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The bright side of Brexit

Let’s suppose, entirely hypothetically and for the sake of argument, that Brexit is a disaster for the UK. Let’s suppose that sterling crashes; that foreign travel is punishingly expensive and that, if you can afford to go abroad, you’re a laughing stock. Let’s suppose that the Treasury’s estimates of billions of pounds of losses each year are reasonably accurate; that unemployment rises; that credit ratings plummet. Let’s suppose Brexit creates a corrosive tide of racism; that things that should never be said, and can never be unsaid, are shouted at high volume. Let’s suppose that there’s a torrential brain drain; that UK universities fall down the international league tables; that the innovative treatments prescribed (to private patients only, unfortunately – no money left for the NHS) by the UK’s (predominantly white) doctors are all devised in New York, Paris and Rome rather than London and Leeds. Let’s suppose that the environment, unprotected by EU legislation, is trashed, and that Scotland leaves the UK.  Let’s suppose, too, that nervousness about all this creates an increasingly authoritarian style of government .

If all that happens, it’ll be great. At least if you’re a consistent utilitarian. The horror of the UK’s experience will strengthen the EU and prevent other countries from thinking that they should leave the Union – which would have similarly disastrous results for them and, if the EU itself dissolves, tectonic consequences for the stability of the world.

Of course not all the woes of Brexit will be British. Families will be torn apart in Poland; businesses will fail in France; European fascists will be encouraged. But even when you plug all of that into the felicific equation, it’ll be perfectly clear that the destruction of the UK, along with all the collateral damage, was a price well worth paying.

Brexit will make the UK a genuine world leader. Britain will have Taken Back Control of the world’s political education. The UK will have taught the world, as no amount of essaying in the Guardian could have done, about the dangers of using an institution as a proxy for other woes; of not fact-checking the statements of politicians. It should make the world more politically sophisticated; more skeptical; more analytical; more communitarian; more internationalist; and kinder. It might make politicians acknowledge that there are values above party, and that to change one’s mind is a sign of strength. It might birth statesmen or, more likely, stateswomen.

I live in Oxford at the moment. At one level, of course, I wish that the UK had not been elected to this high Benthamite calling. I wish, selfishly, that it had been (say) Belgium instead. But in my better moments I acknowledge that I have no right to expect others always to pay the price of the utilitarian lessons that I know are desirable. There are good reasons why the UK is better placed than some other nations to be the exemplar. It has a sufficiently significant economy for its annihilation to be scary. It has preened itself as the author of democracy; if democracy can decay here it can decay anywhere.

There is a complication, though. I have six children. I owe to them a fiduciary obligation that I do not owe to others. I am not at all sure that the normal methods of utilitarian calculation apply when my children are affected. I am not at all sure, in other words, that I should not seek to look after my own children even if that entails detriment to all the other inhabitants of the EU. We have brought our children up to think of themselves as citizens of the world. Our current Prime Minister has made it clear that that means that they are citizens of nowhere. Is it right to force our children to live with the consequences of that disenfranchisement simply because to stay here is concordant with my own highfalutin philosophizing. It’s one thing to be altruistic yourself; it’s quite another to ram your altruism down the throat of a minor for whom you’re responsible.

So my children might be my get-out-of-post-Brexit-UK-jail card. Courtesy of them, I might be able to live with myself when we move to Ireland, Greece or a newly independent, European Scotland – leaving the rest of you Britons nobly enduring the wretchedness pour encourager les autres.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. The European Union does not need to be strengthened by an exemplary collapse of post-Brexit Britain. It will be strengthened as a Union, by the departure of its most Eurosceptic member state. Although everyone at the European Commission must realise that, it is not expedient to say so in public.

    So Charles Foster has got the calculus wrong. In fact the European Union will be much better off, if post-Brexit Britain is a huge success. That will encourage other strongly eurosceptic member states such as Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands, to leave too. In that scenario, the European Union would shrink to about 7-10 members, but will function much better as a political union, while retaining the economic bonus of a large integrated economic zone, with about half its present population.

    The historical stupidity here is not that of the Brexit camp, but the idea that the EU would undo 200 years of nationalism in Europe, while leaving the nation-states intact. It was always predictable, that the discrepancy between national identity and European integration would lead to a political revolt.

    Being British is, and always was, about not being non-British, in whatever form. Nations define themselves by exclusion of the non-national. Theresa May was entirely right to say, that if you don’t identify with a nation, you don’t belong there. The European Union needs to think about its future in the light of Brexit, but the UK electorate has no reason for regret. It acted entirely rationally, in concluding that a British nation-state does not belong in a European proto-state.

  2. Be careful not to assume the EU is developing in a benevolent fashion. With many similarities to a new Soviet Union it may well face the same fate, collapsing under it’s own weight of crushing equalisation. Perhaps worse, leaving its populations without identification to their once nation states. Lost. Searching for an identity and leadership, finding it in new extremes.

    When you have lived under dictatorship, military junta or communism (Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, the former Soviet states, vice France) you might not notice. Others, more fortunate, do see this and wish to separate themselves and join the other 6.6Bn outside the EU camp.

  3. Glad to see that the months immersed in nature have reinforced your belief in virtue ethics, Charles ! Entirely in agreement that we should leave the Brits to suffer the consequences of their sad invention of the bean-counting ethics of utilitarianism. (And that holds even if your “for the sake of argument” supposition doesn’t prove as dire in reality as it might be, or even if you didn’t have any children, let alone six – which I agree is a pretty ideal number)
    PS Declaration of interest : it’s the number of children I have too.

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