The following is a two part article. Firstly, an argument for leaving the European Union written in particular to counter the frequent broad assertion that the EU is to thank for continental peace. This was originally written in June 2016 for the now defunct site Quadrapheme, 10 days before the referendum.
If anything, the referendum having taken place was more like firing a starter pistol on the debate for swathes of the commentariat, and it hasn't let up since. Between the two and a half years of constant poring over the issue which the referendum was meant to settle and the increasingly tedious political vicissitudes that have followed, it's easy to have become numb to the entire subject. With the finish line seemingly (and hopefully) in sight though, it seems like the right time to look again at my original case for Leave.
In the second part I'll provide my own brief analysis of the happenings since and where things now stand, and mark my original work with what is now a quarter of a decade's hindsight and fallout to consider.
Sovereignty, War & the European Union (June 2016)
Most of the back and forth about the European Union and Brexit (a portmanteau we've all been compelled to adopt by sheer repetition) is very uninteresting to me, partly because it's people pretending very simple things are very complicated, but mainly because it's so narrowly focussed.
Take the economy, which the lion's share of the debate goes on. If we leave, we'll need a new arrangement with the EU, and this is where the big remain scares come from. What if they put tariffs on us? They'd be stupid to; the UK imports more from the rest of the EU than vice-versa, so holding back free trade would hurt them more than us. Would they do that? If you think they really would then, on the other side of the coin, we'd be better off leaving now rather than throwing our lot in with an organisation that could be so spitefully stupid. Of course, even in the worst case if we're made subject to the Common Customs Tariff, the cost would be less than the EU membership fee. Meanwhile we can do without the masses of stifling regulations that hold back business, and do our own trade deals with the rest of the world like a proper country.
Ah, but if we become like Switzerland and Norway, we'll have to obey all the rules of the club without getting a say in forming them. This is said so often, and can only come from a position of stupidity or deception. There is no natural law that says we have to remain in the single market even if we leave the EU. It's quite possible to have free trade with the EU without rubbing out your borders. Mexico has, Chile has, Israel has, South Korea has. It's the difference between being in the single market and trading with it. These agreements have their own nuances of course, but when you're the rest of EU's biggest export market, you don't have much to worry about. All you need is a competent enough government to negotiate (oh yeah, now I see the worrying part). What's more, despite the handicap of single market participation and the negatives that go with it, the two countries with the highest per capita GDP in Europe (excluding tiny Luxembourg) are Norway and Switzerland. Coincidence?
That's the economics of EU membership taken care of in 2 paragraphs then. Immigration, the other big issue, is even easier. I've gone into great depth before about the deleterious economic impact of mass immigration, but even if in theory you want any control over who comes in, the only option is to leave.
These issues suggest the real, underlying point. A country making its own choices about who it trades with, about its regulations and its borders; it's all a question of sovereignty, and everything else flows from that. Sovereignty of nation states on the continent as a principle was secured in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years' War (or, if you were unlucky enough to be Dutch, the Eighty Years' War), but England had been sovereign for much longer. Our early Plantagenet kings may have struggled with Investiture and Interdicts as much as much as the German emperors of the time, but nearly a century and a half before Henry VIII's break with Rome, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Praemunire, making it an offence to obey foreign jurisdictions. This was repealed in the 20th century incidentally, and now we're all subject to the supremacy of the European Court of Justice.
The Remain side have their own overarching, big ticket issue though: war and peace. The European Union has been a guarantor of peace, they tell us. After World War Two, the European powers got together, said 'that was well nasty, never again innit' and decided to slowly fuse themselves together into one giant country so any future wars would at least be civil. The fact this whole enterprise got underway with what seemed to just be mutual arrangements about coal and steel and then a common market seemingly undermines this of course, but most of the propaganda seems to be targeted at people without Google anyway, much like that dozen or so people in the Question Time audience every week who think it's worth sharing with everyone else that 'I don't know what to believe, I just want the facts'.
This war point may seem compelling, at a glance. Sure your own national interest can be outvoted by 27 other countries and usually is, while your fate is in the hands of foreign judges and corrupt foreign bureaucrats, but isn't that a small price to pay for peace? Nor is the typical response from Leave supporters very reassuring to the thoughtful, that NATO is the real cause of peace on our continent. NATO, after all, is an outdated No Russia Club determined to spread its influence right up to the Bear's borders and give it a good old poke with a stick against all homespun wisdom.
The more obvious reaction might be that Brexit wouldn't make a difference; the EU isn't going away entirely, sad as that may make people like me, it's just that we wouldn't be a part of it. Britain's history of war is generally one of declaration. While this may seem an oversimplification, World War One, World War Two, the Crimean War, the Opium Wars, the War of the Third Coalition (and so the subsequent Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Peninsular Wars) were all wars of Britain's choice. So far as I can tell, if we exempt wars of colonial possessions (and the European Community didn't stop Galtieri trying to nab the Falklands, after all), the last time a European power declared war on Great Britain was Jacobin France in 1793.
Even if the EU did disappear though, there are other things which might stop the Germans from marching straight into the Sudetenland. Globalisation is a bad thing when it means the evaporation of borders and the decay of local cultures, but free trade with mutual benefit (see Ricardian comparative advantage) makes the world a friendlier, more co-operative place without us having to all be one big country. Global awareness also makes us aware of just how similar we really are culturally in the west, making the idea of us regressing into doing war on each other look absurd. A negative side effect of the implicit recognition of western cultural similarity may be that it's looked this way for so long that many have fallaciously extended the idea beyond into all humanity, including the deserty and Islamy bits which really aren't like us and which we do ourselves no favours by pretending otherwise. But enough about Angela Merkel.
The big reason I believe war really is implausible has to do with how the last big conflagration ended, not in Europe but in the mushroom clouds above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back in the day (by which I mean centuries ago), if you fancied moving your border a few more miles into the next door Duchy you could raise a few thousand men, march them over, have a few battles and sign a treaty. Now when so many countries have a nuke in their back pocket (or their allies do), the knowledge of what war could escalate to puts the notion of military conflict out of the picture. As technology made swift progression, so did warfare. From swords and siege machines, not a great deal changed until muskets became machine guns. In half a century, the cannons of the Napoleonic era become the mitrailleuse of the Franco-Prussian War. In such a short time again, wood and sail gave way to steel battleships and cavalry gave way to tanks. Humanity saw the First World War and its technologies unleash previously unfathomable destruction of human life, and the Second World War doubled that and then some.
Nuclear weapons show us the endpoint of weapons technology, and it could be the end of us all. It is this understanding that makes war in western Europe unthinkable, not universal submission to the benevolent dictatorship of President Juncker. After all, a lot of the rest of the world manages not to fire missiles at each other without being in the same superstate.
So, we can leave the EU safe in the knowledge that the Maginot and Siegfried Lines won't be re-activated, and claim back national sovereignty without worrying about new Polish partitions. As the saying goes, on June 23rd, vote leave and take back control.
Reflections on Brexit (January 2019)
The first thing I notice now in the above article (probably because it was in the first sentence) was that I was still grumpy at the time about the term 'Brexit'; I found it modish and overly informal, but there's also another reason to dislike it: its imprecision gave rise to its use to mean any settlement post-Article 50, and the Remain crowd soon started talking of 'soft Brexit' and 'hard Brexit'. Considering soft Brexit describes well the deal Theresa May ended up negotiating, that this could be considered a legitimate outcome of the Leave vote shows how flexible the word 'Brexit' came to be.
One wishes the referendum question had been more precise, such as 'Do you want the United Kingdom to become independent of the European Union?' so the political class could no longer pretend that there's not a clear binary distinction between leaving and remaining. Just because both sides were clear before the vote that a Leave victory would mean no customs union doesn't mean that was binding it seems, but the fact that it may not actually result in an extra £350 million every week for the NHS is grounds to declare it invalid and 17.4 million people as having been hopelessly hoodwinked by the side of a bus.
Take Back Control was not only an excellent and succinct slogan that conveyed a sense of restoring sovereignty to people who saw their own nation dissolving around them and thought of this as a bad thing (or, as the #FBPE crowd would put it, 'bigots'), but it also summed up everything Leave should mean. If the new deal with the EU would see them retaining control of things that should rightly be the preserve of a sovereign country, then we haven't truly left. Instead though, in the most stunningly disingenuous manoeuvres I can remember in modern politics, we started to hear Remainers question 'what sort of Brexit people voted for', often suggesting that the margin of victory being only 4% means we should leave the EU a little bit but not too much. To say that an arrangement whereby the EU retains control over us but we're not technically members is obeying the letter of the referendum while against the spirit seems much too mild.
The other part of the article which stands out was the worry about a competent negotiation; it didn't take Nostradamus
to figure out that if Leave won then David Cameron would call it a day, but what would follow that really was a complete unknown. As it happens we ended up with a Remainer successor in Theresa May (albeit one who had been very quiet during the referendum campaign, I expect for the sake of political triangulation for whatever circumstances prevailed when the top job would come available), and though things seemed positive initially, particularly with David Davis as Brexit minister, we ended up with the betrayals of the Chequers agreement and then ultimately the deal which Parliament voted down anyway.
Even though it's tempting to make a crypto-Remainer villain of the Prime Minister, I'm not sure it's really the story. Nor do I think we should necessarily attribute the situation to incompetence, though with a political class completely unprepared for a Leave vote and made up mostly of people who disagree with it, it can't be ruled out. I think most probably though the European Union wanted to make an example of the United Kingdom, to put off any other member states from trying to leave in the future. And I still believe this is all the more reason to make as clean a bleak from them as possible.
Here in the present day, there is further worry that the second referendum brigade seem to be making serious gains. This is an example of the left's shameless (yet somewhat admirable) persistence that sees a small group refuse to yield on an issue no matter how much they're criticised and how minority a position it is, but their steady drumbeat sees it gain more and more acceptance over time. The nature of the right/left dichotomy is such that the right usually yields ground sooner or later to the left, even on things that once seemed to be fringe or outlandish viewpoints, and if it comes to fruition then we shall have an excellent textbook example of this process. Its increasing support almost seemed to have paid off this past week as Jeremy Corbyn seemed poised to back it, but it again is off the table at the time of writing. Whether it could anyway attract enough MPs willing to support something so brazen is uncertain, but Richard Tice, founder and co-chairman of the prominent campaign group Leave Means Leave, has said preparations are now underway in his group for a possible second referendum campaign. So too has Nigel Farage said he thinks there's a real chance of this and is prepared to make a return to the front lines if it should happen.
So if we consider that the whole long Brexit process may ultimately result in, as I see it, a betrayal of the referendum result, was it still worth it, particularly if we end up in a Remain-lite position? Undoubtedly. On the purely economic measure, there are the examples of Norway and Switzerland who (particularly in the case of the former) have a less preferable relationship with the EU than a free trade agreement but even then are still the top two European countries in GDP per capita, indicating that any relative relief from EU control is a positive – even if you argue that correlation is not causation and it's a coincidence that the two best performing countries in Europe are the two not in the EU, at the very least it shows that non-membership is certainly not something that of itself is economically detrimental.
Beyond the economic though, Brexit revealed that there exists a spirit in this country I thought no longer prominent enough to have influence, the spirit of a people who really do believe in their nation above globalist ideals. The nature of representative democracy coupled with political tribalism means few found an outlet for it in party politics, but the referendum's stark choice gave people a real chance to channel this impulse. Now that it's unleashed, perhaps in the event the major parties do conclusively betray Brexit, these people will no longer be content to lend whichever party their vote just because they've long been conditioned to despise the other lot. Some may fear the results of such a thing, and talk of the potential for civil war occasionally pipes up (how's that for your European Union preventing war), but I don't buy that; with no tradition of civilian gun ownership in this country, on the supposed outbreak of a civil war most people would sit back bewildered, put the kettle on and wait for it to go away.
It seems farcical that we're just over 2 months away from the day when we officially leave the European Union and yet what the situation will be at that point is still unknown. With the extended and perpetual political bungling since the referendum, it now seems we can't rule out anything for sure, even a second referendum. Whether though Brexit is the halt to the fabian abolition of the nation-state or ultimately turns out just to have been a spanner in the works, I believe the cause itself was right, and if it can still be the catalyst for a radical political restructuring in this country, so much the better.