In almost every situation, Horace’s advice was as pragmatic as it was wise. Item: “Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem.” Remember, when faced with difficult things, to preserve a calm mind.
I thought about that sage advice when I was at a drinks party last night in London. The mood was grim. The wine, chatter, and conviviality flowed (another bit of Horatian advice, nunc est bibendum, was liberally followed), but behind, and not very far behind, the bonhomie loomed an ominous-looking shadow, as if war had just been declared but the troops had yet to mobilize.
There was near-unanimous agreement among the revelers that last week’s referendum on Britain leaving the European Union represented an economic catastrophe of incalculable proportions.
There was also a more-or-less unspoken assumption that it represented a gigantic act of political stupidity and, finally, a sort of moral stain. It was assumed the EU, whatever its faults, was “for” human rights, the environment, fairness to Muslims, etc., in ways that the angry, nativist population who voted for Brexit couldn’t possibly understand.
There was, in short, a current of near panic coruscating about the room, though the intelligent and well-spoken party-goers were too polite to indulge in anything like histrionics. Somewhat muted vituperation, especially against the Brexiteer-in-chief Boris Johnson, there was aplenty. But mostly the assembled multitude was like those doctors Hilaire Belloc described in his poem about little Henry King, whose chief defect was chewing little bits of string:
Physicians of the utmost fame
were called at once; but when they came
The answered (as they took their fees),
“There is no cure of this disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.”
I think the doom-and-gloom is vastly overstated. As the Remainders’ Bête Blond, Boris Johnson himself observed:
At home and abroad, the negative consequences [of the Brexit vote] are being wildly overdone, and the upside is being ignored.
Indeed. As I have stressed in this column over the last few days, the referendum to leave the EU was not a vote to leave Europe. The UK is part of Europe, by spirit and history as well as by geography. The vote was partly a vote against the officious, interfering EU bureaucrats and their vast thicket of prosperity-sapping regulation.
Mostly, however, it was an affirmative vote — a vote for British sovereignty, British freedom.
A balanced alternative view of the consequences of Brexit was set forth more than two years ago by the great James Bennett, the man who popularized the term Anglosphere and who has done as much as anyone to outline its political, economic, and existential advantages.
In an essay called “After the Brexit,” which appeared in The New Criterion in January 2014, Bennett compared America’s cooperation with Canada on the manufacture of cars — where vehicles are shipped back and forth across the border several times in the process of assembly — to one possible post-Brexit arrangement between the UK and Europe:
[M]uch of the cross-border trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union could continue with relatively simple arrangements comparable to North American arrangements.
As negotiations proceed towards the invocation of Article 50, the formal request to withdraw from the EU, a series of such arrangements could be agreed upon:
Britain’s trade with the Continent could continue at something near its current levels.
Bennett acknowledges that that Brexit would likely spark turmoil and a decrease in trade at first, if only because of “market adjustments.” He also notes the possibility that some of the diminution of trade and market turmoil would be the result of “spite on the European side” (are you listening, Mr. Juncker?). But he also noted:
[S]ince at present the European Union has a positive trade balance with the United Kingdom (i.e., they export more to the United Kingdom than the United Kingdom does to them), it would really be a case of “cut off their nose to spite their face” to try to reduce that, especially considering the current (and likely future) unemployment levels on the Continent.
There is as much consternation among the Eurocrats on the Continent as there is among the disappointed Remainders in London. A lot of wild things are being said, accusations hurled, and grandstanding is everywhere on display. But I suspect that Bennett is right that cooler heads will soon prevail:
[I]t is reasonable to expect that substantial post-Brexit trade ties will continue between the U.K. and the European Union, perhaps coming near to maintaining current levels. Still, once the U.K. is outside of the European customs union, it is free to strike trade deals for itself, or to join other trade areas or trade arrangements to increase its trade with the rest of the world.
That’s one plus. And another concerns the EU’s own imposition of trade barriers:
The fact is, the E.U.’s external barriers are fairly substantial in a number of areas, including many in which Britain is a competitive exporter. In E.U. trade talks with potential partners, it is usually the case that various Continental protectionist interests tend to be the limiting factor on striking open deals, to the detriment of British trade. Therefore, it may well be possible to strike better deals on bilateral U.K. trade agreements or on multilateral agreements to which the European Union is not a partner.
Of course, trade is only one issue. My observation is that the two primary issues that propelled the Brexit vote were 1) the desire for sovereignty and (the other side of that coin) an emancipation from the nanny-state regulatory burden imposed by the EU, and 2) immigration.
Many Remainders say that immigration was the chief issue, implying that the Brexiteers, apart from being economically illiterate, were also ungenerous at best and xenophobic at worst. My observation doesn’t support that, but there is no doubt that, as Bennett allows:
There’s been a lot of unhappiness in the U.K. over unlimited mass immigration from the European Continent under E.U. rules, particularly because immigrants are eligible for welfare benefits of all sorts almost as soon as they land in Britain, and Britain has no ability to discriminate against them on the grounds that it can’t support itself.
At bottom, it is not the fact of immigration itself so much as intervention of the European Court in British prerogatives that is at issue:
Because of the European Court of Human Rights rulings, Britain can’t deport European criminal aliens, even post-conviction and post-prison sentence, unless it is for a serious crime. When you let criminal aliens in Britain out of prison after finishing their sentences, they can stay in the U.K. and they can go right back on welfare. So understandably people are unhappy about this.
Bennett provides some useful history about the European Court of Human Rights:
[It was] instituted after World War II basically as a way of saying “The European community is going to make it socially unacceptable to murder large segments of your unpopular minority populations.” This was, to understate the matter, never a problem in the United Kingdom, but now the ECHR spends most of its energy forbidding actions like the deportation of criminal aliens.
A similar action was in the matter of family reunification marriages for citizenship purposes– an ECHR state cannot do any investigation to see whether marriage for immigration purposes is a sham or not.
In America, as anybody who has been through the process knows, there is a fairly close scrutiny by the U.S. immigration authorities as to whether a marriage for immigration purposes is bona fide. It’s illegal in Britain because of E.U./ECHR rulings to even ask the question. Withdrawal from the ECHR regime would end such limitations.
James Bennett’s measured proposals contrast vividly with the climate of hysteria which has descended on the discussion in the media in London. The Labour Party is in “meltdown.” “Trillions” have been erased from the markets. This firm let two thousand people go within 24 hours of Brexit, while others are pulling up stakes and decamping to Paris.
It’s all vastly overblown and vastly unhelpful.
Bennett sketches several possible alternatives for an emancipated UK, including membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement, possibly along with Australia and New Zealand, and a Commonwealth free-trade agreement, in which the fifty-three members of the Commonwealth would embrace “a tariff-lowering free trade agreement of the sort that has become very common internationally.”
Brexit is not Armageddon, though listening to some of the commentary, you could be forgiven for thinking so. The greatest danger, I suspect, lies in the possibility of self-inflicted wounds.
Today’s Telegraph carries a leader with the headline “Defeatist Talk Will Cost Britain Dear.” I think that is right. Horace really did have the best advice: when faced with rebus in arduis the best response is to maintain an aequam mentem. That’s what Boris is advocating. I hope people listen to him.