How Not To Talk To Brexiteers

James Obrien Brexit Trump Fascism Hysteria

If Remainers truly want to reverse or soften Brexit, they should spend less time flaunting their own enlightenment and more time engaging with the valid concerns of Brexiteers

I am continually astonished that otherwise intelligent, politically astute Remainers repeatedly choose the catharsis of insult, showing off to their peers and “talking down” to their opponents over engaging with wavering Brexiteers on terms which might produce some kind of compromise, if not a total change of heart and mind.

Say what you want amongst yourselves, Remainers, in university lecture halls or March for Europe demonstrations, but speaking and acting in public as though the Brexit vote was motivated primarily by ignorance or xenophobia is a surefire way to harden opinions and fail to convince potentially winnable Leave voters. Besides the fact that such a blanket statement is patently untrue, how many political arguments are won (permanently) by the side which mocks and taunts their opponent?

In order to change hearts and minds in debate, one must find a common frame of reference or (where that is genuinely impossible) at least feign to understand and sympathise with the underlying motivations of the opposing side. Tell somebody that you hate them and everything they stand for and you have permanently destroyed any chance of building the rapport needed for persuasion. But tell someone that while you understand their deepest motivations yours is the better path to satisfying them and maybe you have a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, so much of political debate is now little more than preening and performing for one’s own side rather than genuine attempts to inspire or change minds. I am guilty of this myself at times, having written pieces that I know will be eagerly picked up and shared by my “Amen chorus” of fellow conservatives, libertarians and Brexiteers. But this is inreach, not outreach. And the losing side cannot indulge forever at inreach as a substitute for doing the harder work of talking to those who disagree. This approach is guaranteed to shrink your base to a diminishing band of Ultras rather than grow the broad – in this case, huge – coalition that would be required to overturn the EU referendum result.

While facts are important, emotion plays a big role when it comes to Brexit (on both sides). And at the risk of opening myself up to public ridicule, I will share some of the non-factual claims and actions which rub me (and at least some other Brexiteers) up the wrong way, and immediately make me less receptive to Remainer arguments. I do this as a public service, and because I am getting really tired of encountering the same insults, straw men and non sequiturs in my social media interactions with Remainers.

I don’t claim to be the archetypal Brexiteer, but hopefully some of what I say may be generally applicable and fall on receptive ears. So here goes.

First of all, as with other Brexiteers I am quite patriotic. That is not to suggest that many decent Remainers are lacking in patriotism. But it cannot be denied that there is a coven of hardcore anti-patriots harboured within the Remain community, people who actively dislike or (at best) are ambivalent about the nation state in general and the United Kingdom in particular.

For pity’s sake, stop giving these people the microphone. And take the conch away from AC Grayling, JK Rowling and Ian Dunt while you’re at it. I readily concede that true patriotism and love of country goes much deeper than jingoistic flag waving – the national anthem NFL protests in America, whilst I personally disagree with them, show that it is possible to make a calculated snub of certain national symbols while remaining more true to the country’s founding values than any shallow populist. But if you think that you are going to persuade Brexiteers by painting a negative or pessimistic vision of Britain then you are sorely mistaken.

Brexiteers believe – quite rightly – that Britain is a great, powerful and influential country, and while we personally may have played no part in making it so we are nonetheless proud to be part of this cultural (not racial) heritage. It is not that Britain “punches above its weight” in the world, to use that tiresome phrase surely coined by the pessimistic days of 1970s national decline. On the contrary, we punch exactly in line with our weight given that we have the world’s sixth largest economy, second most deployable military, nuclear power status and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, not to mention our unmatched contributions to culture, commerce, arts and science.

So talking about Britain as a “small” country in terms of geopolitical power not only flies in the face of objective reality, it actively raises the hackles of many Brexiteers who are justifiably proud of our country’s status. You can disagree as to whether this pride is justified, but descend into mockery and you will not get a hearing from many Brexiteers, nor deserve one. Shrieking that the UK cannot survive outside the EU is not a smart debate tactic. If your parents continually told you that you were useless and totally unable to succeed on your own in the world without their smothering helicopter parenting, would you stay living in their basement forever or become even more determined to move out and prove them wrong?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you cannot make a compelling argument that Britain will be economically or diplomatically harmed by leaving the EU – indeed, this staunchly eurosceptic blog has repeatedly warned that Brexit done wrong could be calamitous. But far better to make the argument in terms of future growth and prosperity at risk rather than paint a picture of a small, helpless Britain adrift in the world, buffeted by “great powers” like Malaysia or Mexico. It’s really annoying.

Then there is the tedious “Open vs Closed” talking point, voiced endlessly since the referendum result came in. It goes something like “we voted Remain because we are open-minded, forward-looking and ambitious while you voted Leave because you are closed-minded, backward-looking, insular and fearful of the future”. Stop for a moment and think about how you would feel if somebody tried to win you over by condescending to you in this manner.

I am an ardent Brexiteer, but like many of us I speak a foreign language, am married to a foreign-born citizen and have travelled and worked abroad. I read the Economist, for heaven’s sake. There are doubtless many unsavoury words which could be thrown at me with some justification, but “closed-minded” and “ignorant” are probably not on the list. If your post-mortem analysis of the EU referendum is telling you that Brexit appealed exclusively to a group of people who are paranoid, stupid, vaguely racist and fearful of the future then your analysis probably needs fine-tuning more than my values.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about education. Yes, a majority of people with formal higher education voted to Remain. But aside from academia’s general left-ish bias and desire to maintain current systems and sources of funding, this is a youth effect as much as an education effect – far fewer people from older generations went to university. Are these people not clever enough to understand geopolitics, unlike the sagacious newly-minted gender studies graduate? Some of my best friends from home have become smarter and more well-rounded than me, and I went to university while they cracked on with work. So enough sanctimony about being smarter and better-informed, please. I can count the number of Remainers I have interacted with who possess a basic understanding of the EU and its institutions on two hands, with fingers to spare.

Next, stop assuming that Brexiteers mean something other than the words which come out of their mouths. If they complain that mass immigration is straining local services and infrastructure or changing the nature of their communities, then uncomfortable as it may be for you to accept, that is probably what they mean. It is not code for “we want massive increases in taxation to deliver gold-plated public services” or “stop unscrupulous businesses from undercutting the minimum wage”.

If you are a more economically successful Remainer, try to check your “wealth privilege” (to use the current stupid social justice terminology). People in poorer or more suburban communities often have quite a different experience of large-scale immigration than city slickers, who tend to see only benefits and no costs. If you want to make traction with those Brexiteers for whom immigration is a major issue then some empathy will be required, even if deep inside you feel like you are palling around with Hitler.

Next, let moderate or more thoughtful Remainers finish speaking before jumping down their throats. There are probably twenty other things which I could say about Brexit which might add some nuance to my own views and enrich the broader debate slightly, but I am never going to say them because they can be so easily misinterpreted, made to sound bad or otherwise used as a weapon against me and my side. The national debate would benefit from hearing some of these things, but if talking openly about doubt, provisos and exceptions is going to be used by short-term charlatans lacking the patience to reel in the big fish then they will never see the light of day. Again, the short-term urge to perform and score easy points undermines the long-term goal of changing minds.

Finally, be more honest and open about your own beliefs. If you are a closet euro-federalist, probably better to just come out and say so at this point. Half of the antipathy and resistance to the European Union in Britain is borne of the fact that all these years of steadily-deepening integration have taken place under furious protestations from the ruling class that anything significant was happening at all. You will never get what you want (or be able to properly enjoy it if you do) through deception, so be honest about your vision for a federal Europe and try to win people over on the merits.

But even if you are not a beady-eyed euro-federalist with EU flag pyjamas as I once was (well, an EU polo shirt and lapel pin at least) you should still make your case honestly and positively. As Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn can attest, people respond warmly to positive messages and coherent narratives, while looking sceptically on constant fearmongering and haphazard messaging. People grudgingly respect Jeremy Corbyn because he says what he actually believes and doesn’t moderate his message (much) for short-term political expediency. Be like Jezza.

Don’t be like all those pro-EU campaigners and politicians, trotting out the same tired catchphrases about needing to cooperate with other countries or allowing the doe-eyed youth to “live, work and love in Europe”. Newsflash: Brexiteers know that international cooperation is important, they just don’t see why Britain necessarily needs the EU to facilitate this for us when even small countries like Norway and Switzerland are outside political union, and while other continents and parts of the world have conspicuously not followed our lead in setting up supranational governments of their own. If the EU model of cooperation is so great, show off that superior education of yours by telling us why. Best use lots of pictures, though, because us Brexiteers are a bit thick.

But if (as I sneakingly suspect is more likely) deep down you also believe that the EU is ill-designed, dysfuntional, furiously resistant to change and unnecessary for most international cooperation outside the realm of trade, then come clean and say that, too. We will respect these concessions to reality far more than if you just keep on humming Ode to Joy and telling us that Brussels is the only reason our parents were not annihilated in a nuclear war.

So in summary, if you want to have a fruitful discussion with a Brexiteer instead of just retweeting AC Grayling and feeling smug, remember these simple tips:

Acknowledge the UK’s genuine strengths and do not denigrate patriotism.

Stop talking about the “Open vs Closed” dichotomy, as though Remainers represent the apotheosis of human enlightenment and Brexiteers the dismal nadir. It’s really, really annoying. Talk about “Somewheres vs Anywheres” if you must, because that at least is actually rooted in reality and can spawn a useful debate.

Stop banging on about education as though a 2:2 degree in a soft subject at an unremarkable university makes you Henry Kissinger and uniquely qualified to hold forth on matters of statecraft and diplomacy. It doesn’t. And when evidently simple people start prancing around as though they are Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla combined, by sole virtue of the fact that they voted with the Remain herd, it can rapidly become quite tedious. Some very smart people voted to remain in the EU, but so did some complete and utter cretins.

Stop trying to divine secret hidden motives in what Brexiteers say, and take them at their word. Their concerns about sovereignty are not actually an inchoate cry for a new NHS tax, or any other left-wing pipe dream.

If you encounter a Brexiteer with whom you think you might have a productive dialogue, engage with them in good faith. Don’t just mine your exchange for nuggets of Brexiteer stupidity to titillate your Twitter followers.

And finally, be honest about your own beliefs. If you want a United States of Europe, just own your euro-federalism and wear it with pride. If you have a more nuanced position, stop feeling like you have to pretend that the European Union represents everything that’s good in the world as though this will do anything other than attract bovine applause from other Remainers.

I probably should not be offering these words of advice. Indeed, it is very much in my short-term interest to see Remainers carry on exactly as many of them have been doing since the referendum result was announced last year – it makes you look shrill and hysterical, and only hardens many Brexiteers in their convictions.

But I also have a longer-term interest in living in a country where the standard of political discourse is set a few levels higher than two monkeys throwing faeces at each other, and good (or at least productive) political debate requires at least some degree of empathy for the other side’s position. In this spirit, I have tried to explain a little bit of what makes some Brexiteers tick, and what downright ticks us off. You can laugh at this information and ignore it, or you can use it to improve the quality and tenor of your arguments so that we don’t just keep shouting the same talking points at each other ad nauseam.

Remainers, the choice is yours.

 

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Brexit: The Flight 93 Secession

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Whether you believe that Brexit is a brave and noble endeavour or a rash, ignoble folly probably depends a lot on your perception of short and long-term risk

Imagine that in some surreal scenario you mysteriously found yourself on board a huge passenger aircraft flying a multi-stop, seemingly never-ending transoceanic journey to nowhere.

As the hours and days tick by onboard this strange vessel you begin to question where the plane is taking everybody, and who set the flight plan. There’s an old framed picture of the airline’s founder, Jean Monnet, hanging at the front of the plane above the sealed cockpit door, but the captain and the other passengers refuse to clearly state the destination themselves, even though they all seem very anxious to get there. Rather than being candid, they make only vague allusions to the potential destination and arrival time, and repeatedly emphasise the importance of travelling together in a big, stable aircraft to keep us safe from turbulence.

Then suppose that one day you question whether you want to be on this flight in the first place – your fellow passengers keep getting sick, the pilot stops randomly at tiny airfields in seedy-looking places to let a whole bunch of extra people climb aboard without even checking their boarding passes, and while every seat comes with its own plastic toy steering wheel giving the childish illusion of individual control, it is plainly apparent that the pilot is the sole person in charge.

You also have strong suspicions that a certain Lederhosen-wearing passenger sitting in First Class is the captain’s special favourite, and that this is why they get to control the cabin air conditioning, select the in-flight movie, dictate the meal choices for everyone sitting in Economy and sometimes even persuade the pilot to change speed and altitude. Back in 2015, a little scrawny passenger owed Lederhosen Guy some money and was being evasive about paying it back – now he rides in the unheated, unpressurised cargo hold.

So you finally speak up and ask why we are on this flight at all, this Airbus A380 on steroids, when out the window we can see other happy families zipping along in their Cessnas and small private jets, travelling together in a loose formation to reach their preferred destination but also preserving their individual ability to climb, descend, stop at an airfield for lunch or set a new destination altogether if they so choose.

And in response, some wiseguy across the aisle says that you have no right to complain because a mysterious benefactor bought your ticket armed with perfect information as to the plane’s ultimate destination. The travel agent certainly never lied to them, making the journey seem shorter and the destination more pleasant than the reality now unfolding – no, your benefactor apparently was apparently very firm in their desire for you to embark on this particular journey, and approved of every subsequent course change made by the captain, tacitly if not explicitly.

Many of the other passengers also take turns lecturing you that the era of private aviation is over, that only a fool would put his life in the hands of Westphalia Private Aviation Corp., that one family in one aircraft cannot possibly complete a safe and successful autonomous journey in this day and age, and that only by abandoning our trusty Learjet and boarding the enormous Airbus can we protect ourselves from dangerous pockets of clear air turbulence and other assorted perils of the sky. And if that means eating the same cheap airline food day after day, and giving the airline pilot total authority over us while in the air then so be it.

This is unacceptable, so you pluck up the courage and deliver an ultimatum: either the captain gives up his absolute powers and pays more attention to the demands of individual passengers – even if that means amending the route – or you will disembark, return to your own aircraft to fly on your own terms with your own companions in your own squadron, and with your own destination in mind. The captain laughs in your face. Lederhosen Guy stares at you with a kind of impassive curiosity, but says nothing. The aircraft continues humming along at cruising altitude.

What to do? You figure that storming the cockpit, relieving the captain of his duties and attempting to land the plane yourself is inherently risky, yet it seems preferable to reaching the plane’s ultimate destination and then realising that all of your worst fears and suspicions were correct – and that there is no return service.

If the aircraft will not change course and you are unwilling to accept the destination (or continued vagueness about the intended destination), then indeed storming the cockpit is the only option left. You don’t want to permanently hijack the plane and steer it exclusively according to your own preferences, nor do you want to thwart the captain and harm others by crashing the plane altogether. You just want to disembark peacefully.

Would it be nice if another Airbus A380 with a more amenable pilot was waiting at the next refuelling stop, ready for you and likeminded passengers to hop aboard and continue your journey in a more collegiate style, agreeing the destination and flight plan together rather than stubbornly navigating according to the old captain’s worn-out, anachronistic 1950s map? Yes, of course it would. But that’s not going to happen today. There is no alternative jet on the tarmac, and for all the money you have given the airline the small print on the back of your ticket is clearly marked “non-exchangeable and non-refundable”.

So you gather what support you can from among the other passengers, count to three, and charge the door.

At one point in 2016, some of the more extreme conservative political pundits in America began referring to the presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election“, a reference to the United Airlines plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and mounted a fightback against the Islamist hijackers. This risible, overwrought argument posited that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be so damaging to the United States – effectively the equivalent of another 9/11 attack – that it was the duty of every true patriot to “storm the cockpit” of American government by electing Donald Trump president instead.

Britain’s 2016 EU referendum was not quite a “Flight 93 moment”, not only because unlike the 9/11 attackers, the EU’s motivations and trajectory (though severely misguided) are not deliberately malevolent, but also because the speed of European political integration is slow and incremental, not sudden and rapid. Unlike a hijacking situation, we therefore theoretically had time to think and form a more considered plan of escape. Unfortunately Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the ringleaders who nominally led the storming of the cockpit, failed to come up with any kind of coherent plan for what to do when they got their hands on the controls. And now they have handed over command to Theresa May, who sits with white-knuckled grip on the yoke, trying and failing to reassure we the passengers over the intercom by repeating the same worn out banalities. Our position, post storming of the cockpit, is therefore significantly suboptimal.

But ultimately, if the captain will not desist from a reckless and undesirable course of action and an orderly disembarkation is impossible then one is left with little choice other than to forcibly set the plane down, blow the emergency exit, jump down the inflatable slide and walk back to the terminal in search of alternative transportation.

With Brexit, as with all flights, there is an outside chance that the new pilots will crash the plane, resulting in total hull loss and our fiery deaths. There is a slightly higher chance of experiencing a landing so rough that there are multiple injuries, the undercarriage fails and the plane requires lengthy and expensive repairs. Right now there are probably even odds that the landing will be sufficiently bumpy that those who do not have their seatbelts fastened securely will get thrown around the cabin a bit and generally have a bad time. But of course, the corollary to this is that remaining on the aircraft despite not knowing its destination and having no individual control over the plane carries a risk of its own. The next stop may be Warsaw or Bucharest, but eventually the plane might head for Pyongyang, carrying us along with it.

The difference between Remainers and Brexiteers is this: Remainers do not seem to much care where they end up (or at least seem willing to smile and suppress any gnawing doubts that they do have) so long as they can be seen to be travelling happily and in total harmony with all the other passengers on the plane. In support of their position, Remainers can point to all of the aircraft’s previous stopovers – many of which were vaguely pleasant or at least neutral – to suggest that we are participating in a wonderful global excursion and would be mad to spurn the promise of future tropical delights.

By contrast, Brexiteers care deeply about the end destination, strongly disagree with the current direction of travel and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to alter it. Leave voters can bolster their argument by pointing out the unprecedented scope of control passengers have ceded to the captain over time, and noting that ours is the only part of the world where people seem to have lost faith in private aviation and insist on flying together in a single huge aircraft. If abandoning our autonomy and climbing aboard the Airbus is so great, they argue, why are people in Asia, Africa, North and South America not following Europe’s lead?

Neither viewpoint is inherently evil. Rather, each view is formed by a different perception of reality and a varying sensitivity to short and long-term risk.

Or perhaps all Remainers are just flag-hating, anti-patriotic, virtue-signalling traitors who think that supporting the EU is an easy way to check the “internationalist” box on their checklist of trendy-lefty political opinions, and/or every Brexiteer is a harrumphing, xenophobic retired colonel who fetishises the British Empire, hates foreigners and wants to re-impose the social values and norms of the 1950s.

It’s hard to say.

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No, You Do Not ‘Feel European’

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Sorry, but enjoying spaghetti and Belgian beer is not sufficient cultural commonality with Europe on which to build a deep political union

It has long been a conceit of EU apologists and arch-Remainers that political union with Europe makes sense because we have “so much in common” with Europe, more so than with other countries, including those of the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere.

This tedious and self-evidently false argument bubbles up with regularity, with the Evening Standard’s Richard Godwin making a particularly glib and superficial argument as the EU referendum battle raged:

I just feel European. I’m part of a generation that has had easy access to mainland Europe for both work and play.

I like Penélope Cruz and Daft Punk and tiki-taka and Ingmar Bergman and spaghetti and absinthe and saunas and affordable trains.

As sentimental as it sounds, Europe represents opportunity, cosmopolitanism, modernity, romance, enrichment, adventure to me.

Cutting all that off — even symbolically — would feel both spiteful and arbitrary.

The same argument is occasionally expressed with slightly more intellectual rigour, most recently by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, who wrote on the day of the Dutch elections:

It would be an irony more bitter than delicious, but could Brexit be having an unexpected effect on the people of Britain – turning us, finally, and despite everything, into good Europeans?

The question arises because of a curious shift underway since the referendum last June. For many years, the intellectual bedrock of the Eurosceptic case was that there was no such thing as a European demos, no European nation underpinning what Eurosceptics believed was an emerging European super-state. The notion of a United States of America made sense because Americans were a true people, sharing a language and sense of common destiny. But a United States of Europe was absurd because Europeans did not see themselves as bound together in the same way.

[..] But look what’s happened since 23 June 2016. Today, the Dutch go to the polls, an event that would previously have passed with not much more than a brief mention on the inside pages. This time, however, the same pundits and prognosticators who last year obsessed over Trump v Clinton have directed some of that same energy to the battle of Wilders v Rutte, trading polling data on social media and arguing about the meaning of the latest move by the rival candidates.

Never has the pro-EU establishment media’s bias been on more blatant display than in this piece of self-regarding bubble-ese by Freedland. British public interest in the Dutch, French and German elections, to the extent that it existed at all, was driven almost entirely by weepy Remainers who took a short break from quoting Yeats on their social media timelines (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) to vest their hopes in would-be saviours like Mark Rutte and Emmanuel Macron.

If we can agree that the man on the street – the kind of normal person with a life, who doesn’t spend every waking moment obsessing about politics – probably does not think much at all about the politics of other countries, then we should also be able to agree that those who are even slightly politically aware are far more likely to know about American politics and current affairs than those of various European countries, large or small.

Doubt it? Then simply watch the television or print news coverage on any given day. Only this week, British television news bulletins have been dominated by the ongoing feud between Donald Trump and various players and executives of the National Football League who have taken to kneeling during the playing of the US national anthem as a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

This news story has received extensive coverage on the BBC, Sky News, ITV News, Channel 4 News, the Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and many smaller outlets:

As well as featuring prominently ahead of domestic news stories in British television news bulletins, this tiresome culture war episode also seems to be exercising the minds of British political pundits and armchair moralisers up and down the country:

What comparable domestic political spat or policy debate in a European country would receive comparable press coverage in Britain? The answer is obvious: none. There is no other country whose day-to-day politicking is obsessed over by the British media and known by the UK populace in more detail as the United States. This is not merely a function of us sharing a common language – do the self-proclaimed “Citizens of Europe” really believe that British people would be fascinated with German or Portuguese politics if only we were not cruelly divided by language?

Nor is this a natural function of America’s hegemonic power making their every decision impactful on Britain – indeed, the rituals of American football could not be of less importance to the United Kingdom, nor concerns about police shootings of civilians in a country where most of the police are unarmed. Our deep interest in American news is primarily cultural, not borne out of any informational necessity.

This is not an argument for Britain to become the fifty-first state of America rather than the twenty-eighth state of a United Europe; it is merely to point out that cultural affinity – which is arguably much stronger between Britain and the United States than Britain and Europe – does not automatically recommend (let alone necessitate) political union between countries, while enforced political union between diverse states does not necessarily ensure that a corresponding cultural merger will occur to form a coherent, cohesive demos.

And culture aside, economic interdependence likewise does not mandate political union, as the United States and Canada, the United States and Mexico, Australia and New Zealand as well as the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland can readily attest. Economic alignment and interdependence is a necessary condition for political union, but not nearly a sufficient one.

Indeed, the history books are littered with examples of such grand enterprises – using economic interdependence or geographic proximity as an excuse to force political union on an unwilling or ambivalent population – failing miserably. In recent history we need think only of the Soviet Union, which sought to achieve through terror and totalitarianism what the European Union today seeks to bring about with the aid of technocracy, managerialism and corporatism – using anything as an excuse for more political integration except a full-throated cry from European people to be part of ever-closer union.

It is this ever-closer union which we are seeking to leave, as evidenced by the Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, showing that the primary motivation for the Leave vote was a desire to reclaim sovereignty and democratic accountability. It was the continual efforts of political elites in Britain and Europe to build a political union spanning dissimilar cultures, in direct contradiction of this desire and without specific democratic consent, which ultimately made Brexit inevitable.

The EU’s “if we build it, they will come” approach to legitimising itself – creating institutions and giving them vast powers at the expense of the nation state, all in the hope that a European demos will magically appear in a puff of smoke – is pure wishful thinking. And as EU and member state political elites insist on responding to growing public dissatisfaction by pledging “More Europe”, they will only create a bigger and more unsavoury backlash, yet they seem unable to envisage taking any other course of action.

None of this is to insist that Britain should continue in its current form for a thousand years, or that the nation state remain the basic building block of human civilisation in perpetuity. But in the age of universal suffrage there is no good reason why we should continue to blindly execute a dated, anachronistic 1950s blueprint to fulfil a century-old aspiration of European political union when we should instead be creating new systems of meaningful international cooperation which work with human nature rather than struggling obstinately against human nature. Institutions which enjoy sufficient public support that they can operate in the light rather than work in the shadows, relying on voter ignorance.

Democracy means more than the existence of universal suffrage, elected legislatures and executive offices. These things are a necessary condition, but they mean very little if the demos – the body of people whom the institutions purportedly serve – does not also see itself as a cohesive demos. If Britons were suddenly able to vote in Japanese elections, and share political institutions with Japan, a cohesive British/Japanese demos would not automatically pop into existence sharing a common culture, concerns and aspirations. The same goes for the attempt to create a European demos by imposing a parliament, flag and anthem.

This is why Remainer protestations that the EU is “no less democratic than Westminster” are ignorant at best, and deliberately misleading at worst. While some starry-eyed euro-federalists clearly do see themselves as European first and foremost, they are incredibly lacking in number, and certainly nowhere near a majority. And until this changes there can be no European demos of sufficient strength and depth to sustain the kind of powerful, permanent institutions mandated by the EU.

This is where we must at least partially defer to human nature in this regard, and that’s why it is ludicrous to maintain that a political union including Britain and Lithuania could long survive when none can exist between Britain and Australia or Britain and the United States.

And that is why one Guardian columnist’s love of Daft Punk and Penelope Cruz movies can never provide a strong enough foundation to hold aloft the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice and all the vasty institutions of Brussels.

 

First published at LeaveHQ.

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Can Dual Citizens Be Good Citizens?

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What does it mean to be a dual citizen in the Age of Brexit?

Following my recent blog post lamenting our society’s devalued and transactional concept of citizenship in the Age of Brexit, I was asked by a reader to write a companion piece on the topic of dual citizenship, a form of recourse which may ultimately be taken up by many EU residents currently living in Britain.

The request was as follows:

Brexit has caused (we are told) applications for passports from people who already hold passports – that is, people who are citizens of one European country seeking to become a citizen of a second country too.

This apparently includes UK citizens applying for Irish passports (without abandoning their UK passports) and people from continental countries who live in Britain applying for a British passport too (presumably this means going through the naturalisation process?). One wonders how many people who announce that they are planning to do it actually do – but it is evidently happening.

It is questionable why people should be able to be dual citizens if they live in democracies and are free to travel and work abroad. The ability to claim benefits in a second country seems to be one impetus. But it can cause people costs, like two tax liabilities. Some countries do not allow their citizens to take another citizenship without renouncing their existing one, but there seem to be many countries which are happy to agree to dual citizenship.

Your article of 12 September explains well how citizenship is becoming a sort of transaction – benefits for taxes, and no longer an allegiance to a nation. The large increase in people obtaining (why not triple?) citizenship could further undermine the significance and value of being a citizen of a country.

My reader seems to build on my assertion that citizenship is increasingly seen (particularly by educated, globally mobile elites) as very much a transactional affair with perks received in exchange for taxes paid, and extrapolates that dual citizenship is necessarily a further dilution of the bond between citizen and nation state.

This is a tricky subject for me to discuss, primarily because I will ultimately be emigrating to the United States with my Texan wife (who is herself currently in the process of applying for British citizenship). Therefore, to rail against the concept of dual citizenship would be hypocritical, while approving too strongly might be seen as merely attempting to justify my own personal circumstances. All I can do when setting out my views, therefore, is to make people aware of this potential bias and lay out my thinking on the matter as it currently stands.

In short, I do not believe that dual citizenship is either inherently good or inherently bad. Though there is undoubtedly a correlation between those who hold dual citizenship and the kind of fleet-footed “Citizens of the World” who feel that they have transcended national identity altogether, it is perfectly possible in my mind for somebody who holds dual citizenship to be a model citizen of both countries, while somebody without an international lifestyle can just as easily be a terrible citizen of the only country they call home.

Therefore, I don’t think it is a question of whether dual citizenship as a concept is right or wrong. The more interesting question to me is what makes somebody a good citizen of their home or adopted country, and what makes somebody a bad or negligent citizen.

One could probably define this a thousand different ways, but for immigrants seeking to naturalise as dual citizens surely it includes a mixture of more tangible qualities (being economically active, law-abiding, involved in the community) and intangible qualities (genuine interest in and acceptance of the country’s culture and values). Immigration authorities typically only look at the tangible aspects – what else could they do? – but while this scrutiny can reveal whether somebody is likely to be an economic burden or a danger to society, it is the intangible (and largely immeasurable) qualities which really determine whether or not somebody will make a good citizen.

From my own experience, I have loved the idea of America since I was an early teenager, and the reality of America just as much, ever since first experiencing the country in my late teens. The architecture, the art, the (classical) music, the landscape and the sheer optimism of America captivated me well before I was politically aware, and the Constitution, federal system and that strange but compelling contradiction between individualism and great community-mindedness equally appealed to me as I came to understand them.

America is a country that I feel I know well. Not just in the sense that frequent holidaymakers might be able to direct somebody to their favourite restaurant in New York City, or the way that US-based foreign correspondents come to know the political and cultural elites with whom they rub shoulders, but at a much deeper level.

I have visited and worked in towns and cities across that great land, from New York to Chicago to Kansas City to Austin to San Antonio to Seattle, and many smaller places in between. I have seen and savoured some of the best of urban and rural living in America, from hearing the New York Philharmonic play John Adams, riding a stranger’s horse in Colorado and experiencing the Catholic Mass with Mariachi music in my wife’s south Texas hometown to eating fried food on sticks at the Illinois State Fair. I have spoken with people from the most left-leaning liberals to the strictest social conservatives and found nearly everyone to be unfailingly polite and welcoming – though a couple of men I once conversed with at a hotel bar in Arkansas were none to happy that America had a black president (they used a different word).

I have seen (some of) the best of America, and glimpsed the darker side, too. And so when the day finally comes that I raise my hand and take the oath of allegiance to the Constitution and laws of the United States of America I will be aligning myself with a country that I know and love, for all its greatness and its imperfections.

I will not become an American to join a closed community of fellow British expats, clustered together in one locale and unwilling to integrate with American society. I will not become an American to try to make the United States more like Britain. I will not become an American because the taxes are lower (though they are), or because I think I can get more from the welfare system (I certainly won’t). I will not become an American merely because the United States is a temporary work posting, a brief stopover as part of a transnational career. No, I will become an American because I will one day make that place my home and want to share that bond of citizenship and fraternity with my fellow citizens; because I want to participate in American democracy and every facet of civic life open to citizens.

But even as I do so, I will not lose affection for the United Kingdom, my homeland. I will remain connected to Britain not only through ties of family and friends, but because I am proud to be British and have been an engaged citizen of this country for so long, politically and culturally. When my wife and I have children we may well want them to spend some years growing up in London so that they know the rich culture that is also their inheritance. Far be it from me to brag about myself, but as an abstract ideal for the model dual citizen this would seem like a decent enough template.

But the diluting effect of loyalties mentioned by my reader is undoubtedly a real phenomenon. I would think it highly unlikely that anybody could maintain such strong connections as the number of countries and citizenships involved ticks upward. I have to tread carefully here, because I have a number of dear and longstanding friends who hold multiple citizenships, and uncontestably have strong attachments to and affection for each country in question. One cannot make judgments about individuals from population trends, or infer population trends from observing individuals, but at a macro level I think it is generally the case that deep attachment to a nation state decreases as the number of citizenships in play increases.

The degree to which the cultures in question differ from one another probably also determines whether it is possible to form a deep bond to multiple countries. I would imagine that growing up in a Middle Eastern theocracy would make it at least somewhat harder to form deep bonds of attachment to a country with Western values and culture while maintaining undiminished affection and loyalty to one’s homeland, though there are undoubtedly many such dual citizens who do not experience (or at least overcame) any cognitive dissonance in this regard.

Many residents holding a particularly high number of citizenships are likely to have acquired at least one from birth or through their parents, and may have very little connection to the culture of that country if they grew up without living there. I know several people who hold Spanish citizenship through birth, though the closest connection they have with Spain is having occasionally vacationed there as a child. Does this make them bad citizens? I wouldn’t necessarily say so, since their citizenship is passive – they do not live in Spain or participate in Spain’s democratic process, and so their effect on Spain is neither positive or negative.

And of course there are particularly mobile members of the economic elite who often tend to have more in common with elites from other developed countries than with their less affluent neighbours. Benjamin Schwarz is the latest to pick up on this particular trend, over at The American Conservative:

Reflecting and exacerbating the cultural divide, these cities have increasingly become culturally homogenous echo-chambers. The consumption patterns and cultural and political attitudes of, say, London, central Paris, the westside of Los Angeles, the northside of Chicago, Manhattan, Seattle, Northwest D.C., Toronto, and San Francisco resemble each other more than they do their outlying districts and suburbs.

As befits these engines of global capitalism, these cities and their inhabitants are pulling away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures. Untethered from their localities, they are being transformed into an archipelago of analogous islands.

Again, does this mean that a well-travelled, prosperous knowledge worker with an international career cannot be a good and conscientious member of his or her community and country? Of course not. But it seems highly likely that people who are rooted Somewhere will have a greater sense of belonging and loyalty to their country than people who are rooted Anywhere. This is not intended as a moral judgment, but simply a statement of probability.

This hypothesis was proved in the EU referendum, where the vast majority of the foreign-born Anywheres living in Britain were strongly for remaining in the European Union and dumbfounded to the point of trauma at the vote for Brexit. For example, many Americans living in London simply couldn’t understand why Britain would want to secede from a supranational political union in the name of nation state democracy, even though their own country would never in a million years submit to the same kind of incursions on sovereignty inflicted by the European Union. In this regard at least they clearly have more in common with the transnational elite than the majority of citizens of their own country (or Britain, as it turns out).

In all of this, I feel like something of an outsider. I have enjoyed an international career myself, will one day be a dual citizen and in most ways am very much part of the “elite” that I spend an increasing amount of time thinking and writing about. My wife and I live in West Hampstead, an area of London which voted overwhelmingly for Remain in the referendum, and in which French is probably the second-most common language heard on the high street. We have become snobs about good coffee, visit food trucks on the weekend and (God help us) occasionally shop at Whole Foods.

Yet I am not at one with the hive mind of my demographic, which leans strongly toward the pro-European, trendy Left. I don’t think that this makes me any better or worse than people who hold the prevailing views of my social circle, but whether by the circumstances of my childhood or some quirk of the brain I do seem to be able to empathise with those who fall outside my demographic or otherwise think differently. I see the condescending, insular selfishness of the centre-leftist metropolitan worldview even as I personally benefit from many of the resulting policies.

This is probably why my stance on dual citizenship is nuanced to the point of sounding tortured. But since the ability to empathise with people of all circumstances is to my mind an essential part of being a good citizen, to this extent I do consider myself a better citizen (though by no means a better person) than those who hold the typical pro-EU, metro-leftist worldview.

Personally, I feel rooted emotionally and circumstantially to only two countries – Britain and America. There are other countries which I know well, love and respect. I have enormous affection for France, from the scruffy Pas-de-Calais to the trendy Marais district of Paris. I know and like the French culture and character. But I do not feel French, nor would I, even if I were to take a job in France for a number of years. If I were ever to take French citizenship it would only be the result of a need to formally codify my status there for administrative reasons, or because I wanted to participate in the democracy of my host nation. It would very much be the more transactional approach to citizenship that my reader decries. By contrast, I already feel part-American – the only thing which lags behind is the paperwork.

Others may enjoy the rare ability to feel real, abiding love for multiple countries, to hold six or seven passports and be willing to fight and die for each represented flag, if necessary. I am not one of those people, and as a tenuous member of the so-called elite I can report that very few of them cross my path. Therefore I think it almost self-evident that there is a negative correlation between citizenships held and deep attachment to each – but it is a trend with many many outliers, and one cannot prejudge anybody based on this factor alone.

So is it possible for dual citizens to be good citizens of both countries? Yes, of course – or at least I hope so, for my sake. But the qualities that make a good citizen cannot be measured or screened for during the immigration and naturalisation process (even attempting to do so would veer into draconian thought-policing of the worst kind), and so we are left struggling to promote the concept of citizenship to a group of people many of whom have lost faith in the very concept. But just as one hopes that people take the institution of marriage seriously while simultaneously recognising that many people will not do so, so one must accept that some people will become citizens of a new country thinking only of the benefits and not the obligations.

At present, many of those who oppose Brexit – both British citizens and EU residents – declare themselves “Citizens of the World”, meaningless phrase though it is, as a way of signifying their disdain for what they see as an insular and parochial worldview.

But as I wrote last year:

In my experience, self-described citizens of the world have tended to describe their outlook in terms of what they get from the bargain rather than what they contribute in return. They call themselves citizens if the world because being so affords them opportunities and privileges – the chance to travel, network and do business. Very few people speak of being citizens of the world because of what they give back in terms of charity, cultural richness or human knowledge, yet all of the people that I would consider to have been true citizens of the world – people like Leonard Bernstein or Ernest Hemingway – fall into this latter, rarer category.

If the former, more parasitic attitude is what comes to represent dual citizenship then I have no desire to be associated with it. But it need not be like this. Dual citizens can be among the very best citizens of a country, holding a deep appreciation for their new home that many natural born citizens lack or take for granted, while also bringing with them the best values and traditions of their homelands.

And these people we should welcome with wide-open arms.

 

Dual citizenship - US and British passports

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Brexit Opposition And The Quiet Death Of Citizenship

It is difficult to have a serious conversation about citizenship in the Age of Brexit when so many people hold a such transactional, materialistic and reductionist definition of the concept as meaning little more than benefits received in exchange for taxes paid

One interesting and overlooked aspect of the Brexit debate is the extent to which the basic concept of citizenship has decayed and virtually evaporated from our public discourse, right under our noses, with barely any note of alarm being sounded in the process.

This decay reveals itself in manifold ways, from the furious pushback one inevitably receives when pointing out the obvious fact that citizens should (and do) have more rights than non-citizens to the outraged, moralising vitriol hurled at anybody who dares to suggest that illegal immigrants are technically lawbreakers and therefore maybe not universally worthy of respect, sympathy or amnesty.

These are now controversial positions to hold. To be steadfast in the belief that British citizenship confers more rights than those held by permanent residents or temporary visitors is to mark oneself out as something of an extremist, at least as far as the media and chattering classes are concerned. Yet many politicians in Britain and America who now wrap themselves in the mantle of conspicuous compassion for all illegal immigrants and effectively agitate for open borders could themselves not so long ago be found calling for tougher immigration enforcement.

This applies to the likes of Hillary Clinton in America, who once supported and voted for the same strengthening of the United States’ southern border which she now denounces as being tantamount to racism. Of course, Clinton has since positioned herself as a tireless champion of the “undocumented”, together with virtually all of the American Left. Similarly in Britain, many commentators who once dared to express reservations about uncontrolled immigration from within the EU have now taken up rhetorical arms against anybody who proposes a more rigorous immigration policy.

In both countries, but particularly in Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

This responsibility goes much deeper than just paying one’s taxes. It means making a serious commitment to community and, ideally, the enthusiastic acceptance of and assimilation into one’s home (or adopted) culture. Traditionally, the sign that an immigrant was willing to accept these broader responsibilities was their decision to apply for naturalisation as a citizen. Historically, if an immigrant were to build a life in another country, working and raising a family there, they would ultimately become a citizen of that country in most cases.

But today, many people demand the perks without accepting the responsibilities – hence the outrage of and on behalf of EU citizens who have built permanent or semi-permanent lives here yet refuse to see why they should formalise that commitment through the naturalisation process (or at least the acquisition of permanent residency following Brexit). They forget that the European Union is an aberration, that nowhere else in the developed world would countries offer so much while asking for virtually nothing in return.

Yet to point this out is to invite accusations of callousness and amorality. Of course there are exceptional cases where joint citizenship cannot be taken or some other bureaucratic or financial obstacle stands in the way of an EU migrant formalising their commitment to the United Kingdom. Such cases should be treated generously, with the aim of reducing any uncertainty for the migrants involved.

But this blog has very little sympathy when people demand something for nothing. Freedom of movement and other EU benefits are political entitlements. They are not – repeat, NOT – fundamental, inalienable rights.

A fundamental right is intrinsic to one’s humanity, as applicable to somebody in China, Russia, North Korea or Venezuela as to someone living in Britain. These are best summed up in the US Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, though one can also drill down a level further and acknowledge the universal human right to property, due process under law and so on. Fundamental rights are inherent; political entitlements are nice-to-haves, often given (in the EU’s case) partly as a means of securing support for a dubious political project which would otherwise be utterly unloved.

Of course we should have a degree of natural sympathy for anybody at risk of losing their current political entitlement to live and work in the United Kingdom without going through the arduous and expensive process of applying for permanent residency or citizenship – though a deal between Britain and the EU to secure reciprocal ongoing rights for UK and EU citizens is all but inevitable. Personally, I would offer expedited indefinite leave to remain to all current EU migrants at a greatly reduced fee. But others’ rights as EU migrants do not trump the sacrosanct (though not quite exclusive) right of British citizens to participate in our democracy and determine the course of the country.

The decision of the British people to secede from the European Union can not and must not be vetoed by or on behalf of people who refuse to assume the responsibilities and privileges of full citizenship. That such an obvious statement now sounds harsh or controversial is itself an indicator of how deeply corroded and devalued the concept of citizenship has become in our society. Yet this would have been the mainstream view in Britain a decade or more ago, and still very much is the accepted wisdom nearly everywhere else in the world.

Many Brexiteers – myself among them – did not spend 2016 tirelessly campaigning for Brexit because they hate immigrants, want to kick out existing migrants or even significantly lower net migration. But neither will we allow the protestations of those who refuse to share the commitment and mutual connection of citizenship with us to overshadow or overrule our vote.

This is not extreme, nor is it unreasonable. It is merely the consequence of adhering to the same traditional definition of citizenship which allows us to flourish as a society precisely because we are all bound to one another by something deeper than momentary convenience.

It remains to be hoped that Brexit will spark a renewed discussion about citizenship and the proper relationship between citizen, resident and government – indeed there are some early encouraging signs that such conversations are starting to take place.

But the furious reaction of the establishment Left to political developments both in Britain and America suggests that defenders of the concept of citizenship will be starting at a considerable disadvantage.

 

A British citizenship certificate is seen in London

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