As an American, the Brexit — Britain’s upcoming referendum on whether to exit the European Union — does not directly affect me, nor do I have a vote on it. But from the perspective of American history, I think I can offer some relevant context and advice.
The Brexit is a good opportunity to welcome the mother country to our revolution, because the fundamental issue in the Brexit is exactly the same as the one that impelled us to separate from Britain more than two centuries ago.
I recently took the kids to Colonial Williamsburg, a reconstruction of Virginia’s colonial capital that has been turned into a kind of living museum of revolutionary era America, where you can see re-enactors take the stage in the personae of Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of that crowd, and debate the big political issues relating to the Amerexit.
Oh yes, and we also got together in a mob outside Raleigh Tavern and hanged Lord North in effigy. See the photo at the top of this article. Most of you, I suspect, will not know who Lord North was or why we were (symbolically) hanging him. But it’s entirely relevant today.
Lord North was His Majesty’s Prime Minister during the crucial years of the American Revolution, from 1770 to 1782. The specific infractions for which he was subjected to mock trial and hanging in effigy were the Intolerable Acts, a series of punitive measures against Boston that were widely interpreted as a declaration of war against colonial America.
Today, we tend to think of the American Revolution as a war against King George III. But it was just as much a war against the British Parliament and its leadership, which was increasingly regarded by Americans as a “foreign” body that did not represent them. We already had our own, long-established legislatures (Virginia’s General Assembly, for example, will soon celebrate its 400th anniversary and is one of the oldest in the world), and we considered them to be our proper representatives, solely authorized to approve legislation on our behalf.
That was the key issue of the American Revolution: the consent of the governed. The question was whether we were to be subject to laws passed by representatives elected by and accountable to us or whether we were to be subject to the decisions of an institution that was not answerable to the people it governed. So it’s not just about rejecting the sovereignty of a hereditary monarch. It’s also about rejecting control by a distant and unaccountable bureaucracy.
Which, in an interesting historical irony, is precisely the issue Britain faces in its relationship with the European Union.
The Telegraph‘s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard puts the issue succinctly and in terms that are totally recognizable to a student of American history
Stripped of distractions, it comes down to an elemental choice: whether to restore the full self-government of this nation, or to continue living under a higher supranational regime, ruled by a European Council that we do not elect in any meaningful sense, and that the British people can never remove, even when it persists in error.
The effect of the European Union, as currently organized, is to send the mother of parliaments to a rest home. As Evans-Pritchard has recently pointed out, Britain’s judicial system has already been put into an impossible position, forced to issue a warning to the European Court that it will resist its mandates if they conflict with such ancient guarantees as the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights.
The key issue — the breaking point — is the European Union’s practice of seeking to validate its authority through popular referendums then ignoring them when they don’t get the result they wanted.
The EU crossed a fatal line when it smuggled through the Treaty of Lisbon, by executive cabal, after the text had already been rejected by French and Dutch voters in its earlier guise. It is one thing to advance the Project by stealth and the Monnet method, it is another to call a plebiscite and then to override the outcome.
He is referring to the 2005 attempt to push through the European Constitution, which was resoundingly rejected by France and the Netherlands, only to be substantially resurrected as the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.
The whole premise of the EU has become the idea of a bureaucratic clerisy holding power beyond the reach of the people. It’s the great dream of the party of big government here, too. They want to impose their policies on every issue — global warming, immigration, gun control, transgender bathrooms, and on and on — by way of regulatory rulings by an entrenched civil service, without ever having to put anything up for an actual vote by the people’s representatives. The European Union takes that idea farther, placing the bureaucratic aristocracy at an even greater remove from its subjects.
The pro-EU side of Britain’s debate makes it sound as if the Brexit would be an act of destruction carried out in a fit of irrational anger. But this is not about destroying institutions. It’s about preserving them.
It was no different for America. After I recently defended the idea of the right to depose tyrants, a friend of mine who is an historian sent me an interesting, minor correction. The Founding Fathers, he told me, described the creation of America as a “revolution,” not a “rebellion.” It’s a distinction that has largely been lost today, but they viewed a rebellion as an insurrection against legitimate authority, while a revolution was a legitimate exercise of the people’s right to change their government and its leadership, in this case by firing their “chief magistrate,” the king. But they viewed this as a way of re-establishing and reforming the legitimate authority of their own, long-established colonial legislatures.
And when you think of it, we were just following the British example. Britain had faced its own conflicts between the authority of Parliament and the overreaching ambitions of its kings, and they had already set the example of removing the king to preserve the power of Parliament. Before we did it in the 18th century, they did it in the 17th century — twice. Britain itself had established the precedents of the rule of law and the consent of the governed. I don’t know why they would want to throw that away now.
British citizens shouldn’t fear that leaving the EU will cause Britain to be “isolated.” The American example is instructive. After a little more unpleasantness (let’s not mention that unfortunate incident with the White House in 1814), Britain and America eventually settled down into our “special relationship.” Our common bonds of commerce and culture were too strong and deep to be disrupted permanently. The same will be true of Britain and Europe, only more so, since its departure will be on friendlier terms. There is no reason Britain cannot do as other European nations have done and remain part of a common market without submitting to the authority of the European Union.
That’s the choice Britain faces: to maintain the legitimate authority of its own government or to turn the country into a mere colony of Brussels. If the British want to preserve their ability to govern themselves, they will vote to leave the European Union.
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