Who are we?

The "Remain" side thought the EU referendum was all about economics. It was really about how we define ourselves as a nation
July 13, 2016

The result of the referendum on the European Union was surprising, not only because the opinion polls and bookies did not predict it, but because the factors which gave rise to it have been held off the agenda for so long that hardly anyone was prepared to discuss them. Subsequent bitterness and disillusion have begun to bring those factors to the surface and it seems to me imperative that we discuss them now, so that we can go forward in a spirit of national unity.

I have already used two question-begging words, and indeed the very words that lie at the heart of the conflict between those who voted “remain” and those who said “leave”: the words “we” and “national.” It is we who made the decision, but who are we, and what justifies the use of the first-person plural? If we think of ourselves as a nation, then which nation do we have in mind, and how do we square the outcome of the vote with the fact that England and Wales chose “leave,” while Scotland and Northern Ireland opted for “remain”? Indeed, on some readings of the event, it is no longer possible, after the vote, to think of the United Kingdom in national terms at all. Perhaps it is true that those who voted “leave” were expressing their attachment to an older form of collective identity—the “we” of the nation, shaped and hardened by European wars—while those who voted “remain” were identifying with a global, outward-looking project that has the abolition of nations as its dominant aim. But it has not been true for a long time that the UK is a single national entity: it is at best a group of nations under a single sovereign, now being pulled apart by Europe’s gravitational field.

Although the Scottish people voted to remain in Europe, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sees this as a vote for national independence rather than a vote to be governed from Brussels. And while it is true that the question of identity—of who “we” are—was at issue in all parts of the Kingdom, the “leave” vote was more about self-government and sovereignty than any articulate idea of nationhood. The English and Welsh have little desire to separate from the kingdom that includes them, or to make national identity into the source of government. Rather they objected to being bossed about by people whom they had not elected.

Three factors, therefore, seem to have influenced the “leave” vote: immigration, the democratic deficit and the effect of the European courts on the law and customs of the British people. In all three matters, the political class has failed in recent decades to address popular concerns, with those on the left frequently dismissing all protest as a mark of prejudice or (to use the ritual terms) “racism and xenophobia.” Thus we have seen, in the run-up to the referendum, a marked reluctance by politicians on the left either to speak up for or even to notice the indigenous working class. But the “leave” vote of traditional Labour voters was the natural result of immigration from Eastern Europe that has both lowered the price of labour and radically impacted on their native environment and sense of community. No political question is more important to them now than the question of who “we” are—who is entitled to the benefits of social membership and what exactly is “our” birth-right, as the people who were born “here” from parents who fought for this “here” to be “ours”? Living now among strangers, sending their children to schools where their classmates speak English as a second language, competing with the newcomers for housing, social services and healthcare, they can hardly be blamed for thinking that they are counting the cost of political decisions that benefit only distant elites.

But the concern about immigration reaches further than the old working class. Identity has been an issue all across the continent, as the EU’s “freedom of movement” provisions open the borders to mass migration. Those who argued that we should remain in the EU were not unaware of this, but tended to see the matter purely in economic terms: the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Romanians coming into Britain bring with them energy, enterprise and skills that boost production and foster economic growth. Like those who justify recruiting doctors and nurses from the developing world, the enthusiasts for immigration ignore those who pay the cost of their policies—in this case the post-communist countries. Those fragile and nascent democracies are striving to join the world of global trade, while losing their skilled workforce, their educated middle class, and the best of their young, causing, in Poland at least, a demographic crisis that may soon bring the country to its knees.

But the plight of the post-communist world is not the only relevant factor that the case for mass immigration ignores. It also fails to see that the argument is not about economics in any case. It is about identity. And the position of those who are most bitterly opposed to leaving the EU is not helped by the contempt that they so often express towards those who believe that identity matters.

The point here is both difficult and deep. It is true that a country’s stability depends to a great extent on economic growth. But it also depends on social trust—the sense that we are bound to each other by a shared loyalty, and that we will stand by each other in emergencies. Social trust comes from shared language, shared customs, instinctive law-abidingness, procedures for resolving disputes and grievances, public spirit and the ability of the people to change their own government by a process that is transparent to them all. The hope of the founders of the EU—Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Walter Hallstein, Altiero Spinelli and others—was to create new forms of identity that would replace the national feelings of the European people. They were moved by the belief that national feeling is exclusive and, when challenged, belligerent, and they were seeking a more open and “softer” alternative.

And of course alternatives exist. There are other ways of building trust than those exploited by the nation state. Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects, cooperation across borders and what John Stuart Mill called “experiments of living.” Like the aristocrats of old they form their networks without reference to national boundaries. They do not, on the whole, depend on a particular place, a particular faith or a particular routine for their sense of membership, and their language is the international language of commerce. In the recent vote they would have experienced little hesitation in saying we should remain in the EU, since it threatens their way of life, if at all, only at the margins. However, even in post-modern conditions, this urban elite depends on others who do not belong to it: the farmers, manufacturers, clothiers, mechanics and administrators for whom attachment to a place and its customs is implicit in all that they do. It is surely not difficult to imagine that, in a question that touches on identity, the producing classes will very likely vote in another way than the urban elite—the consultants, financiers, academics and denizens of the art-world—on whom they depend in the end just as much as the urban elite depends on them.

In day-to-day politics these rival forms of identity do not enter into conflict, and their mutual dependence can even be astutely used for their mutual advantage. The accommodation between the producers and the consultants is surely what modern politics is largely about. But in a condition of mass migration it is inevitable that the territorial loyalties of the producing classes will become inflamed, and they will not be the less inflamed just because the urban elite dismisses them as xenophobic grudges. Maybe this tendency to inflammation is less in younger people, who have been brought up by parents who did not fight in the last war, who have enjoyed the fruits of recent prosperity and the global culture of nowhere in particular. But we should not ignore the fact that, even if the younger generation was more inclined to want to remain in Europe than to leave, most of its members were not so exercised by the matter as to bother to cast their vote.

However, it is not only mass migration that has stirred hostility to the EU. In many ways the other two factors that I mentioned above—the democratic deficit and the effect of the European courts—have been more far-reaching, largely because they identify grievances that the urban elites and the rooted people have come to share. It is not so much that EU laws and regulations are oppressive, but that they are imposed without consideration for either their local impact or their demand on the taxpayer. The accumulated body of EU law and obligations from 1958 to the present day known as the acquis communautaire—currently at 180,000 pages and unknown in its entirety to any single person—is irreversibly growing, with a cost to the British economy, according to the think tank Open Europe, of over £27bn a year. Laws that radically affect our businesses and activities are sprung on us without reference to parliament—laws like the Temporary Agency Work Directive, which gives full employment rights to temporary workers, or the health and safety directives that closed our local abattoirs in 1993, thus ensuring the spread of Foot and Mouth disease across the country as farmers drove their cattle to the only permitted places of slaughter, or the directive that abolished our traditional weights and measures and so changed the face of Britain. We all have our examples of regulations and directives that come on us without warning and without reference to any democratic choice; and it is no consolation that they comprise two thirds of the laws now passed by Westminster, which acts as an impotent rubber stamp to bureaucratic decisions made by people who have no knowledge of our local customs and no real desire to examine them.

"What is really needed is a new treaty, one adapted to Europe as it is now"
The third factor, namely the effect of the European Courts, was the one least discussed in the referendum. Yet it seems to me that it is in this matter that ordinary people have been most touched, and their gut sense of social membership most offended, by the EU. It is true that the European Court of Human Rights is independent of the EU institutions, having been founded along with the Council of Europe by the Allies after the war. However, the growth of European law, through the European Court of Justice, and the incorporation into that law, as a matter of course, of the increasingly irresponsible judgments of the Court of Human Rights, has filled the judicial air with nonsense that is offensive to our native sense of justice. When an illegal immigrant found guilty of rape cannot be deported, on account of a supposed “right to a family life,” or a group of travellers cannot be moved from a site occupied without planning permission because of an alleged right to an ethnic lifestyle, people begin to wonder who after all is in charge in this country, and what is the purpose of the law?

We encounter here a factor that was never mentioned, so far as I can see, in the discussions prior to the referendum, namely the distinctive sense of the law and its authority that is the result of common-law jurisdiction. The common law does not proceed by legislation, or by imposing directives and decrees on a reluctant population. It proceeds by resolving conflicts, and discovering the rules that are implicit in those conflicts and in the behaviour that gives rise to them. Common law is discovered law, and its principles are not imposed from above but extracted from below, by judges whose aim is to do justice in the individual case, rather than to reform the conduct of mankind. Its rights are not stated but implied, and they encapsulate a vision of individual freedom rather than a politics of collective conformity. The rights dreamed up in the European Courts, by judges who do not pay the cost of imposing them, are experiments in social engineering, rather than recognitions of individual sovereignty, and this is in no matter more evident than in those clauses that have imposed the mores of the elite on a reluctant residue of Christian believers, and which are now ubiquitous in our statutory law.

Although the British people are largely ignorant of the common law and its philosophical underpinning, they have inherited the feeling for law, the Rechtsgefühl, which has been so important a part of our history. Law, for the British, is the property of the individual citizen, not the state: it is what protects us from intrusion, safeguards our eccentricities, and cocks a snook at the meddlers and the puritans for whom conformity to official codes is more important than the freedom of the citizen to ignore them. This feeling for law goes hand-in-hand with the hostility to officialdom. It is the root of the British revolt against the EU and encapsulates a long-cherished and much fought-for political order in which individual freedom has been widely regarded as the real point of government. It is not some atavistic nationalism or sense of racial superiority that animates the British response to the European machine, but the refusal to be bossed about by people on whom we have conferred no legal or moral right to dictate to us. And it could be that the growing difference, in this connection, between the Scots and those living to the south of them, is connected to the fact that Scots law is, in its origin, a Roman-law creation, that has never fully adapted to the role of the judge in the common law.

Of course, those three considerations are not the whole truth about the EU, nor a conclusive justification of the recent vote. There are plenty of arguments on the other side, and the need for the European countries to stay closely united has never been greater. The threat from Russia cannot be ignored, nor can the increasing isolationism of the United States, on which country we have until now depended for our defence. Moreover, the need for a common response both to Islamism and to the mass migration that has brought it into our midst, is apparent to everyone. I therefore regret that the choice that was offered to us in the referendum was simply whether to “remain” or to “leave.” For neither of those decisions can bring us any nearer to what is really needed, which is a new treaty, one adapted to Europe as it is now, a treaty that will answer to the growing reluctance of the people of Europe to be bound by post-war illusions and post-modern visions of community.

Increasingly, many Europeans no longer wish to obey orders issued by foreigners whom they never elected, or to sacrifice their national interest to an agenda dreamed up 70 years ago by people long since dead. The real problem, as I see it, is that the European people have not been merely subject to a treaty, but governed by it. They have surrendered their law-making powers to an institution that has no ability to respond to what the people want, rather than to what was laid down in the original instructions. Like the Bolsheviks, the Eurocrats imposed a form of government that cannot adapt, that has no reverse gear and which must be going ever “forward,” even if it is forward to destruction. It is surely time for the whole continent to awaken to this folly. For it is true in politics as it is in biology, that the failure to adapt is the prelude to extinction.