Friday, 18 January 2019

Somewhere, Anywhere, Leave, Remain: Thoughts between two stools

I could probably pass for a member of the Metropolitan Liberal Elite, if I had to spend an evening undercover at Tate Modern for a Gilbert & George retrospective, or attend one of those famous Islington dinner parties (although I must say that the one and only time I have ever been to a dinner party in Islington, almost everyone there was ferociously right-wing and made me feel like a hand-wringing wet). I went to a pretty good university, I work in the public sector in London, I read and write poetry for pleasure, I like ballet. I favour a redistributive welfare state. I am strongly supportive of public transport, cycle superhighways, car-free cities and renewable energy. I would even call myself an environmentalist, albeit one who owes more to Roger Scruton than to George Monbiot. And of course, at about 9.30am on Thursday June 23rd 2016, in a now-demolished Croydon youth centre, I put a cross next to a box containing the words “Remain a member of the European Union”.

However, once the evening was well-advanced, and I had moved on to my fifth glass of fair-trade Palestinian wine, I suspect the mask might begin to slip. I have very un-MLE views on quite a lot of subjects, from abortion to education to the arts and architecture. I don’t much like many aspects of the European Union and find most of its prominent representatives to be unattractive and even sinister figures. I am suspicious of the kind of fervent inverted patriotism that seems to lie behind much British Euro-enthusiasm. It can appear at times as though many of the British intelligentsia are not so much pro-European as reflexively suspicious of anything that smacks too strongly of a distinct sense of Britishness, what Roger Scruton calls “oikophobia”; an aversion to home and belonging.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I find myself in a slightly odd position vis a vis the Great Political Realignment of the Early Twenty-First Century. This realignment, which is taking place across large swathes of Europe and the Anglosphere, has been framed in various different ways: Open v Closed, Globalists v Nativists, Cosmopolitans v Nationalists, Somewheres v Anywheres. Some of those frames are better than others, but I think that the divide they are trying to describe is real, and I would imagine that someone’s place on the Somewhere-Anywhere spectrum predicts their stance on the EU pretty well.

I have always felt like I straddle this divide, that I’m one of what David Goodhart calls the “Inbetweeners”. Part of it, perhaps, is that although my dominant inclination is towards the Somewheres, from a personal perspective I don’t really have a Somewhere. I grew up in two separate small towns in Kent, then moved away to university, then on to London, where I have lived in five different neighbourhoods. My parents still live in one of those Kentish small towns. I enjoy going back to that place, not least because it is full of memories of my childhood, and it is the closest thing I have to a home town, but I would hesitate to say that I have roots there and that it is where I am “from”.

Quite a lot of people I know are uncomplicatedly in one camp or the other. I have friends who favour more or less open borders, global markets and internationalism, very relaxed social policies, full drug legalisation and minimal government interference in the economy – what they would call “the open society” (although I think there are different kinds of open society and that the liberal model is not the only one worthy of the name). Equally I know people for whom many or all of the above are anathema; they are on the left and the right in their attitudes to many aspects of economics and politics, but they seem pretty fervent in their highly critical view of the EU, and rarely concede that there are any benefits either to the EU or to our membership of it.

For my own part, I had – have – a long-running internal debate about both the general matter of the Open-Closed divide and the specific issue of Brexit (just while writing this post I have felt my sympathies swing in both directions). I feel the pull of the cosmopolitan, neoliberal vision, of the global citizen at home in any city from London to Singapore to Tokyo to Vancouver to Berlin – although read this Ross Douthat piece about the limitations of such self-conscious internationalism – and relaxed about the social and sexual mores of his fellow free rational choosing individuals. Yet I know It Is All A Bit More Complicated Than That. Many people will never be able to live that kind of life, and many would not wish to. What they want and need is for their particular life in a particular place to be tolerable, for their natural loyalties and attachments to be respected and maintained, to have some sense of stability and continuity.  

Tribally I tend to have the same kind of sympathies as Brexit voters. I agree that the first task of a British government is to look after the security, wellbeing and interests of the British people and the integrity of the British way of life, and that this task is both morally defensible and morally required. I have pretty robust views on law and order, I think military spending should increase, and I think immigration is too high. I’m sceptical about the way in which human rights law has developed in modern times. I am convinced that there is such a thing as an arrogant and censorious liberal elite which is determined to establish a kind of moral hegemony through its control of cultural and social institutions such as schools, local government, the civil service and the universities. I have a very strong attachment to Britain, both intellectually and spiritually. I love the landscapes and accents and coastlines of this country, from Cornwall to Northumberland and the Highlands, and from the Fens to Snowdonia and the Mountains of Mourne. I get fired up by British history, not just kings and battles and politics but the Anglo-Saxon Church and the Chartists and the Jarrow Marchers. I get a lump in my throat listening to I Vow To Thee, My Country and the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V. I genuinely and unironically enjoy the bagpipes. I like quiet country lanes and cathedral closes and old-fashioned detective stories and country pubs. I will never cease to be delighted by English Gothic churches and the outstanding self-confidence of Victorian-Edwardian municipal architecture in cities like Newcastle and Liverpool. Britain is where I am from.

Equally however, I think the pro-EU case is strong, and I nurse some inchoate but real concerns about the hard-edged and belligerent populism that seems to have been emboldened, if not strengthened, by the last few years. A simplistic and dangerous view of the role of Parliament merely as a chamber of delegates who are there to obey the orders of the National Will (or at least 51.9% of it) seems to be emerging.

I realise, incidentally, that “The EU is good” and “The UK should be a member state of the EU” are distinct points of view. The way the EU works, at least in its political-judicial functions, is much more well-suited to most European countries than it is to our quite different legal and constitutional traditions. But my view (to over-simplify) is that if you think the EU is on balance good, and therefore important, then why not be a part of it, shaping it and helping to point it in the right direction?

Besides, I do think of myself as part of a European civilisation, which is represented, however partially and imperfectly, by the EU. The EU as an institution has many of the faults of modern liberal secular states – it is godless, bureaucratic, verbose and censorious – but by acting as a visible focus of unity for the nations and peoples of Europe it does help to sustain the common life of our continent. It has helped to raise living standards, to support local culture and deprived areas, and to cement norms of the rule of law and constitutional government in the ex-Soviet bloc. Some supporters of the EU claim that it can be credited with the last 70-odd years of peace in Europe. I am not sure of that myself, for various reasons, but it seems far from implausible that the economic, political and demographic integration encouraged by the EU will make future intra-European wars less likely.

It is also true that many of the big political problems of modernity – pollution, climate change, mass migration, cybercrime and online disinformation – are often best tackled at a supranational level. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the day of the sovereign nation has passed, but clearly the world has changed in ways that make the pooling of sovereignty more imperative. Who is better placed to meet the immense challenge of China, an aggressive, technologically advanced tyranny of 1.4 billion people and access to vast resources: a nation of 65 million or a federation with more than seven times that number? We need to consider something else too: the rise to global prominence and power of countries and regions that, despite their large geographical extent and large populations, have not traditionally been able to walk tall on the world stage, but who are no longer handicapped by high mortality rates, political instability and lack of access to technology and education. 

Then there is the economic argument. There seems to be a strong consensus that leaving the EU will be economically damaging to the UK. A couple of points get made in response to this. Firstly, we get some iteration of “economic forecasting is essentially witchcraft / very unreliable / has often been wrong in the past.” Second, we get the argument that “there’s more to life than GDP” or some variation thereof.

On the forecasting-sceptical argument, I sympathise to some degree. I first became aware of and interested in politics in the late 1990s, when one of the great ongoing debates was whether we ought to join the euro. Plenty of experts predicted serious damage to the British economy if we did not do so, and yet we seem to have flourished in subsequent years (I am open to correction on any of this – my knowledge of economics is fairly poor). Nevertheless there does seem to be an exceptionally strong consensus among experts that the short- to medium-term economic consequences of Brexit will be bad. And generally speaking poor economic performance hits the poorest worst. There is a lot of strawmanning of the Remain economic argument (not helped by some of the exaggerations and doom-mongering indulged by leading Remainers during the referendum campaign). Regardless, the sober, serious argument is that British economic growth will be lower than it would have been inside the EU.   

Which brings us to the second argument. Again, I don’t think it is without merit. Obviously there is more to life than money and material comfort. It is admirable to choose to live your own life in light of that belief. But what is admirable for individuals does not always map neatly on to public policy. Christians, for example, are enjoined not to resist an evil man, but very few theologians take this to mean that we must abolish the criminal justice system. I struggle with the morality of deciding on other people’s behalf that they should embrace the noble sacrifice of unemployment or precarious and low-paid work for the Great National Cause.

I would broadly agree that national independence and political liberty are pearls of great price, worthy of sacrifice. However, national independence has to be assessed along a continuum; it is not a binary. The EU limits our national independence, but it limits it in a very different sense than – for example – a Nazi occupation would have limited it. So different, in fact, that it feels ridiculous and inane to talk about them using the same concepts. Brexit has always had to me a slight feel of a solution in search of a problem. The question has to be at the level of specifics: what is it that you want Britain to be able to do that it cannot currently do because it is a member of the EU? And is the ability to do this thing worth there being significantly fewer jobs, especially good-quality jobs, in the economy? Conservatives ought to be pragmatists, interested in practical solutions to specific problems, and reluctant to disrupt broadly functional arrangements for the sake of a tenuous and poorly-defined future benefit.  

One other thing I think is worth mentioning: I suspect that leaving the EU will not solve many of the problems in British life that people ascribe to Brussels. A lot of the things which people grumble about when the subject of the EU arises, or which seem  to drive hostility to the EU, are not really the EU’s fault. They are British political choices made by British political elites. That is true of the fetishisation of human rights at the expense of justice, of high rates of immigration, of the neglect of the regions, of the high-handed hectoring by the new establishment, and their ideological preoccupations. 

Ireland has also been a big factor for me. How is this relevant to the Brexit debate, I hear you cry? It’s relevant because Brexit has the potential to significantly harm Ireland and, not to put too fine a point on it, we owe the Irish. The British brutalised and plundered Ireland for hundreds of years. Almost uniquely among the nations of Europe, Ireland has a significantly lower population now than it did two hundred years ago (by way of comparison, England’s population has grown nearly sixfold since 1819). Why is this? Because Britain kept Ireland in penury and misery. In the 1840s the mishandling of the Famine killed hundreds of thousands and forced as many into exile. Even after the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in 1922, the Westminster government permitted the creation of a religiously sectarian one-party state in the six counties of Northern Ireland, which persisted for fifty years.

British sins in Ireland are not ancient history – they are well within living memory. In 1972, on Bloody Sunday, British soldiers shot dead fourteen civilians, half of them teenagers, who had been peacefully protesting on the streets of Derry/Londonderry (and then tried to falsify evidence to make it appear that the shootings had been justified). As Peter Hitchens has pointed out, the victims were British subjects on the streets of a British city, and yet the political fallout for the Heath government was relatively minimal. No government minister resigned, no senior army officers took responsibility, and there was no proper inquiry into the killings for a quarter of a century. A proper apology from HMG was not made until almost forty years after the event.

I’m not going to get too deep into the fraught history of Anglo-Irish relations; I note only that we have not earned the right to be blasé about how our actions will affect the Irish. Ireland is a tiny country compared to the UK, with about one thirteenth of our population. Due to geography and history its economy is still heavily dependent on ours and hence tied to our fortunes.

So there we are. I won’t pretend that any of this is especially original or brilliant. Just that it hopefully gives some vague insight into the muddled brain of this Roger Scruton-loving English traditionalist who inexplicably voted Remain.       

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I suspect the ambivalence and nuance that you feel strike a chord with far more people than suggested by the reductive labels that have been hurled and shouldered since the referendum. Most of us are at least part 'somewhere' and part 'anywhere', and one of the sadnesses of [waves hands] all this is that many people feel they cannot acknowledge the valid counter-arguments that might have given them pause in June 2016, or that people who voted differently might have done so in good faith and for valid reasons. Reading this was a tonic.