In the era of Brexit, Corbyn and Trump, it’s natural for us in the despised metropolitan media liberal elite to engage in soul-searching. I’ve done it and arrived at the difficult but ineluctable conclusion that I’ve been right all along. For those who support liberal-democratic internationalism, European integration, open borders and multiculturalism, this is no time for sober reflection and humility. Our ideas have worked; they need asserting.
John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1936: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers… are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” If this seemed a touch hyperbolic at the time, it was borne out less than a decade later. Keynes went from academia to presiding over the negotiation of a new international order. Meanwhile, Hjalmar Schacht, the theorist of economic nationalism, went from being head of the central bank of the world’s second-biggest economy to going on trial at Nuremberg (he was acquitted).
The liberal order envisaged in the negotiations at Bretton Woods by allied governments in 1944 has proved astonishingly successful. Even in its time of greatest economic danger, with the collapse of the banking system in 2007-09, the power of ideas—specifically Keynes’s ideas of fiscal and monetary activism—prevented a deep recession from turning into another Great Depression. Even when—amid economic crises, galloping inflation and Soviet expansionism in the 1970s—the western democracies appeared increasingly ungovernable, liberalism survived and eventually prevailed. Social reforms initiated in the 1960s, and the accompanying shifts in mores—on censorship, divorce, capital punishment, race relations, gay rights, sexual equality, and availability of contraception and abortion—have made western societies freer and more civilised places. Above all, the institutions of the postwar order have demonstrated their value in subordinating raw state power to a framework of rules. They’re imperfect but Nato, the EU, the UN, international tribunals, the World Trade Organisation and others provide global public goods: law, security, the benefits of market exchange across borders, and a system of payments. In the absence of any supranational body with the ability to exercise sovereignty, the United States has been the system’s ultimate guarantor.
The system hasn’t fallen apart but it’s being challenged. A new occupant in the White House rejects the notion of open trade and misunderstands the rationale of collective security. President Trump is a mercurial braggart but the independence of the judiciary (allied to his own gratifying incompetence) has already restrained his wild schemes of a “travel ban.” And a military strike against the depraved Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons suddenly shows a surprising awareness of the importance of upholding international norms. We’ll see. In any event, the vigour of the US polity is at this point undiminished.
Brexit is a case apart. It’s the most consequential decision in British politics in my lifetime, and not in a good way. In retrospect, you can see how it came about. An irresponsible prime minister attempted to bind divisions within his own party by gambling on a referendum outcome. A prolonged squeeze on real incomes (average real wages fell by 10 per cent between 2007 and 2015) coinciding with a rise in EU nationals’ share of the working-age population persuaded many voters that the former was caused by the latter. It wasn’t, as they’ll find out soon enough. The question for Remain voters is whether to now get behind the government to ensure a negotiated Brexit that works. I won’t. My preference is to do all I can to oppose, criticise, attack, impede and undermine Theresa May’s negotiating stance. There is no good outcome with Brexit, just better or worse ways of containing the damage. It will have economic costs by constraining flows of goods, services, investment and labour. And making Britain less open to migration will damage us culturally too.
Tragically, the enfeeblement of the Labour Party makes an acutely damaging form of Brexit more likely. For all their historic errors and idiosyncrasies, Labour governments have immense achievements to their credit. These include the NHS, which is an efficient and equitable method of health provision; a leading role in the creation of the Nato alliance, which defeated Soviet totalitarianism and more recently repelled the genocidal campaigns of Slobodan Milosevic; and the pioneering social reforms enacted in the 1960s. The party’s behaviour since 2015 has been beyond irresponsible. As anyone who knows Jeremy Corbyn’s political record was well aware before his unlikely emergence as party leader, his most salient characteristic is that he’s useless. So far from driving the party to an ideological fringe, as might have been predicted from his history on the far left, Corbyn has simply destroyed its reputation as an effective political vehicle. His political knowledge is fluff and his lack of articulacy will ensure he loses still more public support as voters scrutinise him. There will be no recovery. He’s driving the party to irrelevance and possible extinction.
I weep; but all of this has parochial rather than universal significance. There will be big national losses from Labour’s implosion and from Brexit. Europeans will get on with life regardless; they need Britain far less than we need them. And they’re right to be proud of what they’ve created.
Like almost all economists and economic commentators, I believe Brexit will make Britain poorer than it would otherwise be. But my main reason for supporting the EU is political: it’s been a force for peace. It has acted as a solvent of otherwise stubborn and intractable national disputes, like Ireland and Cyprus. The prospect of eventual EU accession, and the need to adhere to European standards of justice, persuaded Serbia to belatedly deliver Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbian leader, to trial at The Hague. And the risk of Franco-German war, as happened in 1870, 1914 and 1939, has been at last eliminated. There is no point or plausibility in denying the EU’s importance in this pacific role, which was explicitly set out in the original Schuman declaration of 1950 proposing the early institutions which became the EU. It’s an achievement hard won and it will not be easily relinquished.
The prospects for liberalism at present seem bleak and there is no historical inevitability about its recovery. But there should be little doubt about its achievements. It’s an essentially optimistic creed not because of misconceptions about human benevolence but, on the contrary, because it recognises something intrinsic to our nature: we all have different goals and conceptions of the good. And the things we value can’t all be realised simultaneously and made compatible with each other. A liberal society is the best method yet devised of recognising this multiplicity of aims. It stresses value pluralism in the face of political and religious dogmatism, and of spurious appeals to national unity for the common good. I’ll doggedly stick to it.