Theo Hobson

The liberal case for Brexit

The liberal case for Brexit
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Anyone for Whexit? I voted Remain. The theoretical arguments seemed finely balanced, so boring old pragmatism decided it. On the one hand I feel vindicated by the current shambles. But on the other hand, oddly enough, I have become more conscious of the case for leaving. And if we really are leaving it seems worthwhile to accentuate this. But ‘Brexit’ feels tarnished by crude jingoism, and I’m a liberal. I propose that we affirm our exit on old-fashioned liberal grounds: Whig Brexit: Whexit.

The assumption is that the EU is a great promoter and defender of liberal values. But ultimately it’s an unhealthy assumption. Liberal values are only fully real when the nation state upholds them, puts them into law. And ideally no international body is involved in this. If a government passes a law on, say, gender equality because it is required by its membership of a supra-national body, then the legitimacy of that law is contestable. Illiberal dissenters can claim the democratic high-ground. Surely we should build a domestic consensus for liberal values, not outsource our liberalism to an international organisation.

But is it not a good thing if liberal values become a supra-national cause, something that various countries have in common? Maybe, but only if such liberal internationalist sentiment genuinely bubbles up from below. Not if it is imposed from above. And that is what has happened, especially in eastern Europe. Brussels has welcomed these countries into its orbit, helping them to get rich, and pressuring them to sign up to liberal values. But you can’t reform a country simply with money.

Supra-national idealism is dubious if it leads liberals to drift into seeing the nation as a dodgy entity, prone to fascism. This was understandable in the 1950s: France, Germany and a few others were so shaken by the toxic nationalism of the mid-century that they developed a supra-national framework for the defence of liberal values (and to speed economic recovery). To a large extent it worked. But a creeping downside emerged: an illiberal nationalism was provoked, and it was able to claim the democratic high ground.

The core case for Whexit is simple: the democratic nation state is the surest embodiment of liberal values. Yes, we should also affirm liberal values as an international cause, but in the awareness that this is a vaguer, more theoretical affinity that does not need concrete legal expression.