fbpx

The Spunk of Albion

You may have noticed that not much is said in this space about what goes on in other countries. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; it’s just I don’t imagine mine are worth much. I conspicuously didn’t take a stand on Brexit. It seemed to me there was a good case to be made for Britain’s leaving the European Union and a good case to be made for its staying in. I thought I’d leave it up to them. If I were British, I would have been more psyched up about the whole thing.

The outcome surprised me, because the past history of secessionist movements—such as Quebec and Scotland—has been of a petering out at the end. Just enough people get all prudent and make a safe choice. Not only that, all the factions of the respectably British cognitive elite—top politicians, public intellectuals, the business leaders, celebrities, the unions, and so forth—advocated making the Progressive choice. “Progressive” here means stay the course when it comes to evolving beyond the nation-state in the direction of larger and more cosmopolitan unions. We aspire to be citizens of the world, politics being that pathology that we shed as we move, as Tyler Cowen puts it, from being brutish to being nice.

And all the polls and betting were on the Remain side. The British had evolved in recent weeks, the studies showed, in the direction of the safe and respectable choice. That evolution appeared to have been nudged along by an aggressive and very scientific campaign based on fear of the disastrous consequences of Britain’s going it alone. If all the experts agree, there must be reasons people might not understand but have to respect.

One commentator said those British may be crazy, but they sure made a spunky choice. Well, it was. We should all admire that. The so-called end of History can’t extinguish the spirit of adventure. The EU seems to many to be an altogether satisfying “final frontier” for Europe. Well, now Britain has a new frontier—her old frontiers.

The spunk wasn’t just, or even mostly, xenophobic tribalism—unless you want to call all patriotic citizenship, every assertion of self-determination, xenophobic. It wasn’t even a choice against immigrants and immigration; it was for the political control of immigration, for borders. The EU regulations, after all, force Great Britain to choose unskilled workers from the EU over educated and skilled people from the rest of the world, including countries that were once part of the British empire. (There are both economic and political reasons for privileging the latter.)

Brexit was, in some measure, a revolt of the poorly educated. But Donald Trump isn’t wrong to say the poorly educated are lovable, and the Bible even says something about them being blessed. Someone might say this “revolt against the elites” was a fairly reasonable response to “the revolt of the elites” (Christopher Lasch), the oligarchic and bureaucratic fake cosmopolitans’ abandonment of the common responsibilities of citizens. Ordinary people really don’t want to be scripted from Brussels (or from multinational corporate headquarters) by people who don’t really care about them. The governed want to consent to be governed, and the British people, in fact, never chose the emerging form of government called the European Union. (For a good synopsis of how it happened, one can consult David Conway’s recent Law and Liberty post.)

Poorly educated, the studies don’t make clear enough, simply means not having a university degree. It doesn’t mean being unskilled or lacking in productive capability. The strongest support—70 percent for Leave—came from “skilled labor.” Those were the kind of people Lasch most admired, those who do real work and so have a solid conception of what it takes to live a real—dignified and relational—life. From that view, the revolt was real people rising up against virtual people who spend their working lives in front of a screen.

It was a revolt not of the stupid, but of the spunky, and only in a limited respect was it a revolt of the losers. It’s natural that those less likely to fare well in a globalized, cosmopolitan world would choose a real nation over a fairly virtual or disconcertingly amorphous, “soft-despotic” super-state.

Truth to tell, I don’t count myself among the spunky. Projecting myself back in time in my own country, I would have probably been with Benjamin Franklin in thinking the American assertion of independence an irresponsible overreaction to justified grievances. It’s my view that the only reason we don’t think that today is the French bailed us out.

I would also have been with Alexander Stephens in Georgia in 1860 and 1861. He went all over our state saying that Lincoln wasn’t so bad, and secession was a foolhardy move by people ill-prepared for war against a mighty industrial machine. (Stephens wasn’t right about everything, but it’s hard to say he wasn’t right about that.)

Granted, the British secession is perfectly legal and won’t cost any lives. It’s a good point, at least for now. But Brexit may well have all kinds of unpredictable consequences, including some that make war more likely down the line. The British people, I think, pretty much said we’re okay with that, because we don’t want freedom to become another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom depends on the integrity of real British institutions.

As far as war is concerned, it’s pretty unrealistic to assume that there aren’t more wars to come. And so far, there is zero evidence that the EU is up to the task of defending anyone. Defense requires real spunk and real, hard power. And that’s why Great Britain, maybe more than ever, needs to look to the United States—another real nation—for its future security.

Some lovers of liberty—for example, libertarians—have had mixed reactions to the new birth of British liberty. The more oligarchic among them—represented by the Wall Street Journal—tended to be on the Remain side. The newspaper’s editorial board now admits it was thinking less of Britain and more of the future of the EU, which they understand to be good for business, even with its meddlesome regulations and often ridiculous environmental initiatives. While respecting the choice Britons have made, the Wall Street Journal’s editors still go on to lecture them that the new Britain should be pro-growth and pro-immigration as a way of increasing the country’s “human capital.” The British, they insist, must take care not to become too parochial or unreasonably recalcitrant when it comes to the imperatives of the 21st century global competitive marketplace.

There may be a grain of wisdom here. It would not be good for the populist uprising that rejected the super-state to be seduced by the charms of the enveloping nanny state. One Leftwing argument for Brexit, after all, was that Britain would be freed up from EU regulations limiting the confiscation of property. And there’s no denying that some who voted Leave thought the tax revenues no longer sent to Brussels would be used to expand their health-care entitlement.

On the other hand, fears of a new birth of dependency could be overdrawn. The reason the British kicked Churchill out of the premiership after the Allies won the Second World War was that they had come to associate national health care as part of their civic identity and a basic British institution. It’s British, like it or not, to be class-conscious enough to want everyone equally provided for before the law when it comes to indispensable social services.

Let’s address another kind of libertarian. There are those who are known to have a soft spot for “secessionism.” That’s why, despite the “human capital” called slavery and all that, they embrace the spirit of liberty that animated the Southern Confederacy. On this view, the best way to fend off the threat to liberty caused by all forms of political centralization is for the world to break up into as many small political units as possible. Small countries, the thinking goes, are stuck with free trade because they’re not big enough to insulate themselves from it. Not only that, if the world were properly honeycombed with diverse, small states, it would be easier for dissatisfied individuals to find an exit strategy were they not happy where they are. They could become personal secessionists from one country because it would be easy to move to another.

When it comes to personal secession, one has to admit that the EU has made this easier than ever. Citizens of member nations are free to choose to live in any one of 27 member nations. Talk about a menu of political choice. In fact the EU would be a secessionist paradise if it were a genuinely federal union, where independent countries were sovereign nations that, apart from the limited and well-defined tie they contracted with the EU, were responsible for every other political choice. As the economists say, the EU should balance being aggressive in pursuing common ends when there is clear agreement on those ends. But where there is diversity of understanding, it should be equally aggressive in backing off.

The EU principle here is called subsidiarity, one borrowed from Catholic social thought. Everything should be handled at the lowest (most local) level possible, to give special consideration to the customs, habits, and active participation of the community, the family, and the church. Few would dispute that the EU, as it evolved away from its Christian Democratic roots, has been emptying subsidiarity of any real content. Genuine subsidiarity depends on respect for the dignity given to all free and relational beings by God and nature.

What this means is that as the EU becomes more and more intrusive about standardizing the details of ordinary life, the exit strategy offered to particular persons slides toward being worthless. Europe is getting more and more subjected to the same regulations everywhere. Well, the antidote to overregulation in the name of homogeneity—to the despotic movement that makes secession less of a remedy for tyranny—is playing the secession card before it’s too late.

And that’s Brexit. And that seems to be what most alarms European experts. Studies show that EU meddling has been more irksome in France than in the UK. Why won’t the French be next? Even George Soros has the sense to heed the wake-up call and demand that the EU retract some of its intrusions and become more democratically accountable before it’s too late. Brexit, as Guillaume de Thieulloy pointed out recently on this site, is a secessionist blow for liberty for all Europeans.

More generally, we can say that secessionism is attractive because it’s nothing but a large-scale application of the individualism of the great founders of classical liberalism, such as John Locke. Government, money, and most every other form of human interaction, for Locke, is nothing more than a contract between free individuals grounded in nothing more than consent. That would seem to mean that consent can be withdrawn across the board if the individual’s rights are not being protected. And who’s to be the judge of that? There’s no standard higher than the individual.

Secession, it follows, can be chosen by individuals—through revolution (dangerous and uncertain) or exit (easy and peaceful)—or by a particular people who have come together to share a particular way of life. So the British can choose secession on behalf of their “identity.” As can the Scots. There’s no violation of the liberty to form a moral community if those who don’t love it can readily leave it. The Amish, for example, are, in their own way, great lovers of liberty, because they make a point of allowing their children the experiences it takes to be really free to choose for or against their community.

Now, the great 19th century American political thinker Orestes Brownson complained that the Lockean theory of the American Founders pretty much justified any and all secessionism, including that of the Confederates. He did not think the Confederates right; rather, he thought his country was a nation—or what he called a republic or territorial democracy—that was much more than a contract. A nation is held together by a shared way of life, including civilized customs and conventions that go beyond even some written Constitution. The fundamental political virtue is loyalty, the virtue demanded of us when it comes to all the relational institutions of which we are a part and which are indispensable to us. Today the outstanding European thinkers—such as the English Roger Scruton and the French Pierre Manent—point out that the nation-state is, at this juncture, the form that best expresses who we are as political beings, a form that can’t be reduced to a merely free and consensual relationship.

The EU is trying to take on a nation’s trappings—inventing new traditions and all that—in an attempt to engender loyalty. But there’s not enough there there to do it, now or in the foreseeable future. Loyalty, to be sure, is waning everywhere, a victim of “human rights”—a banner under which we must keep all the people who are around right now as secure and as “autonomous” as they can be. Still, there are some who will die for their country or even their God—and maybe a few for some civilized view of liberty. Nobody would die for the EU, though. It doesn’t mean much of anything to be a citizen of the EU. Well, it means more than being a citizen of the world.

Genuine cosmopolitans, such as Socrates and St. Augustine, understood that those liberated by reason and revelation don’t cease to be citizens. Socrates was an Athenian who didn’t deny for a moment that his country had every right to expect him to do his civic duty. No, Socrates didn’t think he owed Athens everything, but he knew he owed it a lot. St. Augustine was big on reminding us that the City of God isn’t supposed to be a substitute for the City of Man, by which he meant the division of the world into diverse political communities. We are all united, as seeking and searching creatures, into “a single pilgrim band” but that doesn’t mean we aren’t loyal, too, to our families, friends, and country.

It could be the British secessionist gesture will come to be viewed as a reactionary impulse of no enduring significance. Certainly it wasn’t embraced by most young people—who, in fact, for the most part might not be willing to die for their country. What about Scotland? It moves toward a choice of being protected by the EU or by Great Britain, because now it’s impossible to have both. How will it choose? I’ll respond tentatively, with Brownson, Scruton, and Manent, that loyalty is so central to who we are as free and relational beings that Scotland won’t take a permanent vacation. The people of Europe, as Manent observes, for now revel in a kind of post-political, post-religious, and post-familial fantasy. But this won’t last much longer.

Brexit, from that view, has great value as the first and most gentle of wake-up calls. The next few may not be so gentle.

Great Britain could even be swept by a wave of regret as some of Brexit’s consequences are felt. Already some who voted Leave have been shocked by the immediate resignation of David Cameron. They hoped that their chastened but still competent prime minister would stay around to ease the transition. Others voted Leave as a form of anti-establishment protest, and they’re now alarmed that their choice has consequences. They will likely calm down once it’s clear that the consequences will be quite mixed and pretty bearable.

Certainly our President unwittingly abetted the Brexit cause by trying to scare the British with visions of being thrown back to the end of the line in dealing with the United States. Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed citizen of the world, had no right to tell Britons what to do, and some of them must have voted with their middle fingers. It was out and out anti-democratic malpractice to say that all the decent people of the world stand with the EU against the British secessionists.

To his credit, the President has now said, even if grudgingly, that he respects the decision of a sovereign nation. And the special relationship between our two peoples will continue. I wish our political leaders, public intellectuals, and media outlets, beginning with our President, would go on to make it clear that the British people made a respectable choice, although one about which reasonable people could disagree.

In that regard the teachable moment for Americans would be about taking political deliberation seriously. The issues our country faces have honorable and reasonable advocates on both sides. And we should respect the choices made by our people, and not farm politics out to our administrators and our courts.

To say the least, our mainstream media, beginning with CNN, is going a different direction, expressing outrage at what the Brits have done, for the moment, to our stock market. Don’t those people care about 401(k)s? Moreover, there have been chants that while democracy is good, it has to be limited by the protection of human rights. Ergo Brexit supposedly comes at the expense of immigrants, as well as of human rights everywhere. This political scientist listened in vain to hours of CNN coverage, hearing not one reasonable argument for Brexit, although there are many. We’re all starting to hear, more and more, that the referendum, after all, is only advisory, and Parliament has the duty to step up and ignore its outcome. It’s easy for us Americans to see how representative democracy is all about curbing the excesses characteristic of direct democracy. The problem, however, is the device of the referendum was chosen by the people’s representatives in Parliament.

Nothing said here is intended, I hope it goes without saying, as an endorsement of the buffoon Trump. He’s no Boris Johnson, God knows! I am saying that Americans need to learn from the supporters of Trump. Too many “humanitarian” Democrats and oligarchic Republicans are contemptuous of the egalitarianism of common citizenship.

Now, I agree that recent political developments in our country, Great Britain, and elsewhere, do sometimes smack of the kind of populism that approaches mob rule. According to our Founders and the great British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, the rule of law is the civilized mean between the extremes of unchecked populism and the attempts of elitists to directly impose their transformational theories on ordinary life.

That’s why the American Revolution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were civilized whereas the French Revolution, both in intention and in practice, was not. The Anglo-American revolutions didn’t mess with—in fact meant to service—the local, “intermediary” institutions of the church, the family, the local community, and shared experiences of citizenship or “belonging.”

It’s a profound disservice to identify the bulk of either Trump or Brexit voters as part of the mob, although it’s closer to the truth to think of Trump as someone not above rousing a mob up. In both countries, most of the voters we’re talking about are, as I said, “skilled labor,” people who know how to earn a living and care for their own.

As Scruton, a worthy heir of Burke, has written: the nation, properly understood, stands between oikophobia (having contempt for the experiences and obligations of the home) and xenophobia (having an aversion to strangers). It’s as citizens, after all, that we learn how to respect strangers as our equals. And it’s as citizens that we respect both the rule of law and the outcomes of the political deliberation it makes possible, even if we disagree with them.

Too many leaders of both major parties forget that liberty needs to be defended by particular countries and by citizens spunky enough to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. Rights are effectually protected in particular places. They may be “human rights” but the people of the world flock to those nations where there is real respect for the rule of law.

In any case, “God bless America” and even “God save the Queen.”

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on June 30, 2016 at 09:39:51 am

This essay is one of the best and most complete articulations by Peter Lawler of all his writings on current events of which I am aware.

There may be a small cavil with mitigating a vital issue by the reification accorded the EU:

"The EU is trying to take on a nation’s trappings—inventing new traditions and all that—in an attempt to engender loyalty "

That does not occur mechanically, it is Human Action, for human objectives, driven by human motivations.

As to the youth votes, many are Essaus, concerned with "today's porridges;" as are many others who seem to ignore the effects of the workings of such elements as the European Commission, its structure and means of composition, powers and objectives - with their intrusions and conversions into and of existing, essential, cultural structures.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on June 30, 2016 at 10:09:49 am

Peter:

Great piece - refreshing actually to hear of the *spunk* of Albion, rather than as some would have us believe "The Perfidy of Albion"

However, I must ask if you do not have some masochistic tendencies as there is this:

"This political scientist listened in vain to HOURS of CNN coverage,..."

You poor man, get thee to a Waffle House and pronto!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on June 30, 2016 at 14:54:03 pm

What a superb piece. It is a great companion also to this one by Yuval Levin over at NR: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/437241/brexit-and-nationalism-yuval-levin. In a way the strength of both is that they begin by acknowledging that this wasn't an easy call, and that the people who have to live with it are the ones we should trust to make it. It's a point not heard enough in so many of the crazy liberal overreaction to brexit.

read full comment
Image of James Califer
James Califer
on June 30, 2016 at 20:30:23 pm

Dear Mr. Lawler,

Thank you for your amazing and insightful article - arguably the best article written on the historic decision of the British people to leave the EU.

read full comment
Image of Bardia Garshasbi
Bardia Garshasbi
on July 01, 2016 at 10:58:53 am

This is a great essay. However, UK readers will find the title comic, if not objectionable. "Spunk" is British slang for semen. I know that this was not your intention, even though I think enough of your erudition to expect that you are familiar with David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed".

read full comment
Image of Charming Billy
Charming Billy
on July 01, 2016 at 17:37:30 pm

Hey, good to know that interesting fact.

But let us, if you will, run with it.

Perhaps, Brexit may prove to be the "seminal" event in the demise of, as R. Richard says above, this most current and equally foolhardy attempt at *Universalism.

let's hear it for *spunk*.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on July 01, 2016 at 19:15:46 pm

Billy,
Words have more than one meaning. And when the title was suggested to me, I embraced it, Albion and all. I don't think the British would find it objectionable. I could have said "Those Brits Have Huge Stones," and I'm sure they would have liked that. It was a seminal moment in British history.

read full comment
Image of Peter Augustine Lawler
Peter Augustine Lawler
on January 23, 2020 at 07:33:19 am

[…] The Spunk of Albion […]

read full comment
Image of Remembering Roger Scruton
Remembering Roger Scruton

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.