The Brexit crisis has thrown up a new division in politics – May will need a philosophy to succeed
The Brexit negotiations have made the national interest into the central topic of politics. At a time of narcissism and attention-seeking such as the world has never known, a brief spell of objective debate has been granted. And the public have been gripped by it. There are those foreigners trying to swindle us again! And there are those nationalist Brits trying to swindle the foreigners! Whatever else will emerge from the debates, one thing is certain. We will have learnt that the deep questions of politics, the questions on which all else depends, are not about the future, but about the past. They concern our national inheritance, the hopes and attachments that unite us and the place of our country in the world.
Great personalities, conflicts and decisions are suddenly foregrounded: Charlemagne, Charles the Fifth, the Glorious Revolution, the Congress of Vienna, the Peace of Versailles, Runnymede – all get a look in. The tension between common law and civilian jurisdictions, the distinction between a customs union and a free-trade agreement, the powers of the European Court of Justice and its distinction from the Court of Human Rights – one way or another critical fragments of the political and intellectual heritage of Europe are paraded before the public eye. Our elected representatives are forced to argue as though the national interest rather than some ideological agenda is the matter in hand, and this means taking history seriously, to arrive at a viable definition of who we are.
While the national interest is the substance of politics, however, its form is sovereignty. It is through the exercise of sovereignty that we secure the agreements and the powers on which the people as a whole depend. And in the end it was the attempt of the EU to confiscate sovereignty that led to the current crisis.
It is the same in the affairs of state as in the lives of individuals: there can be agreements, compromises and long-term arrangements only where the parties are free to accept or reject each others’ proposals. Individuals can live on terms only where they have the power to dispute those terms and to respond to them with a yes or a no. Otherwise what looks like an agreement will be merely force majeure, as in the governments imposed in recent times on Poland. Interestingly enough, it is the current desire of Poland and the other Višegrad states to exercise their national sovereignty that is causing the next big conflict within the EU.
Sovereignty brings conflict; but it is also the means to resolve it. As in human affairs, free will is the source of resentment, and the only path to its cure. The EU’s posture towards the Višegrad four suggests a fundamental inability to grasp that point.
Sovereignty means making choices and taking responsibility for their exercise: it means leadership – the crucial quality that David Cameron failed to exhibit when the Brexit vote went against him and, rather than respond to the will of the people, he decided instead to abandon them. Most of all, sovereignty requires a conception of the nation and the form of membership that its people share. This feature is absent from the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, which has therefore made little contribution to Brexit discussions, taking advantage of Theresa May’s weaknesses, but adding no strengths of its own.
The Brexit crisis is therefore creating a new division within politics. It is not a division between parties or ideologies, nor is it a division of national regions or social class. It is a division between those who are motivated by the national idea and by the sovereignty needed to affirm it, and those who are lost in defunct agendas that have no bearing on the great decision that confronts us. This is the reason why the Lib Dems, who briefly seemed like a real force in British politics, are all but forgotten. They understand the nation only as an obstacle to their broader aim of a borderless Europe governed by continent-wide courts and bureaucracies, according to the agenda of human rights. In so far as they have a conception of the national interest it is as part of that project, in which ancient ties and parochial attachments will be dissolved in an inclusive trans-national order. Our national interest, for them, is to get rid of any merely national interest.
The real battle, therefore, is within the two major parties, as to which faction really has the nation at heart, and is prepared to assert our sovereignty in order to protect it. This is not a battle between Leavers and Remainers; the leading Remainer campaign, Best for Britain, advertises in its name that it is animated by a conception of the national interest. And even if it accepts donations from George Soros, whose behaviour in Hungary, Albania and the Balkan states has been inspired at every stage by a visceral hostility to the national idea, this does not affect the issue. It is possible that this man, whose currency speculation once almost bankrupted our country, is as devoted to the British national interest as is Gina Miller.
If Mrs May is to convince the electorate, as she intends to do in a forthcoming speech, it will be by showing that she is prepared to put the national interest first. This will mean availing herself of the thing that the Tory party has needed for decades and which it has always shied away from – namely a philosophy.
The Labour Party used to have such a philosophy, growing from the Labour and Cooperative movement, and expressing the patriotic feelings of working people and their desire for an inclusive form of social membership. This philosophy endures in the Blue Labour movement and finds an articulate voice in the House of Lords, in the person of Maurice Glasman. But precious little of it remains in the mainstream Labour Party, which is now built on the continental model, as a mass movement of protest, which will take power only to protest at itself. It will then bequeath the ruins to its successor.
That is the moment we must prepare for: the moment of real national renewal, when the younger generation will have learnt the lessons that their history books failed to teach them, and will be looking for the way to join the old and inclusive order which is ours.
Published in The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 14th February 18