Classical liberalism, Britain’s Conservative Party – and Brexit

Daniel Hannan is a polite, erudite and humorous author (who also writes a column for The Sun newspaper). He is a self-described Old Whig, and is one of the four surviving British Conservative party members of the European Parliament.

And he is a leading Brexiteer.  In a tolerant globalising sort of way – arguing for freer trade, more skilled migration and protecting the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK.

He provides a case study of those classical liberals in the Conservative party who have been won over to Brexit.

For these folk, free exchange in markets has two main benefits: as a source of prosperity and as a bulwark of political liberty.

So their view of the EU in its early days was often positive.  They saw it as an engine for freer markets throughout Europe by promoting internal competition, even while it sheltered the continent’s industries behind a common tariff.

But that trend has waned, certainly since the 2008 financial crisis.  And as more power has accrued to the central institutions, the EU has adopted a more overt policy of managing markets and restricting competition.  Classical liberals are less certain of Europe’s commitment to prosperity through free exchange.

With regard to political liberty, the classical liberal is interested in sovereignty, rather than nationalism.

Such liberals could be tolerant of EU membership when its reach was limited.  The limited nature of the British commitment meant their views more easily aligned with the majority of the British electorate, traditionally suspicious of European integration. That is why Britain invariably held back from the biggest strides towards federalism – eschewing the Schengen free movement zone, avoiding the commitments of the EU’s Social Chapter, or not joining the Euro and its unified monetary regime – and why British political leaders, from John Major to Tony Blair, were wary of testing that commitment through popular referenda.

Classical liberals also drew comfort from membership of a club from which it was possible to resign.  Indeed, British diplomats made much of their success in the EU’s 2008 constitutional revamp in codifying a constitutional right to leave the EU (this is the Article 50 under which Britain gave notice of Brexit).

But the 2008 constitutional arrangements also removed the national veto in many areas, decisively moving economic and regulatory power to the European centre. Classical liberals noted the diminution in sovereignty.  Those who felt British governance was better and more securely exercised at the national level changed their views on the desirability of British EU membership accordingly.

But only some.  Hannan is illuminating in assessing this split among friends on the ConservativeHome website. Reviewing the memoirs of former Conservative PM David Cameron (who called the referendum on EU membership in an attempt to settle the issue once and for all) he observes:

“One thing, though, leaps out of Cameron’s book. He never really got Euroscepticism or Eurosceptics. He sees opposition to European amalgamation as an eccentricity verging on a mild mental disorder. The idea that it might matter to people more than, say, party loyalty leaves him genuinely nonplussed …”.

The issue of sovereignty is less important for a Cameron liberal than a Hannan liberal, and Cameron was more inclined to see proponents as narrow nationalists.  Hannan again:

” … [Cameron] writes of the present Prime Minister: “Boris had become fixated on whether we could pass legislation that said UK law was ultimately supreme over EU law.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to him that this question – the essence of what it means to be an independent country – might genuinely matter. Johnson, we are invited to assume, cannot truly have cared about what Cameron describes as the “bugbear of the most evangelical Eurosceptics”. The only explanation for his behaviour, the former leader implies, is careerism.

In fact, Johnson – a long-standing critic of Euro-federalism – was tortured by the sovereignty question. I know, because I spent much of 2015 trying to persuade him to come out for Leave.”

So – where do the classical liberals go now?  Hannan neatly defines their position in a pro-Brexit Tory party.  His view would be rejected by the Conservative party’s rebel MPs (although few of them seem to be his match in intellectual rigour, with the possible exception of former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve). They have been drawn into breaking with their party because of their overriding wish to remain in the EU or their opposition to a ‘no deal’ Brexit (which thanks to the absence of choices from Brussels is fast becoming the same thing).

The options are limited. While they were an influence in Tony Blair’s 1997 – 2007 Labour government, there is cold comfort for them in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour administration.  The Liberal Democrat commitment to return to full EU membership would satisfy but one aspect of their creed.

Whilst one can’t disprove the possibility that Brexit takes the nasty populist-nationalist turn forecast by elite opinion, Hannan (and indeed Boris Johnson) are suggesting that there is a more hopeful, attractive – and classically liberal – path.

One thought on “Classical liberalism, Britain’s Conservative Party – and Brexit

  1. The EU is no place for classical liberals. According to Guy Verhofstadt, its Brexit Coordinator, Brussels desires to become an “Empire”, or so he told anti-Brexit UK Liberal Democrats in a speech this week. With its continuing demands for “more Europe” the EU has left the UK, not vice versa. I am puzzled by the NZ media’s hostility to Brexit. The EU has done huge damage to New Zealand’s economy over the past 40 years. They are no friends of ours.

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