Brexit: sipping from the poisoned chalice

The referendum has exposed the divisions in our society and the rottenness of the political system. It’s as if an earthquake just took place. We are now surveying the damage. The structures of the political world are still standing, but some are unsafe to enter – their foundations have been shaken, their facades are cracked. Watch where you stand – bits are falling off.

Behold the Labour Party. The party is split between a progressive, metropolitan elite and a Corbyn-supporting camp, while its traditional heartlands have deserted. However the Westminster party settles its infighting, will it be anything other than a head in a jar, its existence unnaturally prolonged, but dead in any meaningful sense?

The Tories have shown a greater semblance of unity in the aftermath, but we cannot be sure this edifice will stay up long. Cameron is to go. Osborne is in hiding. Only Boris has a clear path to leadership, but he will have enemies, and anyway, what does he really stand for? Did he think he would win the referendum? Does he have a plan to extricate the country from the quagmire? Time will tell.

Not only the political parties have been shaken. The British people as well, the demos, is teetering. The middle class have been defeated by a working class revolt. The metropolitans, who as a rule know Barcelona, Madrid and Paris far better than Boston, Middlesboro and Preston, are horrified to find themselves outvoted by a mass of people they had pretended didn’t exist.

The Leave voters, however, lack leadership. They are not homogeneous in any case. An In/Out referendum reduces a complex matter to that binary choice. Once held, the simple A or B unravels again into its fiendish complexity.

Britain and the other countries of Europe, both within and without the EU must find a new settlement. This necessity has come to us now, because of the historical blunder made by the British government of Edward Heath to take Britain into the EEC based of a false prospectus.

There were always two models for European co-operation. There was the model favoured by the post-WWII British governments, both red and blue; inter-governmental – the Europe of nation states, in which sovereign countries work together on a voluntary basis. And there was the model at the heart of the so-called European Project; the supranational, federal model, the aim of creating a United States of Europe, where each sovereign nation would be subsumed, and would hand over its most fundamental power to the central authority.

Either model could be argued rationally, with advantages and disadvantages to be traded on both sides. In the case of the supranational, federal model, one of the disadvantages was always that the majority of the people of the various countries of Europe would not support it, and thus if it was to stand a chance of success, it would have to be advanced through cunning and disguise. This was never more so than with the UK’s membership. To this day, its most ardent British supporters will not make the case for a federal Europe. Rather, they usually scoff at the notion that this was any more than the goal of a few starry-eyed idealists. In truth it was the goal of the very architects of the EU, and remains so for the most powerful figures of its structure.

When the UK joined the EEC, EFTA – the European Free Trade Association – had seven members to the EEC’s six. Had Britain never joined, it is possible that EFTA could have developed alongside the EEC/EC/EU, offering a viable alternative for those nations that preferred not to “pool” sovereignty in the emerging superstate.

Despite the UK’s abandonment, EFTA has continued to exist. Its membership today comprises Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. It has agreements in place with the EU over access to the Single Market. As such, it could provide a relatively simple vehicle for the UK to extricate itself from the EU without crashing the world economy. Unless I am mistaken, this is the position advanced in the FLEXIT plan. It would require a compromise on free movement of people which would not satisfy some of those who voted to leave – but you can’t please everyone.

Thursday’s Event: Mark Littlewood on Brexit

Thursday’s meeting, for all of you who can get to The Two Chairmen,39 Dartmouth Street, round the corner from Parliament Square, Westminster, is going to be good without doubt.

Switching Sides on Brexit with Mark Littlewood

Mark Littlewood is the Director General of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) the UK’s most prominent free-market think-tank, a position he has held since 2009. He is a frequent commentator on economic and political matters, both in print and the broadcast media.

Mark studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford from 1990-93 and was Campaigns Director of Liberty from June 2001 to April 2004. In 2004 he was one of the “airy fairy libertarians”, to use the words of the Home Secretary David Blunkett, who opposed the Labour government’s plan for national ID cards, and became one of the co-founders and first chairman of the campaign group NO2ID.

From December 2004, Mark served as Head of Media for the Liberal Democratic Party, a position he resigned from in May 2007, after making what the Independent newspaper called a “policy gaffe” by saying that proportional representation, one of the party’s most sacred tenets, should not be a deal breaker in any future coalition discussions with other parties. Subsequently he co-founded Progressive Vision, a think tank, which later evolved into Liberal Vision, a classical liberal grouping within the Lib Dems of which Mark was the first Director.

In 2009 Mark became the Director General of the free-market think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a position he continues to hold to this day. The IEA was established in 1955 by the Sir Anthony Fisher and Lord Harris, who served as its first Director General, with Arthur Seldon as the first Editorial Advisor. As John Blundell put it in “Waging the War on Ideas”: “Hayek advises Fisher; Fisher recruits Harris; Harris meets Seldon. In nine words, that is the start of the IEA.” In more than nine words, Anthony Fisher, inspired by his reading of Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”, seeks out Hayek, who at that time – 1945 – was at the LSE. The advice that Hayek gave was: avoid politics; and reach the intellectuals with reasoned argument – it will be their influence which will prevail. This became the inspiration to found the IEA, which to this day continues to make the intellectual case for a free economy and a free society.


When Mark took up this position, the founding generation were no longer around, and to some the IEA had lost its mojo. However, Mark quickly put his stamp on the organisation, re-energising its original mission, and nurturing an upcoming generation of libertarian activists and scholars.

Writing on Samizdata back in 2010, our own Brian Micklethwait described Mark thus: ” He has clearly always understood what classical liberalism and libertarianism are all about, and has done as much of them as he could, given the day jobs he has had.

He has always been a friendly and civilised presence, albeit rather too EUrophile for my liking.”

Given the title of Mark’s coming speech, it would appear that this last criticism may no longer be the case.

Passing thoughts on the Human Rights Act

Considering the traditional protections against the state that the individual has enjoyed in this country, I would mention off the top of my head; the right to a jury trial; the presumption of innocence; habeas corpus; the right to remain silent; the protection against double jeopardy; the right to self-defence.

I ask you; which of these was introduced by New Labour’s Human Rights Act? Of course, the answer is none. Rather these protections were established, through struggle and sacrifice, many centuries ago, notwithstanding how often they have been imperfectly upheld.

Not only do these protections predate the Human Rights Act, the very people so proud to have authored that legislation were during their time in government undermining and dismantling these age-old protections. It was New Labour that abolished the rule against double jeopardy and tried to limit jury trials. It was New Labour that sought to extend the period of incarceration without trial to three months, as well as implementing the European Arrest Warrant, both of which measures constitute a direct attack on habeas corpus. In all manner of ways, New Labour showed contempt for these traditional protections.

It should not be forgotten for a moment that this same contempt runs through our new government, as it ran through the government that preceded New Labour. As ever the case, only on the fringes of the major parties do you find people prepared to defend these rights, or recognise their significance, and it is upon these people we must depend to hold back the tide of authoritarian legislation.

It seems now the government is backing off its plan to scrap the Human Rights Act, wary that it may not be able to make up the numbers in Parliament. To the extent that this indicates the weakness of the government, it is a good thing. As the above indicates, I do not believe that the Human Rights Act is necessary to protect our freedom. Rather, the degree to which it serves any purpose marks the degree to which our old and better rights have been taken from us.

Anarchy and the Underpants Gnomes

I have made a number of comments on the thread of fellow writer Rocco’s post “Too Unlimited; Adventures in Constitutional Scepticism”, which, in the bloody ongoing feud between anarchists and minarchists, takes the side of the former. Much of the argument I can accept, as it is certainly the case that a constitutionally-guaranteed right does not necessarily stop a rampaging state, but pointing out the difficulties of limiting state power does not make the case for anarchy, especially when I am not entirely sure the anarchists know what they will either put in its place, or if the answer to this is nothing, how they will prevent others from filling the vacuum?

Thus I remarked: “I don’t really understand what you are proposing, and I’m beginning to suspect neither do you.”

To which Rocco responded;

“No monopoly rule-enforcer is required for men to live together. How precisely any particular breach of the rules would be handled in an imaginary “anarchic” situation is impossible to say a priori.”

This to me is not a satisfactory answer. Indeed it reminds me of South Park’s famous Underpants Gnomes, who were busily amassing underpants as a means to make a profit. Just how this was expected to do so, however, remained somewhat mysterious:

Returning to the subject of anarchy, the offer seems to be:

Phase one: Abolish the state. Phase two: ? Phase three; Harmony between men.

Whatever comprises Phase two, going by the quote from Rocco it must include agreeing a set of rules, for the statement to make any sense. As such, this state of anarchy will begin with some kind of social contract, however informal. If there is, per specification, no monopoly rule-enforcer, there must surely be some mechanism for enforcement of contracts, or if this is too strong, some kind of punishment through ostracism for defaulters.

Separate to contractual matters comes self-defence against violent aggression. Assuming each individual has the natural right to self-defence, then he also has the right to delegate this right, or to combine with others to form a mutual defence association. Thus, so far into the empty space left by the expiring state, we find a set of agreed rules, which I would call a social contract, and one or more mutual defence associations. These measures seem unavoidable if any kind of society is to exist, and if entered into voluntarily and only operating defensively, they are compatible with libertarian principles.

However, not everyone wants to live in peace with his neighbours. Without the apparatus of the state, there are other options to those above for the maliciously-inclined. Firstly, one may choose to be a petty criminal. Secondly, one may choose to band together in a predatory way in order to live by plunder. I shall call this the warlord option. Neither of these is permissible under the libertarian philosophy, but they are very likely to occur in a state of anarchy, as they do in a state with a functioning government, police force, legal system etc.

Based on the preceding, each individual has a choice of four options:

1)      Agree to a social contract and join a Mutual Defence Association.

2)      Keep aloof from the above, but try to live peacefully and possibly self-sufficiently.

3)      Join or form a predatory warlord militia.

4)      Live as a lone-wolf predator.

Options number one and three both represent systems which could evolve to take the place of the vanished state. The distinction between the two at the early stage is easy to see; one is voluntary and defensive, the other is predatory and offensive, and if both exist at the same time, the relationship between them will be that which exists between different nations, i.e. a Lockean state of nature, with the choice of ‘live and let live’ or ‘live and let die’.

No doubt I have overlooked and simplified many things. For instance option number one as stated sounds very individualistic, but it could take the form of a collectivist commune and still contain a social contract and a responsibility for mutual defence. Nevertheless, were the state to disappear, and ignoring the possibility of foreign intervention, it would most likely be replaced in a short space of time by a number of proto-republics and outlaw states, which would present us all with the same problems of governance and state gangsterism, but on a smaller scale.

When considering such things, more effort is needed to distinguish between what is the state, what is the law and what is government. It seems to me anarchists sometimes do not do this, and then must take refuge in vagueness, for fear of conceding anything which might drag them back towards the dreaded minarchist position.