Let’s risk a bit of mawkish sentimentality. Recall John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s hands. On his deathbed, the Plantagenet uncle and father to kings delivers one of the better known of the Bard’s speeches, lamenting that England has lost her way. After famously extolling her virtues (“this other Eden…this happy breed of men…this precious stone,” and so forth) John changes tack and mourns:
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm…
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
Now, I know that to compare this speech seamlessly to the pre-Brexit conditions in England is to say too much. And yet it nevertheless captures something of the present sentiment of many. American journalist Michael Totten, as he often does, maybe puts it best:
The EU is a brilliant idea. Unite splendidly diverse yet like-minded nations into a powerful bloc that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Provide minimum standards and guidelines for countries that aren’t as advanced (such as Greece and Romania). Pull down trade barriers and do business in a common market. Open up job opportunities and leg-stretching room for all.
Of course, the problem, as Totten further observes, is that the actually existing EU isn’t so brilliant. Rather “it’s crushed by a staggering amount of centralized regulatory bureaucracy and a disregard for the wishes of its individual member states.” Totten realizes it could all be much worse, but soft totalitarianism, conflicting national interests, and the increasingly centralized-nature of the European project took a conclusive, if not decisive, toll. Indeed, while among UK voters England chose most decisively for Brexit, 53.4% is hardly “decisive.” Tabulations among the rest of the UK broke down similarly: a majority of the Welsh sided with England, at 52.5% in favor of leaving; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by contrast, majorities wanted to remain in the EU, at a more robust 62% and 55.8% respectively. Overall, it was an ambivalent, very near-thing.
And while voters certainly cast “leave” ballots for a variety of reasons – with good, bad, and ugly ones each undoubtedly represented – it is also clear that even the potentially ugly ones – such as those having to do with immigration — need nuance. While, as Totten notes, “every racist jackhole in Europe is whooping it up over the Brexit results and pining for more”, it also remains true that “even the most welcoming people and nations can only take in so many strangers at any one time” and England has by many counts taken in more than she ever bargained for. Given that Europe has never been as good at assimilating immigrants as the US and Canada, the immigration issue – both from EU member states as well as refugee populations – becomes enormously complex, and often has less to do with racism than simply control – about pushing back against the perception that British democracy – yes, sovereignty – was increasingly being undermined by European policy.
Martin Feldstein, Harvard economist and advisor to both Presidents Bush and Obama, gestures to this when he reminds us that the EU’s nascent roots grew out of a series of postwar agreements including the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the coming-together of six countries to achieve free trade in goods and capital and to eliminate barriers to labor mobility. Great Britain would join in 1973, but the British didn’t dream of a United States of Europe or the formation of a European counterweight to the United States. They “simply wanted the advantages of increased trade and labor-market integration with countries across the English channel.” Believing they could have only that without the rest was, quite likely, sheer folly.
Feldstein argues that other EU countries, led by France and Germany, always wanted much more than free trade and enlarged labor markets:
From the start, European leaders were determined to expand the “European project” to achieve what the Treaty of Rome called an “ever closer union.” Advocates of shifting authority to EU institutions have justified this with the notion of “shared sovereignty.”
The upshot of this transition of power was that British sovereignty could be now eroded by EU decisions, without any formal agreement from the UK’s government or her people. Naturally, this resulted in practical tensions that underlined the disparate terrain in which both parties are generally grounded. At the end of the day, the market-orientation of the UK, and perhaps England most sharply, is bound to chaff at many partner nation’s “traditions of socialism, government planning, and heavy regulation.”
The extent to which this has happened, and whether the right response was to exit the EU or to remain and attempt to reform it is all ripe for debate – indeed, there are a variety of views by Providence editors in these pages as well as outside ones. What I wish were less debated is the perception, especially within Christian communities, of the importance of the nation-state itself and, relatedly, the importance of national sovereignty. The response of many to Brexit makes clear that we need to be careful not to denigrate nationalism without qualification, for nationalism need not be jingoism.
The sovereign is that over whom there is no one greater charged with the preservation of the nation’s justice, order, and peace – political goods without which no other political goods can long perdure. Christian realism asserts the fundamental assumption that a political ethic is necessarily an ethic of responsibility. Mandated by God, the sovereign has a delegated responsibility in history for the conditions of history. Of course, because of the competing fact of the fallen nature of the human will, the achievement of justice, order, and peace in history will only ever be approximated, never fully realized.
From this I want to suggest two lessons from the debate over Brexit. The first pairs nicely (and unfortunately) with a lesson that emerges here at home with the rise of Trump. While, as I’ve already said, I don’t think populism entirely explains away Brexit, it surely plays a part. Populism isn’t, of course, new. There has always been, and will always be, those self-serving opportunists ready to seduce a band of tired and angry citizens – flattered as being of near unassailable virtue — that are being pressed and abused by an evil band of elites, real or imagined. These oppressors can be thrown out — and prosperity ushered in — the demagogue insists, if only the people will grasp the danger and join with him. But populism, in the west, most typically attracts only an inert minority, and fails to achieve critical mass. OF lare, however, we have seen that populism can triumph when good people in power falter in their duty and make a habit of not rising early to the task of making common-sense moral reforms, even after deficiencies or corruption become obvious and substantively debilitating to communities and to those most vulnerable. When cowardice, or party-loyalty, or political timeserving is more motivating – or enervating – to those in power than is goodness, order, and justice – then the conditions are set for the triumph of populism. Good people who have the power to use power wisely but fail to, open the door through which can enter those who may have no intention, or capacity, to use power well.
Secondly, it is not without controversy to suggest that the nation-state is a positive, if remedial, good, and that its perseverance has biblical warrant. Oxford ethicist Nigel Biggar has helpfully written of the historical reasons that helped give rise to continental ambivalence regarding the nation-state – such as mid-18th century Germany being a territory comprised of a common language but dozens of different kingdoms and principalities. Contrasting this with the experience of the English, Biggar notes they have “inhabited a nation-state whose basic structures span a thousand years, and whose history has taught them to fear the concentration of continental power.” Because of this,
It’s no accident…that one can find in Anglican thought a marked tendency…to affirm the existence of a plurality of independent nations, whose external relations are governed by international law rather than a supranational state.
For Christians, divergent views of the nation-state – and conversely of a European federation – can be rooted in historic experience as well as theological beliefs, including whether one bears Roman Catholic or Protestant sensibilities. But whatever the view, scripture makes clear that Christians must never idolize the nation, as Biggar reminds us happens when one divinizes the nation and “substitutes the nation for God; and seeks immortality, not in the Next Life, but in the nation’s future.” Nations are, and must remain in the Christian mind, contingent, their survival is never an absolute moral imperative. Nevertheless, while Christian allegiance must always transcend national identity it need not, in fact ought not, obliterate it.
This is because of our nature as human beings. Biggar writes:
We are finite, not infinite; creatures, not gods. We come into being and grow up in a particular time, and if not in one particular place and community, then in a finite number of them. We are normally inducted into particular forms of social life by our family and by other institutions—schools, churches, clubs, workplaces, political parties, public assemblies, laws. These institutions and their customs mediate and embody a certain grasp of the several universal forms of human prosperity or flourishing—that is to say, the several basic human goods—that are given in and with the created nature of human being.
Because of this, it is natural that we feel a special affection, expressed with thanks and loyalty, to those particular political communities in which we have been brought up.
This is not a blind affection, of course. Gratitude and fidelity allow for, require even, that when our political community “has mis-shaped our lives (or other people’s) for the worse, we owe it our commitment to reform [it].” To love anything means to desire its actual good – it’s genuine flourishing. Nations do not flourish, not truly, when they run roughshod over their own or other people’s justice, order, and peace. So the true nationalist will strive for national virtue. Seen in this way, it becomes evident that, in its own peripatetic way, too little love-of-nation is just as bad as too much.
Returning to our potentially mawkish beginning, we must observe that while nationhood may or may not be a right, it is a responsibility. Rightly or wrongly, a people’s majority, however scant, came to believe that their nation has been for too long irremediably leased out. They have, then, reasserted, however tentatively, their claim to the responsibility of national sovereignty. Delegated responsibility ought not be abdicated.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence
(This essay has been edited after publication for clarity and to correct some knuckle-headed errors)