Since my early youth I have been an enthusiast for the European Union. My mother was born in Brussels to a French mother and an English father, and I have many relatives in Belgium and France. In my teens I won essay prizes on the wonders of the EU, visited the European Parliament and generally thought supranationalism was one in the eye to the foul Thomas Cromwell. Later I devoted years of my life to researching the life and thought of Robert Schuman, the saintly founder of the European project whose Declaration of 9th May 1950 is annually commemorated as Europe Day.
So how did I find myself, in the early hours of 24 June, celebrating our departure from the EU?
Over time, two considerations have eaten away at my Europhilia: one historical, one more philosophical. The history of Europe does not suggest it thrives under political unity. The High Middle Ages (for me the apogee of Western civilisation) were distinguished by the flourishing of innumerable independent political communities of every imaginable configuration, united by spiritual and not political power.
Even Edward Gibbon, no admirer of the Middle Ages, could not help but think the lack of political unity in the West was, after all, rather a good thing.
In all the pursuits of active and speculative life, the emulation of states and individuals is the most powerful spring of the efforts and improvements of mankind. The cities of ancient Greece were cast in the happy mixture of union and independence, which is repeated on a larger scale, but in a looser form, by the nations of modern Europe; the union of language, religion, and manners, which renders them the spectators and judges of each other’s merit; the independence of government and interest, which asserts their separate freedom, and excites them to strive for preeminence in the career of glory.
The comparison applies to our own time. During the referendum campaign, Eddie Izzard complained that Europe “had wars from Alexander the Great to World War II”. At first I wondered why he began so late as the 330s BC, but then it occurred to me that the preceding period refuted his case. When the Greeks humbled the pride of Persia in the 5th century BC, they did so as fiercely independent states. Relatively speaking, these were tiny states which nevertheless vanquished the might of the superpower of their age. And when Philip II of Macedon and then Alexander the Great unified Greece into a single powerful force, they exhausted its civilizational energies. Unity meant cultural death.
This brings me to the second reason I stopped supporting the EU. What was the great secret of Greece, the supreme achievement of Athens approximated or imitated by the other cities? It was that which Herodotus called the fairest of all names: Isonomia. Isonomia is untranslatable. British politicians call it “democracy-and-the-rule-of-law”. Literally it is equal-law, an equal share in making the law and equality before it.
Isonomia was in some ways perfected by the Roman Empire – until it became too large and slid into despotism. But by then, the faith of Christ had given to the city a social and geographical universality. The genius of the religious orders, supremely the Dominicans, fashioned the representative democracy that our own Simon De Montfort translated back into the political order with the creation of Parliament in the thirteenth century.
By the time of the referendum, I was convinced that great empires, even quasi-voluntary bureaucratic ones, are not what make Europe an ideal worth cherishing. Isonomia is the great ideal of the West, and Britain has a cherished history of defending that ideal. We did not contribute to that history by joining the European Economic Community in 1973.
The Commonwealth is in contrast a genuine expression of that ideal. One of the greatest blessings the Lord ever bestowed on this country was to allow us to lose our Empire (an impressive but highly questionable achievement) in so great a cause as the destruction of Nazism. How could we go quietly into the night of the neo-ancien regime?
As the Queen observed in 1976, “We lost the American colonies because we lacked that statesmanship ‘to know the right time, and the manner of yielding, what is impossible to keep.’ But the lesson was learnt. In the next century and a half we kept more closely to the principles of Magna Carta which have been the common heritage of both our countries. We learnt to respect the right of others to govern themselves in their own ways.”
While campaigning for leave, I met many people who supported and promoted Brexit. These are the people the chattering classes stigmatise as racists and xenophobes. They are not. They don’t call it Isonomia, but this is the ideal that burns in their breasts. They have a very vehement conception of what it means to be British and that conception is absolutely bound up with liberty-under-the-law. They are not happy with the idea of a country as an engine for the production of economic statistics into which any human fuel you like may be thrown. They see acceptable immigration as like the arrival of a new daughter-in-law; what they feel they have received instead is like the family next door moving in uninvited and taking over the house.
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