Jean-Claude Juncker calls Brexit the ‘original sin’; Daniel Hannan writes that Brexit is turning us all into devils; it seems that theological language is inescapable. That is because theology is the language that we use when we are talking about our values, and the Brexit debate has thrown our values up in the air. Which values shall we choose? Which is really a way of asking: who are we as a people?
Much of the argument about Brexit has been conducted around economic values. The Remain argument is that the economic cost of exiting the trading arrangements of the European Union are too high for us to bear. The Leave argument is that shackling ourselves to a declining protectionist bloc misses out on the great opportunities of the wider world. Yet if we only argue about economics, we give those arguments themselves too high a value.
The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has formulated a ‘trilemma’ which I believe captures something very important for our argument. His trilemma goes as follows: there are three centres of value which are currently being debated in modern politics. The first is associated with free trade and global capitalism, and the changes that need to be made in order to allow economic growth to flourish. The second is national identity, and all the ways in which different cultural habits make communities what they are. The third is democracy, and the way in which disputes are resolved.
Rodrik’s trilemma is simply to say: you can have two out of three, you can’t have all of them, and we need to honestly and consciously make a choice.
Consider China. China has chosen to maximise economic growth, and to assert Chinese national identity – but in doing so, is drawing on non-democratic methods. In a similar way, but using the EU as their ‘national’ identity, the Remain perspective values free trade and a European Empire (© Guy Verhofstadt) and is explicitly happy to manipulate democracy to gain the required results.
An alternative perspective, which characterises contemporary political ‘common sense’ and the Conservative party, is to similarly choose economic growth but to emphasise the democratic values over against the national identity values. In other words, where there are local cultural habits that might prevent the efficient workings of capitalism, those habits can be discarded. This is the ‘Washington consensus’ that has been imposed upon economies around the world on a regular basis, often catastrophically (and those that resist this model, such as Korea, do rather well).
Which leaves a third alternative, which is to emphasise democracy and national identity, and de-emphasise the needs of free trade. This is the position of ‘national populism’, the assertion that the interests of global finance cannot be allowed to destroy local cultures. This is the position that has been hugely fuelled by the financial crisis and the reaction to austerity. It is what ultimately lies behind the vote for Brexit, and it is, I believe, the explicit value position that we in the Brexit Party need to stand for.
With his mess of a deal, Prime Minister Johnson has chosen the standard Conservative and mainstream consensus position. This can be seen in very many ways, but most saliently and explicitly in his abandonment of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. There can be no clearer image of the way in which economic interests (the desire for free trade agreements for GB) are given a higher value than national identity interests (the sense of the United Kingdom as one country).
The Remainers occupy, as stated, the non-democratic position on the trilemma. This leaves a huge opportunity for the Brexit Party to distinguish itself as the only party which gives a priority to both national identity and democracy. Put bluntly, there is now only one Unionist party in GB – and it isn’t the Conservatives.
This position does not mean that we reject free trade agreements, only that we say that there are higher values to take account of. We say that it is not worth selling out our country. We say that Johnson has sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage – actually, pottage is mixed vegetables, so perhaps our line needs to be that Johnson has sold our inheritance for a mess of Brussels…
I believe that if we consciously choose this third position of Rodrik’s trilemma we will occupy a position that is distinctive, has integrity and will be immensely popular, increasingly so as awareness of what is in Johnson’s deal starts to develop. It is the position, after all, which is very well embodied in the Party’s position on British Steel. Making strategic investments in certain companies for the national interest is not compatible with making free trade our highest value – but it is fully compatible with a national populist position.
So why do I call this an ‘agony of values’? The word agony comes from the agon, the athletic competitions (and religious feasts) of ancient Athens. We are involved in a struggle to assert different values, to change our politics for good. This is a value claim, which is why it is resonating so strongly with people. This is a contest, an agony, and these are the values that it would be inspiring to fight for – which not only will enable us to win, but will make our winning worthwhile. Let’s fight for something good – and leave the Conservative party with a more contemporary sense of agony.