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Theresa May's Brexit speech ushers in a post-liberal age

‘No’, she said, in words which many still struggle to believe, ‘the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.’ And with that May upended more than four decades of British foreign and economic policy.

Theresa May's Brexit speech ushers in a post-liberal age
Published 20 Jan 2017   Follow @MatthewDalSant1

When she assumed the prime ministership in David Cameron’s wake, many Leavers regarded Theresa May – who had sat out the referendum campaign as a Remainer – with misgiving. But in her much-awaited speech on Tuesday at Lancaster House she dispelled all doubts. As Alex Massie put it in The Spectator yesterday, Britain will get a ‘full English Brexit’.

Ruling out a ‘soft Brexit’ that would see Britain formally withdraw from the EU but remain governed by it through the backdoor of the Single Market or Customs Union, May confirmed that Britain will not seek ‘partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.’

‘No’, she said, in words which many still struggle to believe, ‘the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.’ And with that May upended more than four decades of British foreign and economic policy.

To the extent this peaceful revolution avoids derailment in the courts, parliament, or Conservative party-room (where significant opposition remains), the result will be dramatic. Outside the Customs Union, Britain will regain the right to trade freely with the rest of the world on terms negotiated by its own diplomats — something it hasn’t been able to do since 1973.

This point was central to May’s attempt to persuade the world that Brexit is no formula for isolationism or xenophobia. With a nod to the free-trading empire of Britain’s Victorian golden age, May evoked a ‘Global Britain’, a ‘great, global trading nation that is respected around the world and strong, confident and united at home.’ ‘The result of the referendum’, she said, ‘was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world. Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.’

Indeed, a pronounced internationalism distinguished May’s speech on Tuesday from the withering attack on cosmopolitan internationalism she delivered at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last October. There in her first major speech as prime minister, she declared that ‘if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’

The remark signalled she understood that many older and working class Britons’ vote to leave the European Union was about the perception of the latter as part of a broader liberal program bent on abolishing the nation-state and uprooting long-established national cultures.

By contrast, her message on Tuesday was that Brexit was ‘a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit’ (emphasis mine). This reflects the fact that Leave’s victory was product of an alliance between those protesting against the dissolution of national identity in a borderless, globalised world, and those who saw an opportunity, through release from EU bureaucracy, for a more bracing experience of it.

Keeping the two groups on board will shape not only Brexit but the broader post-Thatcherite, One-Nation Tory-ism which May has sought to build on a rejection of ‘the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right.’

This has implications for the threat with which May ended her speech – that of a trade war if Europe sought to punish Britain for leaving. As Massie points out, many who voted for Brexit do not want their country transformed into a neoliberal nirvana, a kind of giant, free-trading, low-tax Singapore. Hence May’s insistence that Britain’s new internationalism will be embedded within a fortified national body politic with its sovereignty restored, as well as her emphasis on strengthening the Union and setting a path towards a ‘fairer Britain’.

It also means re-engaging with older international associations shunted into the long grass by Britain’s EU membership.

Thus, May made special reference to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which Britain will host in 2018. If by then, the Commonwealth’s historic hub is back in charge of its own destiny, the new opportunities suddenly opened to an increasingly oxygen-starved organisation will be dazzling.

But for now it’s the audacity of May’s reassertion of national sovereignty in the face of what nearly everyone had until 2016 assumed to be the unstoppable rise of globalisation and supranational jurisdictions like the EU that has flummoxed European leaders. A few days before the vote, I argued ('Yes, There is an Intellectually Coherent Case for Brexit') that the crux of the referendum was a choice between the repatriation not just of political powers but of politics itself to citizens in the UK, and the creeping de-politicisation of national life in favour an allegedly ‘neutral’ managerialism directed by supranational administrators from Brussels.

As May realised, Britons chose the former. The ‘principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement’, she said on Tuesday. ‘The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.’

Yet no country has ever left the European Union. It has long been an article of faith that none would ever truly want to. In his first reaction to May’s speech, President of the European Council Donald Tusk called Britain’s departure ‘surrealistic’.

Even in the wake of Trump’s election victory (motivated as it was by many of the same anxieties), European leaders still seem oblivious to the scale and strength of the post-liberal tide washing across Western democracies. As leading Anglican theologian John Milbank put it in the Catholic Herald at the end of last week, ‘The populist voter insurgencies of 2016 are complex, but one important aspect of them is the rejection of a seamless liberal order and worldview. Despite its unbearable claims to be the only possible worldview, liberalism has been rejected because it does not work for the majority of people. And just as liberal economics are now being questioned, so are liberalism’s cultural and ethical assumptions’.

The divorce may yet prove painful. But by asserting that metaphysical ideas such as national identity can trump questions of economic advantage, and by challenging the idea that globalisation must result in the withering away of the nation-state before ever-expanding institutions of 'global governance', Brexit is already the first great artefact of the post-liberal age.

Photo by Flickr user Number 10.

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