The wordings of the new commemorative Brexit coin from the Royal Mint would sound strikingly familiar to a lot of Americans. The coin, to be released Jan. 31, reads, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” This channels Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural speech, wherein he pledged his country forward toward a future of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
While America has given up on the realism of no “entangling alliances,” and Britain is not going to turn from a parliamentary monarchy to a constitutional republic any time soon, these words somehow reflect a new direction, a closing of the gaps that have been haunting for the last 30 or so years. As the rest of Europe grows ever distant and even antagonistic to the United States, one country, tethered not just by politics but by language, culture, kinship, and common law, will remain close.
This island now feels the same nationalism and optimism as its former colony once felt, trying to forge a shaky but independent way ahead, coming out of an empire.
What Does Freedom Mean to the United Kingdom?
The culmination of Brexit has been interesting. The prime minister notified the nation with a short tweet, without much fanfare or boisterous triumphalism. House of Commons leader and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, quoting Edward Gibbon, reminded the country it is not economic prosperity but the true freedom — “the first of earthly blessings, independence” — which is the key.
True freedom is not just predicated on cheap, Chinese-made toasters and 40 different cuisines in the poshest corners of London. True freedom is the power to pull up the drawbridge and put a flag on the ramparts. If a country cannot make its own laws and guard its own borders, dictated instead by the rules of a foreign elite in a distant city, it is not truly free.
Amid this quiet patriotic surge, the other side is reaching its fourth stage of grief — depression — resulting in some hilarious reactions. Labour members of Parliament, including Lord Adonis and Tony Blair’s former press secretary Alastair Campbell, have vowed never to use the coin, whereas arch-liberal author Sir Philip Pullman asked people to boycott the coin because it didn’t have an Oxford comma. Try to imagine for a moment the absurdity of the author of “His Dark Materials” series, throwing a tantrum and refusing to take a Brexit coin when he’s out to buy a shaving razor. It is painful to contemplate what derangement syndromes can wreak.
The irony of this is what John Gray, possibly the finest living philosopher in the Anglosphere, wrote about recently: the contradictions of the theory of liberal internationalism. Just like any utopian theory with a providential end, liberalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
“The contradictions of liberal autonomy have returned a hundred years later in the EU,” Gray writes, as “[t]he European project is an attempt to construct a polity that transcends the national identities of the last century. The trouble is, this is in effect another kind of nationalism, one that cannot be reconciled with democracy.” It is that contradiction which led people to react, and it was a reaction against an overwhelming edifice. The center couldn’t hold.
Three models of governance will be evident in the future, three allied and three antagonistic. If one considers the Trumpian hegemonic-protectionist model as the new American normal, the other two allied models are the free-trade Britain/Australia model and the religious conservative Hungary/Poland/India model. These countries will be instinctively allied to the United States despite some differences. While these two models will be allied with the American model, the oligarchic (Russia), totalitarian (China), and imperial-technocratic-democratic-socialist (German/EU) models will be seen as adversarial.
Brexit Was Necessary Upheaval
Britain will face challenges. For starters, London needs to choose a side. It’s one thing to charm your way out of a pickle; it’s another to actually choose a side when needed. The Huawei spat is indicative, and London will increasingly find itself between opposing foreign policy pulls amid EU positions on Iran, Russia and China, and America.
Given that Boris Johnson needs a deal, one can see those issues cropping up. Also, the new conservatism is an uneasy combination of working-class but patriotic northern English votes, with upper-class southern Tories. The lost votes from Labour will not be there forever, unless Johnson delivers on economic justice to the left-behind North.
Nevertheless, sometimes upheaval is necessary, and what an upheaval Brexit was. There’s a pearl of odd conventional wisdom among Anglo-American conservatives that the only reason for survival is to conserve the existing order. But what if the existing order is steadily progressive, or worse, not just progressive but actually revolutionary? Do you still conserve an order that is determined to transform the very existence of your society?
Everything is relative. To the earnest, late-’80s, Soviet Communist Party man, conserving the USSR empire would be important, but the people decided against it. To an American conservative, preserving the managerial ruling of the Obama years with its global climate accords and Title IX kangaroo courts at universities, not to mention encroaching transgender madness in all aspects of society, would be madness. Likewise, Brexit was a reaction — because sometimes conserving isn’t enough. A restructuring and overthrow of the ruling progressive edifice is needed.
The challenge for Johnson is to balance these instincts, but so far, he has been successful in building a coalition of voters not seen since Benjamin Disraeli, a coalition not based on race or class but on nationalism and optimism. As for Britain’s example of flipping the bird to foreign elites, one remembers the words of William Pitt the Younger commemorating Lord Nelson’s death in Great Britain’s greatest naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805: “England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.”