The desire of many British citizens to leave the European Union is being assailed by American cultural elites as hysteria: a cancerous growth from the blighted soil of nativism, nationalism, and Islamophobia. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, for example, finds it “unimaginable” that most Britons would vote “yes” in the June 23 referendum, known as Brexit: “I believe that reason will prevail over derangement.”
Only a degraded form of liberalism, however, fails to see why Great Britain might view the European Union with dismay. Whatever its noble intentions, the EU has come to embody a set of values fundamentally at odds with Britain’s historical ideals and institutions. Put simply, British exceptionalism will never make its peace with the secular and leftist assumptions of the European project.
Britain’s political and social institutions, nourished by these ideas, stretch back centuries. “Where French kings relied on authority and force, the English sought consent and co-operation at every level, from Parliament to parish,” writes John Miller, professor of history at the University of London. “Louis XIV’s success owed much to the fact that the ruling elite and the king’s officials generally accepted the principles of absolutism. There was no such acceptance in England.”
That’s right — long before Madison, Jefferson, and Rousseau, English revolutionaries were rejecting political absolutism. They proclaimed man’s natural and inalienable rights and reimagined the purposes of government in light of these rights.
Now compare this with what Hobbes might call “the mighty leviathan” of the European Union. The Council of Ministers, the EU’s most powerful decision-making body, is made up of non-elected civil servants who can impose policies on member states without approval by those states. Although Britain remains outside of the euro, it is subject to laws generated by the unelected EU Commission: regulations, at least a thousand a year, which dictate everything from the size of olive-oil containers to immigration policy. Meanwhile, an unaccountable European Court of Justice decides whether British domestic law is in sync with EU law.
Great Britain’s discomfort with the European project has deeper historical roots.
Perhaps the best summary of the EU’s trampling over British sovereignty comes from Justice Secretary Michael Gove. “As a minister I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer, or fairer,” Gove explained in announcing his support for Brexit. “It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on minsters’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country.”
It’s true that Europe’s immigration and debt crises have added momentum to the campaign for EU withdrawal. But Great Britain’s discomfort with the European project has deeper historical roots. “For the English-speaking peoples, this is an opportunity to reflect on the benediction of our birth,” writes Daniel Johnson, editor of the London-based Standpoint. “No other family of nations has made so many converts for Western civilization, thanks to the ubiquity of the language and the uniqueness of the values which our intellectuals scorn at their peril.”
Ironically, some Brexit opponents invoke Winston Churchill — whose commitment to defending Britain’s political achievements was second to none — as one of the founders of the European Union. In a speech at Zurich University on September 19, 1946, with the dreadful prospect of European disunity amid the rising menace of Soviet Communism, Churchill called for a “United States of Europe.” The objective, he said, was to provide a structure under which the nations of Europe “can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.”
It is one of the achievements of the European Union — aided mightily by the United States and NATO — that the prospect of another European war is inconceivable. Peace on that troubled continent has been secured.
Nevertheless, thanks in part to the creeping despotism of EU institutions, Churchill’s other objectives for European unity — safety and freedom — are under assault. And no nation in Europe is more appalled by this assault than Britain, the longtime defender of security and freedom in Europe. From Henry V at Agincourt (1415), to Wellington at Waterloo (1815), to the British Expeditionary Force at the Somme (1916), to the Commonwealth troops at Normandy (1944) — England’s cultural identity is bound up with “preserving the liberties of Europe.”This is British exceptionalism, something liberal intellectuals cannot abide. It is also a feature of the national character, which most Britons cannot disown. Locke captured well the English disposition during the nation’s hour of revolution: “For when the people are made miserable, and find themselves exposed to the ill usage of arbitrary power . . . [they] will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them.”
As the British people seek to lift the burden of arbitrary power from their island nation, they should know they have allies across the Pond — grateful inheritors of the same spirit of liberty.
— Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.