“Given Pinder’s distaste for academia, I don’t imagine he would be fond of this kind of Platonic utopia.”
In his July 14th Merion West letter, Clive Pinder responds to an essay of mine on the topic of Brexit. To begin with, it is worth noting that the form of Pinder’s response is extremely odd. He starts by discussing his puzzlement over the, “general animus and disdain” that much of the American mainstream media and academia hold towards Brexit. He then goes on to cite one New York Times op-ed as a reference point, as well as my recent book review. Moreover, Pinder never takes the time to note that my article was in fact a review of Professor Kevin O’Rourke’s excellent book A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, Pinder never really takes the time to distinguish between my own arguments about Brexit, my evaluation of O’Rourke’s book, and the points made by the eminent economic historian himself. Secondly, Pinder seems to be responding to an American audience when he asks whether, “the same people who clasp their hands to their chests and replicate the bombs bursting in air every Independence Day would embrace” the European Union. But O’Rourke is Irish, and, as I pointed out in my review, his book is quite gloomy about the potential impacts Brexit may have on his country, economically—and with reference to the prospect of escalating violence along a potential hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. So O’Rourke certainly has every right to be concerned. And anyone, for that matter, has a right to be concerned since the impact of the Brexit vote has resonated far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.
Despite these confusions, I will try to address each of Pinder’s points one at a time to illustrate why I think the pessimistic appraisal of Brexit that O’Rourke and I share is warranted. I will also highlight some of the unusual claims made in his letter.
Brexit and the Economy
Pinder begins his letter by pointing out that the gloomy economic projections predicted by “Leave” haven’t come to pass and, in fact, that the British economy is doing quite well at the moment. As he puts it:
“The facts tell a different story. The British economy has the highest levels of employment in modern history and the highest levels of Foreign Direct Investment of any EU country. Indeed, UK PLC enjoys better growth than Germany. The reality is that, despite predictions by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (an unrepentant “Remainer”) that a ‘Leave’ vote would cause an ‘immediate and profound’ economic shock with ‘rising unemployment and a recession,’ the sky has still not fallen.”
Right off the bat it is worth noting that Pinder seems to have misrepresented the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond. He does not cite the specific quote by Hammond on the Brexit vote, so it is impossible to determine what Pinder is referring to. I suspect Pinder is actually referring to the Brexit supporting economist Liam Halligan’s recent comments about Hammond. But for the record, Hammond did not occupy the position of Chancellor prior to the Brexit vote, being appointed by Theresa May in July 2016 after the referendum occurred. And despite Pinder painting Hammond as an, “unrepentant Remainer,” that same year he gave a speech mentioning the “turbulence” caused by the Brexit vote after the pound tumbled relative to the U.S. dollar. Nevertheless, he emphatically voiced his opinion that the “Leave” vote, “gave clear voice to a desire by the British people for an end to political union and a restoration of control” and that the U.K. was leaving the EU “no ifs, no buts, no second referendums.” Pinder seems confused between Hammond’s position on the potential turbulence caused by the Brexit vote, whose outcome he accepted, and the Chancellor’s gloomy appraisal of a potential no-deal Brexit. For instance in 2018, Hammond released a report forecasting serious economic downturn if the U.K. leaves the EU without a good deal in place. None of this has happened yet, so it is impossible to tell whether the worst case scenarios will emerge. But, despite Pinder’s positive appraisal of the British economy, we already have reason for concern.
Recent studies by the Center for Economic Policy Research estimate the cumulative loss associated with the Brexit vote to be about 50 billion pounds, or roughly 350 million pounds each week. The same Center estimates that investment has dropped off by six percent. A growing number of British firms are increasingly leaving the country to set up shop elsewhere, deeply concerned that a No-Deal scenario will chill their access to European markets. Even the Deloitte Press Release cited by Pinder to support his position points out that, though foreign investment in the UK remains high, leaving the EU jeopardizes that. As put by David Sproul, the Chief Executive of Deloitte UK and Northern Europe:
“The levels of investment the country has attracted over previous years from foreign investors is testimony to the excellent business, legal, regulatory and social environment that the UK has created. Yet as the UK nears its departure from the European Union there are some major issues that need to be addressed in order to maintain the country’s status as one of the world’s most popular FDI destinations. Whether that’s the ability to access the best talent or safeguard supply chains, uncertainty around Brexit could threaten the UK’s current high standing.”
And it is worth noting that these are just the consequences of voting to leave the European Union. While the British economy has continued to grow since 2016, albeit at a more sluggish pace according to the Office of National Statistics, the doom and gloom scenarios mocked by Pinder haven’t come to pass yet since the country hasn’t left the EU. It is impossible to say with certainty whether pessimists will wind up vindicated, though a majority of economists remain worried, much as they were prior to the vote.
Democracy and Brexit
Pinder’s article then goes on to make some truly odd claims. He first asks why the “establishment” continues to frame Brexit in terms of “right and wrong.” No reference is given to help us understand who makes up this ambiguous establishment. Pinder then goes on to state the claim in a different way, arguing that to frame the issue in terms of right and wrong is intellectually bankrupt.
“Those in power will always prefer the status quo, so trying to frame such a critical socio-political issue in terms of who is right and who is wrong is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest; it is also politically disingenuous. The issue that divides Britain isn’t that one group is wrong. It is that one group holds a different set of principles and values to the other. Neither set is misanthropic nor malevolent.”
Firstly, who are these powerful figures Pinder is referring to? Is the governing Tory party the establishment which prefers “Remain” to Brexit? Why then are we on the verge of hard Brexiter Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister? Is it me? Kevin O’Rourke and other academic economists and economic historians? Secondly Pinder makes the meta-ethically subjectivist claim that, “critical socio-political issue(s)” shouldn’t be framed in terms of right and wrong, since one group just holds a different sets of principles and values to the other. But Pinder himself has a view on what the right thing to do is: leave the European Union. If there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether Brexit is the correct course to take, what is he doing writing a letter criticizing the opposing side? Following his own logic, “Remainers” simply have a, “different set of principles and values” to those who support “Leave.” Pinder, by that line of thinking, has no right to criticize their positions any more than he believes they can criticize his.
Pinder then goes on to frame the division between “Remainers” and “Leavers” in broad but extremely vague ideological terms. He argues that most “Remainers” support, “collectivism,” the belief that, “individuals and their nation-state should put aside their innate values and beliefs in the interest of the common good.” By contrast those who support Brexit, “tend to believe in the power of individual rights with mutual responsibility. They believe that nation states should be run by directly elected and accountable representatives who have control over a country’s borders, laws, security, currency, economic policy, taxation, and trade. Leavers often value cultural identity, national values, and patriotic personality in a world of diversity and individuality. A world of independent yet interdependent nation states.”
This distinction makes little sense. First, Pinder does not cite anyone who actually holds to these belief systems, let alone does he provide any evidence to make us believe these are accurate representations of the views held by different social groups. Secondly, Pinder’s own categorization is self-contradictory. If Brexit supporters are individualists, why do they care about shared identities revolving around the nation-state, cultural identity, and so on? To invoke Pinder’s preferred terminology (I hate this term but let’s roll with it) a national and cultural identity is very much “collective.” So the distinction between collectivism and individualism makes no real sense in this context. Indeed, one could even argue that “Remainers” are more individualistic than their Brexit supporting counterparts. To give just one example, the European Union’s open door immigration policy is predicated on the belief that individuals should be able to work where and when they please within the Eurozone. By contrast, the concerns over immigration felt by many “Brexiters” are at least partly motivated by a desire to advance a certain collective nationalist vision of what constitutes Britishness.
Pinder then tries to gloss up his arguments by claiming that Plato promoted the, “liberal democracy of Athens.” This is apparently because Plato believed that a need for identity and equality lay at the “core” of human beings. This is simply wrong on many fronts. Firstly, Athens was not a “liberal democracy.” It was a restrictive direct democracy with institutions and practices which looked very different from the liberal democracies which emerged in the 18th century. Secondly, Plato was scathingly critical both of Athenian democracy and arguments for political equality. This flowed from his belief that most individuals were not intellectually or morally competent to rule. In The Republic, he argued that an elitist caste of hyper-educated Philosopher Kings should rule, while the majority of citizens engaged in menial tasks and defense work. Given Pinder’s distaste for academia, I don’t imagine he would be fond of this kind of Platonic utopia.
Pinder then goes on to say some patriotic but largely ancillary things about the United Kingdom, many of which are just asserted. Does Pinder really know that the United Kingdom has, “the most respected and revered legal, governance, and democratic architectures?” According to Freedom House’s 2018 Ranking, it barely cracks the top twenty freest states. He then makes some arguments that the European Union is insufficiently democratic. I actually agree with some of these positions and have said so before. But Pinder substantially overstates his case when he claims that the European Commission is the, “only body that can write and withdraw primary legislation” and is not directly accountable to citizens in any way. The elected European Parliament is, in fact, the legislative body of the European Union. While it does not possess the direct right of legislative initiative as other parliaments do, it is permitted to ask the Commission to submit a proposal for legislation. Moreover, member-states also enjoy substantial veto powers over many areas of EU law. Finally, on some of the areas emphasized by “Brexiters” as a reason for “taking back control” of nation sovereignty—for instance immigration from non EU countries—the United Kingdom already had complete jurisdiction.
Finally, Pinder concludes with a statement that politics is ultimately about emotion as much as facts and reason, invoking Ayaan Ali’s term “emocracy” to describe what is occurring in the United Kingdom today.
“Yet, beyond facts and history, ‘Leavers’ simply embraced the principle of an independent nation state. They voted with their hearts as well as their heads and wallets. Their choice echoed history and was formed in a crucible of emotion, not just in the logic of debate. Great Britain is today an ’emocracy,’ a term coined by Ayaan Hirsi Ali to reflect the reality that politics is as much about ideas, principles, and values as it is about policy, facts, and reason,” he writes.
He also invokes a majoritarian conception of liberal democracy to justify the Brexit referendum: “However, a majority was motivated by a different—yet equally considered—code. What is the point of a liberal representative democracy if not to champion and reflect the principles and values of the majority?”
Firstly Pinder once again makes a serious error by claiming that the point of a “liberal representative democracy” is championing the principles and values of the majority. As figures like the American Founding Fathers argued, one of the virtues of liberalism was precisely to counter the influence of majoritarianism. The founders of liberalism were deeply worried about a potential “tyranny of the majority” and argued for significant institutional safeguards to protect against it. Secondly, Pinder might be troubled that recent reports show a majority of voters would now vote to remain in the EU. This is highly problematic for majoritarians like Pinder. If the majority’s will at any given moment should be all that matters, doesn’t that mean we must respect its opinions even when they change?
I’ll close with this. Pinder’s invocation of the emotional basis of politics is very proximate to how I’ve described post-modern conservatism. It is a kind of reactionary outlook based around affective attachments to given identities, a subjectivist and skeptical epistemology and meta-ethics, and a tendency to take an antagonistic “them” (in this case the alleged establishment) vs. “us” approach to politics. Since I have already described what is wrong with this position at length, I will just say that adopting the post-modern conservative approach to politics would be a mistake. It is true that many are emotionally attached to it, and their concerns should be respected. But that doesn’t mean they are “right,” and confusing this point by suggesting there are no correct or incorrect views, just different values and beliefs, is highly dangerous.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.