Brexit is just one symptom of the conflict between local and remote governance
Brexit, the pending departure of Britain from the European Union (EU), is going to dominate the news for the next month or so, and probably will be the topic of some conversations long after it actually happens (or doesn’t happen). Brexit is just one of a series of populist actions taken against the ruling hierarchies of the world. Populists and nationalists have always chaffed at the pronouncements and command-and-control tactics of the powerful, but it is with some irony that we can watch people turn to demagogues and petty tyrants for salvation. These demagogues (think of Mussolini) often have only a superficial fealty to the freedom and liberty so valued by the people who support them.
There is an oft-repeated Bedouin saying that when my brother tries to boss me around, I resist my brother. When my cousin tries to boss my brother and me around, we resist my cousin. When the stranger tries to boss me, my brothers and our cousins – we resist the strangers.
The shared theme is that neither my brothers, nor my cousins nor the strangers understand fully what I want, need or deserve. I have my own thoughts and ideas and they are valuable and have merit. The Enlightenment promised us new liberties, and we in the West value that freedom, with the dignity and the sovereignty of the individual having value against the tyrannies of the state or the King. Indeed, the 18th Century French were in awe of the relative freedoms enjoyed by the British, who, with the signing of the Magna Carta circa 1216 (and repeated re-issuing thereof), had begun the dismantling of the claims of a divine right to rule, with powers given by God, as claimed by royalty. Indeed, the Magna Carta was called “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot” (Lord Denning, 20th Century), and the Constitution is structured in part to ensure that the government never claims divine rights for itself.
So, one can argue that Brexit, and the similar rising of the populist and nationalist movements in the US as well as around the world are a reaction to the new royalists, those post-modernists who claim, not a divine right to rule, but a mandate fueled by their own sense of righteousness and a powerful belief in their vision of the state of the world.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and some of the internationalists’ ideas (e.g., low or no tariffs, dignity of the individual) are shared by the same people who chaffe at the thought of remote rulers. The sovereignty of the individual is at the heart of the Western individualism, and the consequential support for various individual freedoms (marriage, assembly and religious beliefs) is in direct opposition to the concepts of a powerful elite that would claim to know what is best for us all.
It is therefore useful to realize that Brexit was a vote against the European Union’s remote but powerful elite. Pro-Brexit voters thought politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals had returned to the sort of mentality that fueled the royalty’s claim to divine rights. Brexit, and the return to nationalism across the globe is a symptom of a reaction to that new self-righteousness by the ruling classes. As my friend likes to say — the pendulum of history is always swinging to and fro, and the new nationalism is a push back against remote forces that would claim to know the one true path.