One of the most striking features in the views of those ‘remainer’ few, still unreconciled to the straightforward and settled binary decision to leave the EU (which, by huge majority, Parliament had passed back to the people to make by referendum), is their lack of curiosity about the EU. Is it thriving? Is it sickening? Equally peculiar is their dismissive evaluation of the wider Anglosphere to which Britain will return, unshackled, in April 2019. Is the Commonwealth really as inconsequential as they suggest?
To seek reasoned and evidence-based judgements on both these questions, I deployed a famous general theory of the rise and fall of complex societies to examine the histories of the EU and the Anglosphere. This is Professor Joseph Tainter’s thought experiment, which borrowed marginal utility theory from the world of finance, developed further by his examination of ancient empires. My analysis was first published on the ‘Briefings for Brexit’ website and can be seen here.
On the EU, the main finding is that its health has been on the slide since the turn of the century and especially since the fateful introduction of the euro. Adding yet further complexity to the EU is producing negative marginal utility and pushing the entire project into the zone of risk of collapse. On the Anglosphere and Commonwealth, the main finding is that added complexity is yielding rising marginal gains.
These are important findings. They underpin the wisdom of the 17.4 million many who voted to leave the EU, and they underline the perversity, in utter disrespect of democracy and by wilful abuse of Parliament, of the unreconciled ‘remainiac’ few trying to keep Britain trapped in ‘Hotel California’ (“You can check out any time. You just can’t leave”).
In short, the EU is a failing and the Anglosphere is a rising power bloc and the axiomatic question is why. It reminds us that the nub of Brexit is not now, and never was, about the minutiae of trade or a transactional offer on the pound in your pocket. That was the mistake of ‘Project Fear’ in the referendum campaign. It is the same smoke that ‘remainiacs’ hoping to overturn the will of the people still blow in our eyes. The nub is about cultural and political legitimation: ‘taking back control.’
In terms of marginal utility theory, the vote to leave was a vote to revert to a lower level of institutional complexity – the nation-state – which better yields desired public goods, is under sovereign control and (in part for just those reasons) commands legitimacy.
The cardinal difference between today’s EU and the Commonwealth lies here. When the British Empire ended, its hub and spoke power structure dissolved, mostly peacefully but with different amounts of violence in some places, although none comparable to the scale and intensity of an Algeria or an Indo-China or a Congo; and overall within a remarkably short span of time. It morphed into a networked grid of distributed power, a shared enterprise called ‘The Commonwealth’.
The British Empire collapsed in a classic ‘Tainterian’ way. After the First World War, and notably in India, it increasingly ceased to be self-funding and the cost of the central structures became burdensome for those supporting it, although pleasant enough for those in nicely tenured and pensioned posts (just like the end-stage EU today, please note, pensioner Lords Mandelson / Kinnock / Patten). But unlike the EU’s uni-directional vanguard myth, the philosophy of indirect rule opened a natural route for transition from empire to trade-enabling, low cost, friendly relations at the international level.
These have survived Heath’s betrayal in 1972, and will survive the current callous ineptitude of the civil service favouring Chinese over Indian students for study visas, or questioning the citizenship of the Windrush generation from the Caribbean.
The Commonwealth has benefitted formatively and indispensably from the leadership of HM the Queen. From her discreet defusing of delicate political crises over the years (Ghana, South Africa etc.) to today’s visionary and inclusive Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy global tree-planting programme, our debt to Her Majesty over nearly 70 years is deep and broad. During her reign, the Commonwealth has become one of the most solidly grounded global alliances of shared interests. Her loyalty and efforts mean that the returning prodigal, Britain, has somewhere exceptional to come home.
No-where else and in no other organisation does such a kaleidoscope of different nations from all hemispheres freely associate in so many ways. This is much more than is captured by the thin concept of ‘soft’ power. Commonwealth peoples share what anthropologists would call a ‘thick’ cultural narrative (including cricket). Look, for example, at maps of the destination and volumes of email and telephone traffic from Britain. The ties that bind which stand out are to and between the Anglosphere and its allies.
Many university educated people nowadays, and, it appears, most academics who write about the Commonwealth, have been brought up on a kind of shallow anti-imperialist virtue-signalling rhetoric which makes such a message unintelligible to them. That is a sadness because it does not match the reality of the lived experience of the end of empire, nor the reality of today’s Commonwealth.
The late colonial experience which I have studied was a shared cultural construction, not a place where power was crudely imposed on a Marxist model. In the areas where I was working in central Africa, after the period of ‘welfare colonialism’ in the 1950s, after the British left, there was a transition into political independence. And there was residual goodwill. Of course there is a mixed legacy of empire: it was a pattern of great complexity, sometimes with cruelty and oppression, yes, but also with positive achievements too. It really was a shared construction. And the residual affection transmitted into the Commonwealth where it has blossomed into innovative and modern post-imperial partnerships.
Now that the hand-over of titular leadership from the Queen to the Prince of Wales has been agreed, to the incredulity of the marxisante virtue-signallers and despite their best hostile efforts in the press, the unobtrusive retirement of the current Secretary-General after a disappointing tenure would be prudent and timely. Brexit is just the moment for a clear-out and a re-boot: a bold, fresh start in Marlborough House for the next phase of the Commonwealth, now that Britain is paying attention once more.
Therefore Britain is doubly lucky today. Thanks to the wisdom of ordinary British voters acting against the interests of their rebuffed elites, we are leaving a failing project in the nick of time. The prodigal is returning to the Anglosphere as it enters a period of increasing cultural, political and material influence. It is a victory for the many over the few and cause for much celebration.
The Government should understand this evidence. It should stop being so timid. The British people will not be bullied by the EU. Nor should their Government be.
By Professor Gwythian Prins, Emeritus Research Professor at the LSE. Author of a prize-winning book in colonial history and teacher of extra-European and world history at Cambridge for over 20 years. Read Professor Prins’ research paper The EU is at clear risk of collapse – and the ‘remainiacs’ just don’t see it
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.