Two long-term historical factors help to explain Brexit. The first is liberal-capitalist globalisation. The second, much older, is that whereas democracy usually functions best in small polities, international power and security generally require large ones.
Aristotle believed democracy was only viable in medium-sized city states. Greek democracy died because the city-states reduced their region to anarchy by their constant squabbles and were incapable of combining against foreign threats. Conquest by neighbouring kingdoms and empires- first Macedon then Rome- was the result. For the next two millennia monarchies and empires dominated the globe. In late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe the emergence of the democratic nation-state changed the picture. A combination of modern communications, new ideas of representative democracy and the flourishing of modern ethno-linguistic nationalism made the nation-state both viable and formidable in its ability to mobilise large communities in support of the state. Terrifying to its external enemies and (even more so) to internal communities who were defined as not belonging to the sovereign people the nation-state’s power was a vital element in Europe’s rise to global domination. Those who voted for Brexit placed their faith in the British nation-state. Some of them forgot that the security, power and pride it offered its citizens depended greatly on the fact that, historically, the British nation-state stood at the centre of a great world empire.
Already at the beginning of the twentieth century it was clear that there were two great problems with the European nation-state, which de facto was almost always constructed on ethno-linguistic principles. A child of western Europe’s unique history, the nation-state often fitted badly into other regions of the world where populations were intermingled, language had never been the key to identity, and rule had generally been exercised by supra-ethnic empires. Even in eastern and central Europe it has taken two world wars, genocide and massive ethnic cleansing to create something akin to nation-states and the process is even now not complete. Contemporary problems in the Middle East are owed to a significant extent to the fact that the European model of the nation-state fits badly into the region ruled over for many centuries by the Ottoman Empire. If the great multi-national states of Asia – China, India, Indonesia and Iran – fall victim to European-style ethnic nationalism – Java for the Javanese, Gujarat for the Gujaratis, independence for the Uighurs etc - then the planet might not survive the chaos and conflict unleashed.
The second, even more serious point, was that by 1900 it was clear to intelligent observers that the European nation-state was becoming redundant in terms of international power because of the impact of globalisation and the spectacular growth of the United States. The basic logic behind the era of High Imperialism (1870-1914) was that only states with continental-scale resources would continue to be truly great powers in the twentieth century. For a European state continental-scale resources could only be acquired through empire. But a major contradiction ran through pre-1914 power politics: at the same time that the logic of international power pointed to empire, it seemed even clearer that the best way to unite a community and legitimise its rulers was through some version of ethno-linguistic nationalism. Pyotr Struve in Russia with his tortured attempts to define a Russian state-nation-empire was merely one of many efforts by European political thinkers to square the circle. The tensions between empires and nationalisms were the major underlying cause of the First World War and the end of Europe’s domination of the globe. Two wars launched by Berlin to create a German empire in Europe proved at vast cost that for many reasons modern Europe was unsuitable ground for empire-builders. The European Union is an attempt to get the benefits of empire without most of the costs. Pooling the resources of the continent is perceived as essential if Europeans are to compete in global markets and have some say in the great decisions which will determine the future of mankind. How to legitimise any version of a continental-scale polity in the continent that created modern nationalism remains the Union’s greatest and possibly mortal problem. A factor in the EU’s current difficulties is that memories of the two world wars have faded and Europeans have got used to taking peace and security for granted, not least because it has largely been provided by outside powers. A notable factor in the Brexit debate was sunny optimism that the current liberal international trading order will continue. If instead we head back towards a world resembling that of the early twentieth century then Europeans – and the English in particular- may re-learn hard old lessons about the perils of weakness and isolation.
A big element in the Brexit debate, and indeed in domestic political conflict throughout the First World, is the impact of globalisation: de-industrialisation, threatened identities and a growing sense of the loss to outside forces of control over the community’s fate all derive from this. To put the same point in more concrete terms, the biggest factors behind the British vote to leave the EU were immigration, English nationalism and the sense that contemporary globalisation rewards elites and penalises the middle and working classes. The debate was conducted as if globalisation had begun yesterday and conveniently forgot the fact that in the last thirty years vast numbers of people in the Third World had been dragged out of poverty and into the global middle class through forces unleashed by liberal-capitalist globalisation.
Actually globalisation has been speeding up ever since Europeans conquered the resources of the New World in the sixteenth century. It reached its first peak at the end of the nineteenth century, went into dramatic reverse in 1914-45, and then resumed its onrush from the 1950s. Overall, globalisation has vastly enhanced mankind’s prosperity but it has imposed enormous sacrifices on many communities along the way. The basic point is that in the past these sacrifices have been borne overwhelmingly by non-Europeans, whose communities were often devastated by the impact of European power. A point worth noting is that this impact was at its worst when it was also at its most “democratic”. The most democratic polities on the globe in the era of High Imperialism were the White settler colonies but they were also, and necessarily, among the most vicious in their treatment of non-White indigenous and transported peoples. The most basic cause of domestic political conflict in the contemporary First World is that the disadvantages of globalisation are now being more evenly shared. In the United States one key conflict is between, on the one side, Blacks who were victims of European-dominated globalisation (one of whose most spectacular early manifestations was the slave trade) but who are now sufficiently powerful to assert their rights and resentments; and on the other hand, white middle and working-class communities whose prosperity, security, identity and pride are all under threat as globalisation’s costs cut deep into the First World society.
In geopolitical terms the world order under which we live is the one that emerged in the eighteenth century. It is dominated by Anglophone values, institutions and ideologies. Adam Smith and perhaps John Locke are its leading patron saints. Its power-political basis started as Britain and its empire, from which it evolved through Anglo-American partnership into the present-day hegemony of the United States. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, two world wars and the Cold War were launched to break Anglo-American hegemony and all five failed at huge cost. This happened above all because of the vast margin of superior power of the British Empire and United States. The basic point about contemporary developments is that this margin of American and western superiority is decreasing rapidly. In geopolitical terms the main element here is the rise of China. Integrating China into the management of global security and prosperity is bound to be hard. The political implications of ecological crisis will make it harder, especially if water becomes a key issue of contention in South and East Asia.
As often noted, present geopolitical realities are in many respects uncomfortably similar to those that led to the First World War. Before 1914 new technology, above all in the form of railways, was opening up previously “useless” parts of the globe to great-power competition. The same is now happening in Asian seas as new technology opens sea-beds to exploitation. In principle it is harder to integrate unique, Asian and ex-communist China into the ruling councils of a Western and especially Anglo-Saxon dominated world than was the case with Protestant, European and capitalist Germany before 1914. One fundamental problem is that those who argued before 1914 that continental-scale resources are essential for a truly great power were correct. For historical reasons it has been possible to construct and sustain continental-scale polities in both East Asia and North America in a way that proved impossible in Europe. But continental-scale polities – empires in the old terminology- are fiendishly difficult to manage precisely because of their vast scale and diversity. At least in traditional empires rulers normally only needed to manage the top 2% of the population, who themselves controlled the masses by systems of patronage, coercion and cultural hegemony. The onset of mass literacy and political consciousness, let alone of democracy, makes the task far harder. Rulers of contemporary “empires” swim amidst immense, complex and contradictory domestic currents and pressures.
The connection of Brexit to these global issues is indirect but important. The factors spurring the English towards Brexit are very similar to those driving the Trump campaign in the United States. The campaign is both a result of declining relative American and White Anglo-Saxon power and a big potential contributor to further and accelerated decline. In an era when great skill, calm and wisdom will be required to manage international security the eruption of First World populism on to the scene is a great threat to peace. In Europe the strong probability is that Brexit means a weaker Britain. Chest-thumping in the Conservative government about Britain’s nuclear deterrent and role within NATO forgets inter alia that this deterrent is based in Scotland, whose wishes were trampled on by English voters in the recent plebiscite. But the basic reality in Europe is the same now as it was before Brexit: if there is to be effective leadership in Europe it can only come from Germany. Though Brexit makes it even harder to manage German leadership through the EU it does not change basic realities. We appear to be heading back towards the Europe of 1870-1945 when peace, stability and prosperity in Europe depended above all else on Russo-German relations and on the wisdom, cooperation and restraint of German and Russian leaders.