2016-07-18 / Opinion

Brexit: A triumph of the classical liberal Anglo-American tradition

By Meg Hansen

To the profound chagrin of the left-leaning political elite in the Western World, 52 percent of UK citizens voted by referendum to leave the European Union on Thursday, June 23. Evidently, the majority was unconvinced by the numerous threats of economic crisis and unintimidated by accusations of racist parochialism or plain stupidity hurled by the political-media complex. In doing so, the British peoples revealed that they do not share Brussels’ enthusiasm for greater integration into a pan-European political entity, or a “kind of United States of Europe” as Winston Churchill wrote in 1946. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, anger and contempt dominated the left’s reaction, as exemplified in widespread media allegations of buyer’s remorse (or Bregret) and calls for a second corrective vote. 

In truth, a Sunday Mirror poll shows that 92 percent of those who voted to leave the EU were happy with the historic decision. The outrage of the talking heads and their ilk does not seem irrational if the Brexit vote is regarded as the repudiation of the progressive vision of a unified Europe, championed since the end of World War II. And, indeed it is. Consequently, the referendum represents a silver lining for the vast majority of Americans, who otherwise find little to cheer about in the far-left and staunchly socialist gloom of European politics.

The unexpected outcome of the vote emphasizes the resilience of national solidarity in the face of growing internationalism, and highlights a healthy skepticism about surrendering sovereignty to a distant, unelected and faceless bureaucracy. 

Over the past decades, the political establishment in Western democracies has increasingly eschewed national fervor as regressive, xenophobic, and racist. Instead, it has privileged open-border immigration policies and international politico-economic entities, such as the European Union and the United Nations, in pursuit of cosmopolitanism. Notwithstanding these pressures to regard human civilization as a single global village, the primacy of national identities has not diminished. 

Intrigued by this phenomenon, political historian Benedict Anderson sought to understand the nature of nationalism, famously describing the nation as an “imagined community” (1983), i.e. a bordered and sovereign community whose citizens share an imagined and unique allegiance to one another. 

Drawing an insightful analogy between nationalism and the syntax or grammar of language, Anderson suggests that the former provides the framework through which the individual can articulate his identity as a citizen of a particular community. Further, nations lay claim to an ancient heritage and a powerful legacy that unites its present peoples both with generations gone before and those yet to come. 

Consequently, the body politic holds a shared identity that transcends time, and thus inspires loyalty, fraternity, and a sense of distinction. Nationalism, then, need not be regarded as a reactionary mental gesture, but as a proud assertion of personal identity requiring no qualification. 

Beginning in the 19th century, the rise of nationalist movements in Europe and Asia became synonymous with unenlightened despots and mass violence. Not surprisingly, nationalism was lumped with the other “isms” that were in vogue (namely, fascism, Nazism, and communism) and acquired a sinister connotation. 

To salvage the honorable feelings of pride toward one’s homeland from the dominant negativity associated with nationalism, George Orwell termed the former as patriotism and the latter as the “desire for power” (1945). However, such a nuanced distinction is unnecessary today, as nationalism need no longer be conflated with the evil, extremely nationalistic regimes of past centuries.

The results of the Brexit vote signify respect for self-determination, and judicious unwillingness by Britons to submit ever more of their sovereignty to a coercive supranational European system. Thus, it represents the triumph of the classical liberal tradition established in England following the Glorious Revolution of 1668, and upon which the United States of America was founded in 1776. 

In both these significant events, the citizens were motivated to preserve the right to self-governance by instituting constitutional and representative democracy with checks and balances. In light of the absolutist tendencies and blatant disregard for the rule of law exhibited by the Obama Administration over the past eight years, the UK referendum reminds Americans that we too cannot afford to take our freedoms for granted and that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.


Meg Hansen is a cultural critic and communications consultant based in Windsor, VT. The Vermont House Republican Caucus consults with her firm, Pierson A. Harleth & Co.

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