Why I voted for Brexit: an enlightened rationale

Voting to leave the EU is not an act of petty nationalism, says Edward Chancellor, it is firmly in the tradition of one of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers.


Edward Chancellor has voted, with some trepitation, for Brexit

On the 23 June, Britain votes on whether to remain in the European Union. Being out of the country on that date, I applied for a postal vote. I have marked my ballot paper, with a certain trepidation, in favour of Brexit.

My unease derived not from a fear that a change in the status quo would unleash economic turmoil. Rather, I worried this vote conflicted with my own cosmopolitan leanings. On reflection, I decided that by rejecting the EU I showed greater fellow feeling for the citizens of Europe and was more faithful to the continent's highest ideals than those who wish to remain.

Legions of economists, policymakers and political grandees from around the world have warned of the economic threat of Brexit. These voices lack credibility. None of the Remain economists, to my knowledge, anticipated the global financial crisis. The UK Treasury claims that British incomes will be lower for years after leaving the EU. The same Treasury, however, has consistently had problems forecasting next year's UK GDP. Not long ago, many politicians and business people argued that Britain would miss out if we didn't join the European single currency. We now know that the real calamity would have been joining the euro.

In truth, the greatest economic risk posed by Brexit comes from the threat of retaliation by our erstwhile European "partners." Given that Britain runs a large trade deficit with Europe, a trade war would be irrational. It is a poor reflection on the EU that such a threat should be credible.

Of course, leaving the single market creates uncertainty a state of affairs which repels the modern breed of policymaker. In the past, developed economies have withstood far greater shocks. The growth of the US economy, for instance, was only temporarily set back by the Great Depression. Nor did it take many years after 1945 for Germany's output per capita to return to its pre-war trend. It's inconceivable, in my view, that Brexit could by itself permanently damage Britain's economic prospects.

Even if the economic arguments are overblown, doesn't a vote for Brexit reveal an unattractive petty nationalism at odds with the modern progressive values? Or, as the daughter of a friend put it: with my vote I was putting myself in bad company. I don't believe so. At university, I read 18th century European history. The ideals of the Enlightenment a preference for reason over tradition, for economic individualism over state control, for toleration over bigotry, and a belief that relationships between nations should be governed by the rule of law remain close to my heart. The same notions guided the founding fathers of the post-war European project.

Unfortunately, during the course of its evolution, the EU has betrayed those ideals. In 1795, Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who coined the term "Enlightenment" (in German Aufklrung), wrote Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. In this essay, Kant showed profound respect for a state's separate identity: a state "like the stem of a tree has its own root to incorporate it as a graft on another state, is to destroy its existence as a moral person." The consequence of bundling states together, even when done peacefully through dynastic alliances, would be that the "subjects of the state are used and abused as things that may be managed at will."

Kant preferred republican government, which he defined as one which gained the "consent of citizens as members of the state," to despotism characterised by "the irresponsible executive administration of the state by laws laid down and enacted by the same power that administers them." While Kant proposed an international federation of states to avoid war, this "would not have to take the form of a state made up of these nations." Such a super-state would not allow the existence of a free state, which by definition both made and applied its own laws: "Each state," wrote Kant, "places its majesty (for it is absurd to speak of the majesty of the people) in being subject to no external juridical restraint."

Since inception in the 1950s, the European project has morphed from Kant's ideal of an international federation into something akin to the late Habsburg empire, a sprawling and fractious conglomeration of nations riven by centripetal forces. The EU's form of government, in Kantian terms, can be described as "despotic" since the public's consent has not been gained.

During the interminable years of the euro crisis, unemployment in parts of Europe has exceeded Great Depression levels. If the EU cared for its citizens, or was properly accountable, substantive reforms would have been enacted. This hasn't happened. As a result, discontent across Europe is fostering political extremism of the 1930s variety. A vote for Brexit, I believe, puts me in the best company. It shows solidarity with the European public and complies with the principles of Kant, the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers.

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