehashing all the claims and counter-claims, let us cut to the nub. Underpinning it all is the fundamental contrast between:
- A top-down, rationalist Cartesian world-view, where all is knowable, and one can determine the best approach to anything via pure thought (with the consequence that anyone who disagrees must be wrong!)
- The organic, chaotic and entirely empirical Hobbesian world-view, where all is fluid, and what may work now won’t necessarily work tomorrow, and there are a plethora of imperfect choices.
In other words, this is the difference between a system where one knows what’s right, so everyone different is wrong, and a system reliant on the well-regulated rule of law, because when nothing is rational, it’s all a matter of finding the least bad solution, and nothing, not even one’s leaders, can be trusted.
Britons historically have always tended towards the Hobbesian world-view (for which we have the Normans to thank: they do seem to have had an innate lack of respect for authority). The disaster of the French revolution and the subsequent Bonapartist barbarism, with its consequent spread of rationalism and its dangerous children – romanticism and fascism – across the continent, on the other hand, means that, on the mainland, the Cartesian view tends to hold sway.
Hence, compared with Britain, on the mainland, there is a far greater respect for authority, less reliance on impersonal structures, and less concern for the possibility that one might be wrong, and therefore, less concern for regulating the power of the state.
Frankly, with such a philosophical difference, it is hard to see how Britain could ever be a part of a Europe that was more than a simple trade pact. I suspect that much of the friction between Britons and Europeans comes from the fact that Britons look at grand theories about the European Way, note that they are not supported by the evidence, and therefore dismiss them. On the other hand, continental Europeans just can’t understand why Britons are so concerned with brute facts, when the correct way forward is so obvious…
A disturbing example
I have spoken before about the disturbing enthusiasm of European governments for authoritarian governance, their tendency to view law as a set of guidelines that the ruling classes adapt to suit their own requirements, and the notable rise of far right politics across the continent.
Now it is time to speak of race. The attached article from Politico makes it clear that non-white people are not welcome in the Brussels corridors of power. You will also see that those in power see no need to fix this – as one of their leaders apparently said, why bother about curbing racism when soon the Brits will be gone, so the ‘anglophone’ viewpoint will no longer exist?
Even worse, if you read the comments, you will see an utterly vile assumption that Europe should be for white Christians only. Some commenters appear to think that all those who are non-white must be first generation immigrants! Others make the bizarre argument that Britain is culturally diverse because of its history of fomenting war (?) and therefore racism is something to be proud of. Most simply know that no person of colour can meet the high standards required to work in the EU civil service – their basis for this being (NB) reason rather than evidence (because, as they proudly boast, gathering statistics about racial diversity would be wrong).
This is the Europe we have an ethical duty to leave: the Europe whose most vocal individuals, whose political leaders, and whose cultural institutions (think of Charlie Hebdo and its repulsive cheer-leading for Islamophobia) have their eyes closed to the outside world, because they know they are right.