‘Brexit’ is patriotic for Britons—and smart for Australia, too
22 Mar 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user slimmer_jimmer.

It’s time for Britain’s leaders to heed the words of US Army general Eric Shinseki: ‘If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less’.

The EU’s current institutions no longer meet its member states’ needs, and its glacially slow processes for reform threaten to allow Europe’s political, economic, and cultural heritage to be fatally weakened. The surprisingly strong electoral showing of the German nationalist party, Alternativen für Deutschland, provides a cautionary tale for governments that claim to ‘know better’ than the citizenry. On the other hand, an economically strong and politically liberal Britain becomes an even more attractive partner for Australia.

An independent and strong Britain holds the potential to reverse the dangerous trend toward a non-national ‘European’ army that directly threatens the viability of NATO. That’s especially important given the continued threat posed to European security by an aggressive, expansionist Russian foreign policy. The half-measures proposed by the US won’t suffice to check a determined Vladimir Putin, and only Britain has the military and moral power to unite the Europeans against him—a task impossible to accomplish as one of 28 co-equal members. In addition to a robust defence of a rules-based international order, the UK National Security Strategy and Australia’s new Defence White Paper echo each other on counterterrorism, international engagement and a desire to seek manoeuvre space between China and the US.

Equating a ‘no’ vote on the issue of Britain’s remaining a member of the EU with a Briton’s patriotic duty is illogical. The EU is the nemesis of national sovereignty and nation-state patriotism, a fact visible in the many binding ‘laws’ it enacts every year. Even Stuart Rose, champion of the ‘Remain’ movement, admits that EU policies depress the wages of British workers and disincentivise the hiring of UK citizens. One can be forgiven for concluding that the European Council would rather ‘dissolve the people and elect another’ than make meaningful procedural changes. In its imperviousness to local opposition, national custom, and (often) common sense, an EU law bears a greater similarity to a tsarist ukase than the product of parliamentary or republican democracy.

The EU bureaucracy’s insistence on its right to intervene at every level of member states’ government means that the vast majority of ordinances directly affecting daily life are foreign impositions against which British citizens have no recourse. As Michael Gove so eloquently wrote in his defence of a ‘yes’ vote, ‘… whoever is in Government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT, cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country.’ This isn’t right, it isn’t just, and it isn’t democracy. A referendum on continued membership is the necessary and preferred solution.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, members of the ‘progressive’ wings of the US Republican and Democratic parties succeeded in making referendum (as well as such democratic exercises as initiative, referendum and recall) a key element of progressive policies. Comparison of the June ‘Brexit’ referendum to the 1938 Anschluss plebiscite is misleading and inappropriate, since doing so implicitly equates the 1938 one-party Nazi state with the UK’s parliamentary democracy of 2016. In recent years many scholars have argued that referenda, when conducted in countries with a mature democratic political tradition, are crucial correctives for out-of-touch or out-of-control governments (see for example Butler and Ramsey, David B. Magleby, and Nathaniel A. Persily). Australia has its own legacy of referenda since federation; the fact that most failed doesn’t diminish their value as genuine expressions of popular will.  

I am gladdened that patriotic Britons now justify their actions in part by reference to the American Declaration of Independence, that ‘governments…deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ The Declaration also defends the people’s right to dissociate themselves from any government that has demonstrated though ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations’ that it’s less interested in fostering prosperity and freedom than in the arrogation of all power unto itself.

Finally, we should be wary of those who conflate the failed Scots bid for independence with ‘Brexit.’ A British withdrawal from the EU isn’t the equivalent of national disaggregation à la Spain, and won’t be accompanied by the same economic and security risks as Scottish secession posed.

A successful ‘Brexit’ means a revitalised UK—economically, militarily, and diplomatically. It will also present new opportunities for Australia to engage in the exercise of ‘smart power’ with a like-minded nation independent of ANZUS.