Britain’s Time for Choosing

I’ve steered clear of opining here about tomorrow’s Brexit vote as so many others have been doing such a good job of it, like Jonah’s article today. But as this is the culmination of a thirty-year fight for me, I thought I should at least put on the record why I would be voting “Leave” if Her Majesty’s Government hadn’t disenfranchised me for living out of the country for too long, and why I hope that others should do the same.

First, and most importantly, a vote to Remain would represent an end to Britain’s 800 year experiment in restraining the executive through consent, natural right, and popular will. When King John sealed the Magna Carta, he agreed that his decisions would have a degree of popular oversight, a degree that ebbed and flowed over the years until it was cemented in the Glorious Revolution, and that Englishmen had rights which were not the grant, as someone later said, of princes or parliaments. Those rights were discovered through the common law, rather than outlined in some document, even if many of them sprang from their formulation in that Great Charter.

That experiment is now under threat more serious than any time since the time of the Stuarts. Large amounts of the rules Britons live under are now made in Brussels by the Commission (not the European Parliament, which rubber stamps them) and are implemented under treaty obligations, not by discussions amongst Parliamentary representatives. The regulatory state is replacing the common law, and British bureaucrats have been inspired in turn to “gold plate” those regulations. The common law rights of Britons have been replaced by a list of statutory positive rights, the statute implementing the European Convention on Human Rights (which, ironically, was in part drawn up by British lawyers for countries that did not enjoy the tradition of common law).

In short – the European Union is an alien institution to the way Britons have governed themselves. It represents a far greater change in the way of governance for Britain than it does for its European neighbors, which had long been governed by some version or other of the Code Napoleon.

I would be less inclined to this view if there had been any serious problems with the pre-EU British system. Yet it worked perfectly well. It adapted itself to representative democracy, a welfare state, the decline of aristocracy, and even to a form of social democracy, without any real problems. Britain’s economic malaise in the 1970s was on its way to being cured by Margaret Thatcher long before the signing of the Single European Act in 1987, which turned the European Economic Community into what would become the European Union. The transfer of powers to Brussels happened slowly and without any real debate or acknowledgment among the British people that their system of self-government was being dismantled.

Nor would I be inclined to vote Leave were I a citizen of another EU nation asked to vote on the issue. The EU has been a tremendous source of freedom and stability for countries which were within living memories dictatorships or occupied by one. It has made continental Europe more classically liberal, in the best sense. Yet it has made Britain less liberal. When Pitt the Elder said, “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!” he would have been reassured to hear that was still largely the case 220 years later (I remember the lyricist and wit doing a skit on the BBC about the outrage that seven institutions that had “statutory right of entry to your home”). It is no longer. The regulatory onslaught unleashed by the EU (and, as I say above, British bureaucrats are not innocent) upped that number to over 1200, with the current government proposing a reduction to over 900. That’s nice of them.

All other issues pale beside this one, to my mind. Of course there will be some economic dislocation caused by withdrawal from an established way of doing things, but it will be short-lived, and as the Open Europe study of the options available showed, a move to unilateral free trade would be very beneficial in the medium to long term (this is the option Rory Broomfield and I recommended in our Brexit Prize runner-up submission).

Nor is immigration a real issue to my mind. There are clearly winners and losers from EU immigration. The winners are those in the South East of England, the losers in the North and West. Yet overall it has probably been a net positive for the UK. It is certainly animating many to vote Leave, but that is at heart because control of immigration is a sub-set of the sovereignty argument I outlined above.

In the end, Britain has to decide whether it wants to continue its self-government or not. As a great man once said, this is a time for choosing. I hope that my nation will choose to govern itself again.

Originally posted at National Review.