Monday, 21 October 2019

An eighteenth century solution to Brexit

In 2016, the ‘Leave’ campaign sailed to referendum victory on the back of a promise to ‘Take back control’. The slogan has been much derided. ‘Anti-Leavers’ quickly rallied to ask awkward questions: Did these people not realise that a post-Brexit United Kingdom (UK) would have less geopolitical clout? That Britain would still have to ‘take rules’ from Brussels (and other powers) if it wanted to trade with them? Was it not just a cover for Leavers’ real motives: racism and xenophobia? In this framing, the Brexit referendum became a choice between an insular (and outdated) national politics on the one hand, and an outward-looking globalism on the other. According to this view, ‘Leave’ voters chose isolationism in a world that is growing ever more inter-connected: in short, they were on the wrong side of history.

Yet this dichotomy – national versus supranational – is a simplification. It has made debate over Brexit more polarised than it needs to be. The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ can be narrow and isolationist; it can even be a cover for English ethnic nationalism. But these are not the only explanations for why the message resonated with millions of voters in 2016. Some of these voters were committed English nationalists, but most were not. For them, ‘take back control’ tapped into a looser sense of political exclusion from a supranational elite; a sense of some level of political control having been lost in the process of globalisation. They wanted to be part of something larger than themselves – to be citizens of ‘somewhere’, as opposed to Theresa May’s notorious ‘nowhere’. But is that greater entity necessarily a nation state? There are other ways that gap can be plugged.

Suspicions of a loss of control in a globalising order have a longer and more sympathetic history than ethnic nationalism. The hopes and fears of ‘Leavers’ may be better understood not by turning to nineteenth- or twentieth-century jingoism, but rather an earlier tradition: the ‘country’ or civic republican thinking which shaped British politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Discussion in this period revolved around the problems of balancing the geopolitical and economic advantages of the financial revolution, with concerns that power might become too concentrated in the hand of an impenetrable elite. Individuals associated with the English ‘country’ or classical republican tradition were deeply suspicious of the new order. Quentin Skinner has described the civic republican mentality as concerned with ‘freedom as non-domination’, while John Pocock places greater emphasis on the participatory side of the republican ideal, which called for politics to be built on civic virtue. Understood in these terms, the suspicious language of civic republicanism bears at least a passing resemblance to much ‘Leave’ rhetoric, and points towards some polemical strategies that might be used today. Perhaps renewed emphasis on a participatory, civic politics is the best remedy to the perceived loss of community which accompanies globalisation. It is an idiom which has the potential to both take seriously ‘Leave’ concerns and avoid ceding intellectual ground to the far right.

The particular forms of globalisation in the twentieth-first century are new, as is its scale. Yet the experience of the world feeling suddenly larger and more complicated is not. In 1719, three hundred years ago, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, his most famous work and well-known contender for the title of first English novel. Mr Crusoe, who sets sail to seek his fortune at sea in spite of warnings from his superstitious family, proved immediately popular with the reading public. His adventures captured something of the spirit of a new age. The Bank of England had been founded as a private joint-stock bank in 1694, new credit-based forms of finance were on the ascent and Britain was fast becoming a powerful trading empire. New opportunities abounded, encouraging Mr Crusoe’s real-life equivalents to take to the seas in pursuit of commercial reward.

But new opportunities were accompanied by new dangers. Like Mr Crusoe’s voyages, the financial revolution was not all plain sailing. In 1720, stocks in the South Sea Company – artificially inflated by speculation – crashed. The burst bubble ruined numerous shareholders and caused disruptive ripples in in the wider economy. It was a moment of reckoning for London’s political elite, prompting a parliamentary inquiry and much pamphleteer soul-searching. For many long-term sceptics of new finance, this was a vindication of all their fears.

The hopes and fears of ‘Leavers’ may be better understood not by turning to nineteenth- or twentieth-century jingoism, but rather an earlier tradition: the ‘country’ or civic republican thinking which shaped British politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

By 1720, jeremiads against credit-based finance were well-established. The financial innovations of 1694 to 1720 were closely associated with the court Whig elite who had gained access to power since Protestant King William III toppled Catholic James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. So-called ‘old’ or ‘country’ Whigs, critical of their erstwhile Whig allies who had now accepted court patronage, and Tories, who felt excluded by the new order, warned that new systems of credit were a threat to liberty. Their warnings drew on a classical republican ideal, in which liberty was founded on civic virtue. This was a political philosophy which placed great emphasis on the need to have a stake in society. Landowners were the guarantors of liberty. The landowning citizen’s desire to preserve their own independence would translate – so the theory ran – into a desire to protect the liberty of the whole.

Threats to liberty in this worldview came from excessive centralisation of power in the monarch. If too high a proportion of the political classes became dependent on royal patronage, the independence of the gentry would be compromised, and with it the liberty of the nation. In the 1690s, William III’s desire to keep a standing army in peacetime was a particular focus of classical republican protest. Classical republicans preferred the idea of voluntary militias; property owners could then fight for their own and their country’s liberty, without a permanent land force threatening coercion from the centre. The army was a threat, insisted classical republicans, because it could be used to take away liberties, even if William, a ‘virtuous’ prince, was not himself planning any moves in that direction. As John Trenchard, a leading ‘country’ Whig polemicist, wrote at the height of the crisis in 1698:

If this Army dos not inslave us, it is barely because we have a virtuous Prince that will not attemt it; and ‘tis a most miserable thing to have no other Security for our Liberty, than the Will of a Man, tho the most just Man living.

If the dominance of the court was a concern, the rise of a financial class trading in credit seemed to classical republicans an even more unsavoury prospect. Like Machiavelli’s fortuna, credit was represented a woman, flighty and unreliable. It turned property from something stable and solid into something vague and intangible. As Jonathan Swift put it in The Examiner in 1710: ‘Power, which, according to the old Maxim, was used to follow Land, is now gone over to Money.’ Those who dealt in credit could be wealthy and influential, but this wealth was not fixed in one place. Its owners’ loyalties could not be guaranteed in the same way that those of the landed class – whose wealth tied them down to Britain and British interests – could. Land was patriotic in a way credit-based commerce was not. The critique was a powerful one. Campaigns for liberty against court corruption and the murky, intangible powers of high finance shaped political discourse throughout the eighteenth century.


Britain has a chance to position itself as a defender of civic independence, interested in international connections but aware too of the power of the local.

Yet, as historians such as Julian Hoppit and John Brewer have emphasised, it was also clear to many that the financial revolution offered great benefits. Court Whig propagandists hit back, emphasising the need for a standing army to defend British liberty against hostile neighbours. Credit in the form of public debt could help win wars, as would become increasingly clear as the century wore on. ‘The national Debt was contracted in Defence of our Liberties and Properties, and for the Preservation of our most excellent Constitution from Popery and Slavery’, wrote an anonymous pamphleteer in 1733. Some hoped that a strong commercial presence might obviate the need for Britain to go to war at all: the cooperative sociable nature of trade – the ‘doux commerce’, in Montesquieu’s famous phrase – provided a new model for international relations based on peaceful exchange.

Mr Defoe built his career as a polemicist on an effort to emphasise the compatibility of commerce with liberty. For many years, this secured his place in the canon of founding fathers of liberalism. But the ‘court Whig’ narrative developed by Mr Defoe and his political paymasters was as much republican as it was liberal. For them, participation in commerce could be an act of civic virtue. The propaganda armoury of eighteenth-century court Whiggism rested on such claims, in which a true citizen must have a stake in and contribute to society, but such a contribution might be made through trade. It could even be made by participating in polite conversation at the local coffee-house. Discourses of ‘politeness’ and ‘manners’ were used to extend the range of activities that might be counted as virtuous; importantly, though, they were not intended as virtue’s replacement.

For the political thought of the eighteenth century, the relationship between liberty, virtue and commerce was a source of continual debate and fascination. This was no straightforward dichotomy to be drawn between defenders of domestic liberty and the proponents of Britain as an outward-looking trading power. Instead, political thinkers of all parties found various accommodations between liberty and property rights, virtue and commerce.

Today politics is once again dominated by conflict between the dictates of intangible transnational financial systems and continued suspicions that such systems may be little more than a cover for tyrannical seizure of long-guarded liberties. ‘Leavers’ – rather like ‘country’ Whigs – are often accused of being inward-looking, focusing too heavily on domestic considerations. They are frowned on for emphasising abstract concepts like liberty at the expense of the consideration of real power in the international arena. But those making such accusations should note the powerful hold that such ideas of liberty had and continue to have in British thinking. The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ is easily derided, as Mr Defoe easily derided the opponents of the standing army. But as he also recognised in his earlier age of expanding horizons, the best arguments for participation in global commerce will find ways to build in a defence of liberty and civic ties closer to home too. In our own age of post-imperial politics, Britain has a chance to position itself as a defender of civic independence, interested in international connections but aware too of the power of the local.


This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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