I was there when Brexit happened. In mid-2016, my family and I were living in Oxford when the referendum on Britain’s EU membership took place. Our street, like many in the city, was liberally strewn with Remain posters which, one by one, quietly disappeared over the week following the vote to leave the European Union (apart from one which remained in someone’s front window with an additional hand-written annotation, “SAD”). Pundits and pollsters had failed to predict this; much heartache and hand-wringing followed along with, again, liberal scorn poured on those who had voted to Leave. No doubt Britain’s majority had a slew of reasons for voting to Leave, but much of it boiled down to a reassertion of national interests and national bonds. The referendum on the EU is a good case study of the dangers of, and the truth in, internationalism.
Studying constitutional law in England a decade earlier, I’d been staggered to learn how much sovereignty Britain had conceded to Brussels. Was it really wise, I wondered, to place so much power in the hands of politicians and public servants so far removed from the populations they governed? How could anyone be said to be representative of and accountable to the people at such a distance? For this reason, Brexit fundamentally made sense to me. Compare the EU to a nation-state, where politicians and the people share a common home. There’s a sufficient connection between them to be able to say that the rulers represent the ruled, not just because they’re close enough to be visible but because they are neighbours, sharing a common attachment to a common home. This is part of what makes the nation the main unit of political identity and it’s also, according to Roger Scruton, what makes a functional society possible.
Die-hard fans may remember that we are making our way through Scruton’s 2014 book, How to be a Conservative, in an effort to discern the contours of conservatism and their possible relevance to New Zealand. In an earlier edition, I summarised Scruton’s argument for the importance of the nation. Essentially, Scruton says that a functional society must be built on “a shared identity”—this is what holds us together through disagreement and allows us to form the necessary compromises that make for a stable society. This shared identity has to be based on geography because other forms of identity, like religion or ethnicity, will inevitably exclude some people from full membership. That’s why the nation state is the basic political unit, and it’s why Scruton says that “[c]onservatism is not, by nature, internationalist”. But Scruton’s committed to considering the truth in internationalism and having laid his foundation—the primacy of the nation state—that’s where he turns.
The truth in internationalism, according to Scruton, is that “sovereign states are legal persons” and have rights against and responsibilities to each other. He thinks that, like other legal persons, they should be able to enter into binding agreements and should therefore be “willing to relinquish powers to those bodies charged with maintaining international agreements”. But committed internationalists want to go further than this; they want, instead, “to dissolve all borders and to govern the world from nowhere.” Writing in the years preceding Brexit, it’s not surprising that the European Union is his main example of this internationalist urge.
The EU is an attempt to transcend borders and to forge an international allegiance, “one that would eliminate the sources of European conflict.” In the wake of two world wars, it’s an understandable and praiseworthy goal but the question, for Scruton, is whether this is the right means to that end. I think his critique of the EU can be summed up as his view that it’s an institution that dissolves the particular in favour of the universal, and that tries to convert the citizen, the inhabitant of a defined land, into the cosmopolitan who is at home anywhere because they are in a sense homeless. This vision of the “world citizen” is replicated in other international arrangements like the UN and it is ultimately self-defeating. To rehearse the argument for the nation-state, only good neighbours make good citizens, and neighbourhoods are made of spaces shared by people who are not like us, forming people who are respectful of their differences and united in their common interests. So in Scruton’s book, the way to construct international institutions is not to replace national governments with international ones, but to strengthen nation states and retrieve their virtues so that they can treat well with each other.
The doctrine of subsidiarity is also key to understanding Scruton’s view of internationalism. Subsidiarity is used in EU law to mean that member states have certain powers over their territories that they don’t cede to the umbrella EU institutions. Scruton approves of the doctrine but not of its EU application, worrying that it actually functions as a top-down allocation of power by the EU to members, which reinforces the idea that legitimacy and authority lie with the EU and not with member states. He says that subsidiarity means that power should be allocated from the bottom up; that decisions should be “taken always at the lowest level” in society, by the people closest to them and most affected by them. Applied to international law, it means that international bodies like the EU wouldn’t have unlimited power to allocate to members, but would only have the defined and limited powers granted by member states who would be the main actors.
Every political arrangement has its downsides, and Scruton acknowledges that his legal conception of internationalism can mean law-abiding nations are hostage to others who are less scrupulous. The “rogue state” makes treaties and is a member of the UN, but it doesn’t follow the rules. What should the law-abiding nations do? If they follow the rules they tie their hands, giving the rogue state even more latitude and making their treaties even more of a fiction. Scruton’s solution is a good dose of realism about this problem; there will, from time to time, be necessary conflict between states. But this conflict will be limited when those states are focused only on their national interests and not on advancing some grand internationalist scheme: “powers that enter war in order to defend national territory need only have one intention, which is to withdraw from conflict when the battle is won”. We’ve come full circle to where Scruton started; the lived experience of the home and the neighbourhood over the abstract ideal of the placeless world order, and therefore an international order founded on the nation.