The Story Of Hamilton Is Also The Story Of Brexit

Hamilton musical - London - Brexit

What do the latest imported smash hit musical from America and Britain’s historic vote for Brexit have in common? The answer, it turns out, is nearly everything.

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force
—  Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton

Yesterday evening I succumbed to the hype and went to see the London production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, newly opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre.

Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, American statesman and Founding Father, most famous for having been a delegate at the constitutional convention of 1786, writing many of the Federalist Papers, moulding the new country’s financial system as Treasury Secretary during George Washington’s presidency and having been killed in a dual by political rival Aaron Burr. Through his words and intellect, Hamilton made an enormous contribution to the birth of America, yet his untimely death robbed him of as prominent a place in history as his legacy deserved.

At first glance this might not seem the most promising material for a musical show, but theatre aficionados have been buzzing about Hamilton since it premiered in New York to rave reviews back in 2015. Such has been the show’s rapturous reception that it is fairly hard to find a negative review, let alone a ticket, especially in New York where tickets for the Broadway production have traded hands on the secondary market for insane sums of money.

Being something of a contrarian, I arrived at the theatre in sceptical mood, perhaps too eager to find fault with something that was being universally praised by everyone else. I was sceptical that the rap and hip-hop musical styles which predominate would be a good fit with the narrative material, and worried that the much-discussed “colour-conscious casting” might be little more than a convenient excuse to shoehorn an identity politics lecture into what should be an evening of entertainment.

As it turned out, my scepticism was blown away and any worries about ideological virtue signalling were (mostly) unfounded. Hamilton is an excellent show, the musical genres and clever allusions to other composers from Gilbert & Sullivan to The Notorious B.I.G. draw you in to the story rather than distracting from it, and the source material (Lin-Manuel Miranda based his show on the 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow) is catnip for history and constitutional geeks like me.

But as I watched the first act build to a climax – after Alexander Hamilton has arrived in New York, become involved in the revolutionary movement, served as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp, fought at Yorktown, studied law in New York after independence was won and ultimately chosen to be that state’s junior delegate to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, which laid the foundations for the United States of America as we know it today – something else occurred to me.

It provoked groans and assorted expressions of incredulity from my wife and our friend when I confessed my epiphany during the interval, but as the show progressed I realised that the story of Hamilton – of people forging a new and uncertain path through a world in flux – is also the story of Brexit. Bear with me, and I shall explain why.

After they won the War of Independence, Americans didn’t know exactly what they were creating or the experiment they were embarking on. They knew that remote and authoritarian rule from an overseas power was intolerable and injurious to their right to freedom and self-determination, but having thrown off the shackles of monarchy there was no set template for them to follow, no clear-cut alternative to which they should naturally gravitate.

Much of the detail as to how freedom from empire would actually work in practice had to be hashed out in contentious discussions, first formalised in the 1777 Articles of Confederation between the thirteen original states and later in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This was a time of uncertainty, but it was also an exciting time ripe with promise. Then, as now, there was a new world to build.

Today, we face similarly profound questions about how humanity should best govern itself in changing times, as the epoch of the nation state finds itself threatened and undermined by powerful forces such as globalisation, automation, mass migration and the need to balance smart regulation of international trade in all its technical complexity with the need to preserve democracy and the ability of ordinary people to defend their local priorities and concerns in the face of corporate technocracy.

The existing political order has never looked less equipped to deal with these challenges, or been so discredited and seemingly unequal to the serious task at hand. In Britain, the political class have forged ahead with a centrist, corporatist vision regardless of which political party was in power for the past three decades, an incredibly narrow Overton Window effectively shutting out a huge range of reasonable, non-extremist political ideas from the national political debate. And in the United States, politicians of both parties peddled the illusion that the post-war manufacturing economy could be resurrected together with the promise of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle sustained by semi-skilled manual labour requiring limited education.

In both cases the people themselves were partially to blame for falling for false promises and in some cases practically demanding to be lied to by pandering politicians, but regardless of ultimate fault it has increasingly dawned on people that national and international institutions as presently configured have not met the challenge of our times and can not keep pace with a world increasingly knitted together by technology.

The European Union, held up by its naive supporters as the unquestionably superior way for nations to peacefully cooperate (despite not being replicated on any other continent), has conspicuously failed to effectively tackle nearly all of the big challenges thrown its way, from the migration crisis to the pitfalls of monetary union to rampant corruption in some member states and growing authoritarianism in others. And through all this, despite Herculean efforts and vast sums of money spent with the aim of forging a cohesive European demos – a body of people who hold their European identity in equal or greater worth than their national identity – no such demos has formed.

The EU’s “if you build it, they will come” strategy, creating all of the institutions required for a supranational political state in the expectation that a demos would magically follow along to grant them legitimacy, has failed. Outside Britain, where misguided and low-information young idealists sing Kumbaya and paint the EU flag on their faces, euroscepticism among young people is increasing as more people recognise that the institutions of Brussels present a beguiling but erroneous vision of the future. To all these challenges and more the European Union has nothing to offer save more political integration for the sake of political integration. The EU has no answer, just as remote and exploitative monarchy failed to redress the legitimate grievances of the American colonists.

A recent article by Bradley Birzer in The American Conservative about the limited lifespan of any system or institution of government certainly applies to the European Union and other pillars of the post-war world order as much as it does to the nation state:

One must remember that no republicans believe their republic can last forever. A republic, by its very essence, must rely on its organic nature, a living thing that is born, flourishes, decays, and dies. It is, by nature, trapped in the cycles of life, bounded by the walls of time. While a cosmic republic might exist—as understood by Cicero’s “Cosmopolis” and Augustine’s “City of God”—it existed in eternity and, therefore, aloof of time.

For better or worse, the Roman Republic reflected not just nature, but the Edenic fall of nature as well. We can, the Roman republican Livy recorded, “trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice.” The virtues of the commonwealth—the duties of labor, fate, and piety—gave way to the avaricious desires for private wealth. When young, the Romans rejoiced in the little they had, knowing that their liberty from the Etruscans meant more than all the wealth of the material world. “Poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment.” As the republic evolved and wealth became the focus of the community, not sacrifice, so the soul decayed. “Of late years,” Livy continued, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.”

Who can deny that some aspects of our present society – our materialism, individualism and instinctive fear of anything that might (no matter its virtue or long-term benefits) temporarily disrupt the steady accumulation of wealth, assets and positive experiences which we increasingly expect and demand – are worryingly reflected in Livy’s words?

To paraphrase Birzer, all things must come to an end. The Britain of today is not the Britain of thirty years ago, just as the dogmas of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” no longer automatically apply to the American present. We have witnessed tremendous progress in that time, but also political and social atrophy. We are not what we once were, and neither should we cling on in futility to what is past. Many Remainers, having fixed in their minds the false image of Brexiteers as Mafeking stereotypes – curmudgeonly old retired colonels pining for lost empire – fail to realise that through their devotion to the European Union it is they who yearn to preserve the past, slavishly devoted to an anachronistic mid-century blueprint for a new world order, one which came to partial fruition, peaked and then found itself wholly inadequate to the stormy present.

Brexit is not a magical elixir sufficient to address the stormy present or dissipate the challenges we face, but it is a necessary first step to confronting them, just as Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers could not fully contemplate and realise their revolutionary new system of government until they had first thrown off the shackles of monarchy. Looking at Brexit as a narrow and obstinate project to reclaim full sovereignty or purely as a technocratic matter of trade regulations is to miss the point – we are seeking not to go back but forward, and Brexit is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition to enable this progress.

It pains me to read much of the coverage and commentary around Brexit, which overwhelmingly ignores the big picture and the long term to obsess over speculative short term costs. It is vital to consider short-term costs and risks in any endeavour, but good policymaking is only possible when short-term considerations are balanced with a broader, longer-term perspective. Remainers often react with incredulity to the suggestion that anything might matter beyond next year’s GDP growth rate, but the American colonists of Hamilton’s day were every bit as concerned about their economic prosperity and security as their modern-day British counterparts; they just also realised that other issues were at stake, issues worth enduring the hardship and destruction of a revolutionary war to correct.

We in modern Britain are called to make no sacrifice remotely comparable to that of the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies as they struck out on their own to form a more perfect union. It would be laughable to compare even the worst of mismanaged Brexits to the price that Hamilton’s peers paid for their freedom and for the opportunity to advance the model of human governance. Yet so great is our present culture of consumerism and so diminished our sense of citizenship or civic duty that few of us are capable of thinking in terms greater than the pursuit of whatever might sate our present desire for comfort and stability. And even when this stability is under long-term threat, such is our fear of disruption that we would rather cling on to the slow, familiar degredation than take any risk by seeking to prevent it.

Today we have a tendency to think of ourselves as having transcended our past, that we inhabit what Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History”, a time when all major human challenges have been vanquished and we inhabit some kind of permanent, beneficent steady-state from which any departure would be an intolerable disruption. And from this perspective, Brexit does indeed appear to be a crazy, irrational endeavour, threatening to unleash a backslide into the fascism and totalitarianism with which we struggled in the twentieth century.

But of course we have not reached the end of history. We are continually presented with new challenges and opportunities, and try as we might to pretend that our existing institutions and policies need only tweaking or adjusting to meet them, recent events have proven this to be patently false. Not all Brexiteers may have voted to leave the European Union based on these high ideals but as Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Through Brexit, history has gifted us the opportunity to imagine a new and improved form of government, one which strives to meet our future challenges rather than cower from them (all that EU membership offers, most telling in the rhetoric used by Remainers) or pretend that they do not exist (favoured by the more retrograde Brexiteers who envisage a simple rollback to the old nation state). We must seize this opportunity and be a beacon for other nations, all of which must ultimately grapple with the same issues though they may deny or postpone them for a time.

As I recently wrote:

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

Rather than feeling rancour or relitigating the 2016 referendum result, we should feel the same sense of excitement and possibility that Alexander Hamilton and his co-revolutionaries felt as they debated among themselves how to keep the new republic that they had created. We must rediscover that spark within ourselves.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that a stirring tale about forging a new, more democratic future, a story kindled in America, is set to take Britain by storm as we negotiate our secession from the European Union and look questioningly but optimistically towards the future. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the spirit of Alexander Hamilton is flickering back to life on a London stage at this specific time and place.

Because when you strip away the political games and the media sideshow, the catastrophisation, recriminations, denunciations, speculations and bifurcations, the story of Hamilton may just also be the story of Brexit – if we have the courage and vision to make it so.


Hamilton tickets and information here.


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The American Establishment, Having Lost Faith In Their Own Country, Naturally Oppose Brexit Too

Declaration of Independence - United States of America - Founding Fathers - Brexit

How quickly they forget

If there was one country in the world which you might think would understand the importance of democracy, the right to self determination and freedom from unaccountable government, it would be the United States of America.

And so it has been particularly depressing to watch politicians and commentators from the United States dutifully line up to support the European Union and condemn Brexit as some sort of frivolous and deliberate act of economic self-harm with no potential upsides whatsoever.

Latest to join the fray are the Washington Post (in a piece now being widely shared on social media by Remainers) and the New York Times, both of which condemn Brexit as an isolationist fantasy without showing any evidence of having researched the issue in any detail.

First, the Washington Post, which claims that advocating Brexit is to “flirt with economic insanity”:

Countries usually don’t knowingly commit economic suicide, but in Britain, millions seem ready to give it a try. On June 23, the United Kingdom will vote to decide whether to quit the European Union, the 28-nation economic bloc with a population of 508 million and a gross domestic product of almost $17 trillion. Let’s not be coy: Leaving the E.U. would be an act of national insanity.

[..] What this debate is really about is Britain’s place in the world and its self-identity. Britain has long been of Europe but also apart from it. The British Empire was once the world’s largest. To be simply another member of a continental confederation, albeit an important member, offends this heritage. The nostalgic yearning is understandable, but it is not a policy.

Ironically, leaving the E.U. would confirm the U.K.’s reduced status. The U.K. would have to renegotiate its trading agreements with the E.U. and dozens of other countries. A deal with the E.U. is essential. For the U.K., the best outcome would be to retain much of its preferential access, which — as a practical matter — would mean continuing contributions to the E.U. budget and abiding by most E.U. regulations. The status quo would survive, except that the U.K. would have no influence over E.U. policies. Anything less than this would have the E.U. putting its own members at a competitive disadvantage.

One could drive an entire convoy of trucks through the holes in this argument – like the implied assertion that maintaining EEA access would require “abiding by most EU regulations” when in fact it would only mean following those directives and regulations which pertain to the single market (well under half of the total).

Note, too, the dismissive attempt to make euroscepticism sound like a nostalgic hampering for empire. What is really outdated, though, is the WashPost’s antiquated belief that membership of “continental confederation[s]” or giant regional blocs is somehow necessary for national prosperity, despite the Cold War having ended a quarter of a century ago. The Post has made no effort to actually understand what motivates Brexiteers – be it the “liberal leavers” like this blog, or the more traditionalist types in UKIP – and instead falls back on a bed of platitudes and outdated assumptions.

This is the New York Times’ distilled view of Brexiteers:

The euroskepticism that has led to the British referendum, and that forms a strong component of the right-wing nationalist parties on the rise in many European countries, is not about efficiency or history. It is about ill-defined frustration with the complexities of a changing world and a changing Europe, a loss of faith in mainstream politicians and experts, a nostalgia for a past when nations decided their own fates and kept foreigners out. To those who hold these views, the European Union is the epitome of all that has gone wrong, an alien bureaucracy deaf to the traditions and values of its members. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump and the French politician Marine Le Pen both favor Brexit.

What a condescending view of all Brexiteers, with an insidious Donald Trump comparison as a snobby garnish. The Times is utterly oblivious to the real world of global trade and regulation, and the slowly emerging global single market which is making the EU obsolete, as this blog pointed out yesterday while criticising the Economist’s unsurprising decision to support Remain:

The bloggers of The Leave Alliance in particular have exposed the fascinating world of international trade and regulation, and the slowly emerging global single market – comprised of the real global “top tables” – of which Britain could be a part, if only we had the national confidence to stop hiding behind the euro-parochialism of Brussels.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post concludes:

Viewed this way, Brexit is an absurdity. But it is a potentially destructive absurdity. It creates more uncertainty in a world awash in uncertainty. This would weaken an already sputtering global economy by giving firms and consumers another reason to pull back on spending.

It would be better for the U.K. to stay in the E.U. It would also be better for the E.U., because Britain provides political and intellectual balance. Finally, it would be better for the United States, which doesn’t need a major ally — Britain — to go delusional.

Ah, so that’s what this is really all about – stability and predictability for the United States. It would have been much more honest if the Post had simply admitted this upfront, rather than squandering credibility by feigning concern for Britain’s economic and geopolitical welfare – and then advancing the bizarre notion that America’s strongest and closest ally should continue to tolerate infringements on her democracy which the United States would never accept for itself.

But in one sense the Washington Post is quire right – Brexit would indeed cause some short term uncertainty. That is inevitable when we are dealing with such consequential matters of state. It’s just that some things matter more than the fear of precipitating a period of short term uncertainty. Why should Britain, like a frog placed in cold water, remain fearfully in situ as the temperature increases and the water starts to boil? Because jumping out of the water into dry land would be a “leap in the dark”? Because it would be a departure from the status quo? Well, yes, so it would. But the EU, a relentlessly integrating political union beset by crises of currency, mobility and democratic legitimacy is the proverbial vat of boiling water. “The devil we know” hardly seems to apply here.

The New York Times is no better, beginning with a most ludicrous proposition:

It was Queen Elizabeth’s official 90th birthday celebration last Sunday, and tables for 10,000 guests were set along the Mall in central London. Steadily the rain fell, dripping out of the tubas of the bands and softening the sandwiches, but Her Majesty’s subjects munched on with stoic British spirit, standing up to cheer as she passed.

In her fuchsia coat and matching hat, she waved and grinned as if nothing had changed and never would. But next week, a very great change may come.

On Thursday, Britons will vote in a referendum on whether their country should stay in the European Union or leave it. If a majority opts for “Brexit,” a long earthquake begins. It will topple the old facade of Britishness. It will disrupt, perhaps mortally, the foundations of European unity. The sense of a fateful moment suddenly peaked on Thursday, when, the police say, a young Labour member of Parliament named Jo Cox was shot to death in her West Yorkshire district by a man who is said to have shouted, “Put Britain first!” and to have been involved in the white-supremacist National Alliance in the United States.

All campaigning was suspended for a day of appalled mourning, amid fears that widespread anxiety about European immigration was being inflamed into violent racialism. Ms. Cox was a rising star, admired in and outside Parliament for her selfless energy on behalf of refugees and the poor. Her friends hope her death may cool referendum passions, reminding sullen voters that “not all politicians are in it for themselves.”

Royal ceremonies offer a brief, reassuring illusion of continuity, but at the back of many minds on the Mall was this thought: Could we be saying goodbye not just to this beloved old lady, but to a certain idea of nationhood? An outward-looking, world-involved Great Britain may soon shrink into a Little England.

It is frankly hilarious that the New York Times is trying to portray Brexit as some kind of grievous departure from the proper trajectory of history by referencing the Queen, when Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne several years before the European Coal and Steel Community was even formed, and decades before Britain finally joined the European Economic Community.

In other words, it is the European Union and its hateful, antidemocratic model of supranational governance which is the departure from historical norms, and Brexit the antidote which aims to restore the nation state as the proper guarantor of our basic rights and freedoms. That the New York Times is unable (or unwilling) to admit this only shows just how deeply they buy into the carefully cultivated “inevitability” of the EU.

The venerable Times tarnishes its reputation even further as it moves on to the topic of immigration:

Is it a baseless panic? Many European countries tolerate far higher levels of immigration. Scotland, with a new community of some 55,000 Poles, actively encourages it. In England, support for Brexit and for the xenophobic U.K. Independence Party is often in inverse proportion to the scale of the problem: The fewer immigrants there are in a town, the louder the outcry against foreigners. In contrast, polling in inner London, where about four out of 10 inhabitants are now foreign-born, shows a clear preference for staying in Europe.

This is just appalling journalism. Does UKIP attract a slightly higher proportion of xenophobes than other political parties. Yes, probably. But does that make the party “xenophobic”, as the New York Times casually claims? Absolutely not. One wants to ask Neal Ascherson (the author of the piece) how UKIP’s policy of a points-based immigration policy which stops discriminating against mostly white Europe in favour of a level playing field for immigrants from all countries can possibly be xenophobic. But of course, he would not be able to answer. It is received wisdom that UKIP is a borderline racist party, and so prestige publications like the New York Times are happy to print as much.

The New York Times then makes its own patronising reference to empire:

But there are deeper motives here than anxiety about the exchange rate or banks in London decamping to Frankfurt. Behind Brexit stalks the ghost of imperial exception, the feeling that Great Britain can never be just another nation to be outvoted by France or Slovakia. There’s still a providential feeling about Shakespeare’s “sceptred isle” as “this fortress built by Nature.” Or as an old Royal Marines veteran said to me, “God dug the bloody Channel for us, so why do we keep trying to fill it in?”

And swats away growing public dissatisfaction with political elites as an inconvenient nuisance:

English nationalism, though inchoate, is spreading. For older generations, it was cloaked in British patriotism. But now, having watched the Scots and the Welsh win their own parliaments, England — with no less than 84 percent of Britain’s population — feels aggrieved and unrepresented. And so the English have gone in search of their own identity politics, finding common cause with the general impatience with old political elites that is flaming up all over Europe.

For now, their angry sense of powerlessness is aimed at the European Union. But the truth is that it’s from bloated, privileged London, not Brussels, that the English need to take back control. The Brexit campaign orators, themselves members of that metropolitan elite, have carefully diverted English fury into empty foreigner-baiting. In France this month, English soccer hooligans’ chant was “We’re all voting Out!” as they beat up fans from other nations.

Presumably the New York Times supports the American system of government. One might think that this would lead them to reflexively support a strong and independent nation state organised on the federal model – or something like Brexit followed by constitutional reform to give equal powers and representation to the four home nations of the United Kingdom. And yet in this snivelling OpEd, they search instead for every reason imaginable, however slight, to criticise Brexit and overlook the manifold failings of the European Union. And they deny the independence and model of government which they themselves enjoy to the inhabitants of their strongest and closest ally.

And then comes the “convenience for the United States” argument, underlined with a threat:

It is certain that Brexit would do gross damage to both Europe and America. For the United States, it would mean the failure of many years of diplomacy. Britain would become at once less useful as an ally and less predictable. Washington would turn increasingly from London to Berlin.

Really, to Berlin?

Which is the nation with a blue water navy and armed forces capable of projecting global reach?

Which nation hosts the world’s capital city and leading city of finance?

Which nation is the declared nuclear power and UN Security Council P5 member?

Which nation shares a language and many elements of a culture with America?

There’s been a lot of bluster in this EU referendum campaign, but the notion that the United States would turn away from its only real dependable (and contributing) ally in the world to shack up instead with Germany is, frankly, laughable.

Both of these editorials – Washington Post and New York Times alike – seek above all to problematise the Brexit process, to burden it with what-ifs and doubts and problems while furiously overlooking the many problems with the status quo and the soon-to-be problems about to beset the European Union. They do not begin from a place of objectivity and a willingness to follow the facts. They do not even do justice to America’s own founding values, which would rightly balk at ever joining a democracy-sapping supranational government like the EU.

But most of all, they make it sound like Brexit is just too difficult. That whatever the merits, difficult things are now beyond our capabilities and that we must muddle through with the failing mid-century institutions bequeathed to us by our grandparents. This is fatalistic and depressing in the extreme, but it accurately represents the viewpoint of the establishment in both Britain and America, both world-leading countries which have markedly lost their way in recent years.

President Kennedy once entreated Americans to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard – and because the striving toward an ambitious but difficult goal would be the best way to organise and measure the capabilities of the nation. And before that decade was out, Americans had walked on the surface of the moon.

Now, the two most prestigious newspapers in America are frantically counselling Britain not to reach for the metaphorical moon, not to reach for independence from a suffocating and failing European political union, not to do anything which might in any way rock the boat or stem our slow decline into euro-parochialism and global irrelevance, because doing so would be difficult and would create (shock, horror) a period of uncertainty.

In other words, the American establishment is looking upon Britain as though we have taken leave of our senses even by having this referendum. They, having lost faith in the strength and capability of their own country, expect Brexiteers to similarly write off our own.

But it is not we Brexiteers who are flirting with insanity, as the Washington Post so arrogantly claims. It is America which has lost its way, and the American establishment and political class which could learn something from the scrappy, underdog campaign to free Britain from the EU.


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