When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for June 8, her goal was to win a huge mandate and gain a stronger hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
So much for that! May’s Conservative Party lost its majority in the House of Commons and has been forced into an awkward and informal governing coalition with Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.
The result is likely to force May’s government to work toward a “soft” Brexit. Before the election, she seemed to be adopting a “hard” posture, preferring no deal to a bad deal and looking to make a clean break with the European Union. Now she will be steered toward an agreement that might entail continued access to the single market in return for permitting free movement of European nationals to the United Kingdom and continued contributions to the European Union’s budget.
Putting the brakes on Brexit
The shift is a function of an interpretation of voters’ motives, not just the election’s outcome. Younger Britons turned out on June 8 in considerably higher numbers than in recent elections, possibly to support the Labour Party’s embrace of free college tuition, but also as EU “Remainers” who, after sitting out the 2016 Brexit referendum, now want to put the brakes on any effort to repudiate the continent entirely. Half of all the seats the Conservatives lost were in London, where 60 percent of voters chose “remain” last year.
The upstart party that pressured then-prime minister David Cameron into holding the referendum in the first place, the UK Independence Party, lost its only member of Parliament and saw its vote share decline to 1.8 percent from 11.6 percent in the last general election. Its leader, Paul Nuttall, received just 8 percent of the vote in his constituency.
But there will be Brexit. May remains as prime minister and has always pledged to honor the results of the referendum. Besides, the formal process to withdraw from the EU has commenced, with the invocation of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty. The key for Britons who want to leave is to therefore focus on the benefits any form of departure will bring.
Principal among these is that the United Kingdom will once again be a fully sovereign nation-state. It will control its own affairs and enter freely into agreements with other nations. Countries like the United States are restricted by their treaty obligations all the time.
As a member of NAFTA, the United States agrees to import many types of goods from Canada and Mexico without placing tariffs on them. As a member of NATO, it agrees to protect other member nations from outside attack. But the United States entered into these agreements alone and is free to withdraw when it wishes. As a current EU member, Britain can only enter into or exit from agreements with nonmembers if the rest of the bloc agrees.
Worse, Britons are living under laws made by the EU government in Brussels — a complex combination of the Parliament of 751 members, the council that represents the 28 member states’ governments, and the commission of independent citizens of the 28 countries. Britons have representation there, but they can only tangentially influence, and not determine, the rules they must live by.
The United Kingdom has 72 members of the European Parliament, one commissioner, and represents only 1/28 of the council. Cultural differences, barriers to cross-national agreements between parties, and the inevitable unwillingness of participants to be lobbied by citizens of other countries mean Britons view EU lawmaking as a spectator sport. They feel powerless as Brussels passes legislation that ranges from the ridiculous — there have been rules on the amount of acceptable “bend” in a banana and the power of vacuum cleaners — to the crucial: the European Union has a $180 billion annual budget to which the United Kingdom’s net contribution is about $14 billion.
The nation-state: protecting liberty since 1648
The nation-state is a central organizing unit of the western liberal tradition. A nation is a group of people tied together by culture, tradition, and geography; a state is a political community residing under a recognized governing authority. The two were fused mainly by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that ended decades of war between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. The sovereign nation-state then developed as an integral concept in Enlightenment political thought in the 17th and 18th centuries and emerged, as a result, as the most legitimate depository of political authority. It was a construct particularly adept at protecting liberty.
Subunits of states are more capable of suppressing freedom because smaller jurisdictions are likely to have one or only a few groups that constitute a minority — blacks in the American South before the Civil War are a prime example. As James Madison noted in Federalist 10, nation-states are large enough that all discernible groups are, in isolation, a minority incapable of ruling without the help of others.
Controlling the supranational
In supranational organizations like the European Union, on the other hand, policymakers are so distant from their publics that they cannot be controlled effectively. There is no sense of nation to provide social cohesion. Moreover, it is adversarial sovereign states, acting either together or alone, that are most capable of defeating illiberal governments that can emerge at the national level. It wasn’t the League of Nations that defeated Hitler; it was an alliance led by the heads of sovereign democratic governments, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.
So Brexit was a victory for the nation-state and, in many ways, for freedom. It is a victory that will not be diminished by May’s embarrassment and a “soft” denouement. In fact, if Remainers can take solace in the election results last week, so can supporters of the 310-year-old United Kingdom, a sovereign nation-state that has played a central role in the emergence of the modern free world.