By our guest contributor, Alexander Boot
Was Brexit a success? My friend Tony, a learned and intelligent man but, alas, an empiricist, thinks it was an abject failure.
That’s his privilege – we are all entitled to our unsound opinions. Yet the way he argues the case proves the inherent shortcomings of empiricism when it’s applied to fundamental issues, not just to calculations of compounded interest or advisability of prison reform.
In the good Cartesian tradition, before we try to answer the question above we ought to define success. I propose this working definition: achieving the result intended.
Yes, that seems to work. Thus a man who pops out for a pint of milk and accidentally finds a million pounds in a sack isn’t ipso facto successful. He is merely lucky – his good fortune didn’t come as the result he had set out to achieve when deciding to go to the Co-Op.
Conversely, a man who divorces his wife isn’t a failure because as an immediate result his house becomes a shambles (in the unlikely event he has been able to hold on to it). Though neatness is desirable, he didn’t file for divorce to keep his house spick-and-span.
If you accept this definition, then you have to agree that Brexit was a qualified success, when measured against the intended effect.
Alas, before Brexit became a fait accompli and when the debates about it still raged, both sides indulged in much crepuscular thinking. The problem was that empiricism, which I identify as my friend’s intellectual drawback, is almost a national characteristic of the British.
Unlike so many continentals, Britons like to dine on meaty facts, not pies in the sky. And meaty facts tend to have an empiricist, materialist flavour: physical pounds and pence are palpable, metaphysical convictions and beliefs are not.
This sort of thing is like aspirin: in small doses it can relieve your headache. But take too much of it, and your stomach will bleed.
The positive effect of their innate empiricism is that it often inoculates Britons against abstractions and toxic ideologies, especially those of megalomaniac proportions. It’s not for nothing that Edmund Burke identified prudence as the highest political virtue. And ideologies may be many things, but prudent is never one of them.
So far so sensible. But unfortunately sober British thinkers often throw the baby of principles and convictions out with the bathwater of ideologies. That often leads to category errors, such as the one my friend is committing.
He lists all our post-Brexit failures, displaying an enviable command of facts and figures. Going over his checklist of our woes, one has to put a tick next to each one.
Economy in the doldrums, tick. Incompetent and corrupt government, tick. Even worse, a socialist government, tick. Politicised and inept civil service, tick. Soaring crime rate, tick. Third-world healthcare, tick. Education that doesn’t educate, tick. Collapsing moral standards, tick. Noxious wokery everywhere, tick. And so on, all the way down the list – ticks all around.
At this point one may engage the argument on my friend’s terms by pointing out, for example, that few of those problems were caused by Brexit and fewer still could have been solved by our continuing membership in the EU. Therefore his reasoning is plagued by the well-known rhetorical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after it, therefore because of it).
But this debating strategy would be a mistake because it would lose sight of the fundamental category error underpinning my friend’s argument.
Yes, Brexit would be an abject failure if its intended result was an instant improvement in the economy, education, medical care and law enforcement. But it wasn’t. The whole point of Brexit was to re-establish the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
And sovereignty is a legal and, if you will, metaphysical concept. It can only be evaluated in the context of the centuries of British history, the nature of the country’s institutions, the specificity of the nation’s ethos and character, the profound meaning of Britain’s constitution.
All of these are transcendent constants unrelated to any transient, fly-by-night fluctuations in the country’s fortunes. The constants are the yardsticks by which the success or failure of Brexit ought to be measured.
I’ve described Brexit as only a qualified success because it hasn’t been fully achieved. Perhaps one could say about it the same thing G.K. Chesterton said about Christianity: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
As I write this, 2,400 EU laws falling into over 300 policy areas are still valid in the UK. The previous Tory government had the right idea of tossing them all into a bonfire, but the idea was sabotaged by the political class within which Remainer attitudes predominate.
The point of those EU laws isn’t whether they are good, bad or indifferent. It’s that they were issued by a foreign body outside the realm of our ancient constitution. If some of those laws are indeed good, then by all means they should be reissued by our own parliament, the only legislative body that should have jurisdiction over UK laws.
A great deal of the muddle still surrounding the issue comes from the shockingly poor level of debate in the runup to Brexit. Both sides displayed that malaise of empiricism in spades.
The Remainers were warning about the imminent economic Armageddon should Britain leave the EU. The Leavers were talking up the economic heaven to which Britain could ascend by negotiating independent trade deals with Nepal and Peru, or whatever.
I was writing at the time and can still repeat now that this isn’t an economic issue. Those who insist it is are making a category error, setting up the stage for future confusion.
Keeping the issue within its proper category makes it clear-cut. Continued membership in the EU would have meant being de facto a province in a single supranational state. Within a few years de facto would have become de jure.
Regardless of the economic aspects of that arrangement (and I for one don’t think for a second the EU is a factor of long-term economic success), that’s tantamount to taking a fat blue pencil to the millennia of our history, crossing out the most ancient – and dare I say the most successful – constitution in Europe.
Even if there is an economic price to pay for sovereignty, it’s as worth paying as it was when Britain stood alone in 1940, resisting Germany’s previous attempt to unite Europe.
Once we’ve realised that, we’ve satisfied the demand for rhetorical rectitude. Now by all means let’s talk about the British economy going to the dogs, closely followed by her education, medical care and law enforcement.
But do let’s keep Brexit out of it – it belongs in a different category altogether.