Bri­tain at the cross­roads

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

— Sit­ting on the sun-dap­pled ter­race of the House of Lords, watch­ing the Thames flow, Lord Nigel Law­son ex­plains that the June 23 ref­er­en­dum, which he hopes will with­draw Bri­tain from the Euro­pean Union, was never sup­posed to hap­pen. It is, he says, the ful­fill­ment of a prom­ise Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron ex­pected to be pre­vented from keep­ing.

Go­ing into the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion, Cameron, head­ing a coali­tion govern­ment with Lib­eral Democrats, pla­cated anti-EU Con­ser­va­tives by promis­ing a ref­er­en­dum on the EU mem­ber­ship. He ex­pected that an­other close elec­tion would leave him again head­ing a coali­tion,

LON­DON

and that he would be able to say, truth­fully, that his pro-EU Lib­eral Demo­crat part­ners would block a ref­er­en­dum. But his Con­ser­va­tive Party won a large par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity, in­con­ve­niently lib­er­at­ing Cameron from the con­straints of a coali­tion and leav­ing him with an awk­ward prom­ise to keep.

Full of years, 84 of them, and fight, Law­son has spent 42 years on the Thames em­bank­ment, as a member of both houses. He is im­pa­tient with the propo­si­tion that it is progress to trans­fer to supra­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions de­ci­sion­mak­ing that be­longs in Bri­tain’s Par­lia­ment.

When Bri­tain votes on whether to with­draw from the EU, it will be de­cid­ing for or against the con­straints of deep­en­ing in­volve­ment with a po­lit­i­cal en­tity born from cul­tural de­spair about Europe’s past and com­pla­cency about a Euro­pean fu­ture of di­min­ish­ing so­cial dy­namism and po­lit­i­cal de­moc- racy. Bri­tain will con­sciously choose be­tween al­ter­na­tive na­tional des­tinies that Amer­i­cans are less con­sciously choos­ing be­tween by their smaller choices that cu­mu­la­tively sub­or­di­nate them to a vast, opaque and un­ac­count­able ad­min­is­tra­tive state.

Cameron says leav­ing the EU is un­nec­es­sary be­cause Bri­tain has re­jected mem­ber­ship in the eu­ro­zone cur­rency and is not bound by the EU’s open bor­ders pol­icy. Ad­vo­cates of “Brexit” re­ply that if the com­mon cur­rency and open bor­ders, both cru­cial at­tributes of the EU, are de­fects, why re­main?

Cameron says leav­ing the EU would be im­pru­dent for se­cu­rity rea­sons. Wield­ing the fal­lacy of the false al­ter­na­tive, he says those who fa­vor leav­ing the EU fa­vor “go­ing it alone” and “iso­la­tion­ism.” They re­spond that Bri­tain out of the EU would re­main Europe’s fore­most mil­i­tary power. When Cameron re­calls “war in the Bal- kans and geno­cide on our con­ti­nent in Sre­brenica,” Leave ad­vo­cates note that the EU had noth­ing to do with sup­press­ing this, which fell to NATO and es­pe­cially the United States, nei­ther of which would be di­min­ished by Bri­tain leav­ing the EU.

Cameron in­vokes “the ser­ried rows of white head­stones” on British graves in mil­i­tary ceme­ter­ies on the con­ti­nent as a “silent tes­ta­ment to the price that this coun­try has paid to help re­store peace and or­der in Europe.” His­to­rian An­drew Roberts tartly re­sponds that the British war dead “fought for British in­de­pen­dence and sovereignty, not for Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion.”

The Re­main camp cor­rectly says that Bri­tain is richer and more ra­tio­nally gov­erned than when Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion be­gan. The Leave camp, how­ever, cor­rectly re­sponds that this is largely in spite of the EU — it is be­cause of de­ci­sions made by British gov­ern­ments, par­tic­u­larly Mar­garet Thatcher’s, in what is be­com­ing a shrink­ing sphere of na­tional au­ton­omy.

In 1988, Thatcher said: “We have not suc­cess­fully rolled back the fron­tiers of the state in Bri­tain, only to see them reim­posed at a Euro­pean level with a Euro­pean su­per-state ex­er­cis­ing a new dom­i­nance from Brus­sels.” Stress­ing Bri­tain’s Euro­pean cre­den­tials, she also said “our maps still trace the straight lines of the roads the Ro­mans built.” But to­day’s Leavers, who carry the torch of Thatcherism, do not fa­vor straight lines drawn by for­eign­ers. They pre­fer G.K. Ch­ester­ton’s cel­e­bra­tion of spon­ta­neous, un­planned cul­tural par­tic­u­lar­i­ties:

Be­fore the Ro­man came to Rye or out to Sev­ern strode,

The rolling English drunk­ard made the rolling English road.

In pol­i­tics, sen­si­bil­ity is prior to and in­sep­a­ra­ble from phi­los­o­phy. The ref­er­en­dum will record, among other things, the strength of the re­vul­sion many peo­ple here feel about a mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism that cel­e­brates ev­ery per­mu­ta­tion of iden­tity — ex­cept that of na­tion­al­ity. This is a trans-At­lantic re­vul­sion.

What Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han, an Ir­ish-Amer­i­can and An­glophile, called “the lib­eral ex­pectancy” is the be­lief that the rise of rea­son and sci­ence would mean the wan­ing of pre-mod­ern forces such as religion, eth­nic­ity and even na­tion­al­ity, which would be re­garded as an anachro­nis­tic trib­al­ism. British vot­ers, who may be as weary as many Amer­i­cans are of con­stantly be­ing told that they can­not “turn back the clock,” and that his­tory’s cen­tral­iz­ing ratchet has clicked ir­re­versibly too many times, might soon say oth­er­wise.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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