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25 October 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:37pm

What the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes can teach the Brexiteers

A good ideological standpoint includes room to manoeuvre. 

By Joshua Gaskell

In the mid-17th century, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan, the masterpiece of English political thought, to justify sovereignty. He insisted that it cannot be divided, from which starting point the “pooled sovereignty” of the EU would be a contradiction in terms. But this is not why Hobbes is relevant to the EU referendum and to Brexit. (He would have disapproved of holding the referendum in the first place, and with the 1975 EEC referendum, and with the original decision to join the Common Market, because all were abnegations of parliamentary sovereignty.)

No, Hobbes is relevant because of how flexible his sovereigntist argument turned out to be during the leadership crises, U-turns, and clusterf**ks of the English Civil War.

Hobbes was initially a Royalist. From as early as 1629, he’d written against parliamentarian challenges to royal authority, and in 1640 circulated a manuscript defending King Charles I’s first minister, which many MPs took to be antagonistic to their position. Consequently, when the Long Parliament met later that year, Hobbes considered himself in personal danger and fled to Paris. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the royalist cause during the Civil War and had access to the court at the heart of the English community in exile. He was even made maths tutor to the king’s son, the future Charles II.

Still in France, he began writing Leviathan early in 1649, just as his erstwhile pupil’s father was being tried, convicted, and beheaded. But Charles 2.0 then took up the royalist mantel and wasn’t finally defeated by Cromwell for another two years, meaning Leviathan was written and published when it was not certain which side would win. So whose sovereignty should Hobbes write to justify, the king’s or parliament’s?

Judging by the shocked reaction of his Royalist friends, his book was no defence of the monarchy. Indeed, on the book’s publication, Hobbes was accused by Charles II’s first minister of writing to ingratiate himself with Oliver Cromwell, and was banned from the court. Having fled to France, he now reversed  his tracks and hurried back to England to escape the furore raised by the English Royalists in Paris. The “Monster of Malmesbury”, they started calling him.

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So, having thrown in his lot with Cromwell’s republic, how did he fare when the Restoration of the monarchy occurred a decade later? Was he tried as a traitor and hanged?

Not quite. It’s true that Hobbes abandoned outward royalism when he recognised that Leviathan would find more sympathetic readers among the victorious Parliamentarians; and that many concluded he favoured the current government of Cromwell. But just because Leviathan’s argument allows for the legitimacy of Cromwell’s rule, that doesn’t mean it argues for it. What Hobbes actually says is that:

The only way [for people] to erect […] a Common Power […] to secure them in such sort, as that by their owne industrie, and by the fruites of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is, to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men[.]

In other words, Hobbes was hedging his bets. Once Charles was overthrown by Cromwell, the argument for obedience to the king immediately became an argument for obedience to Cromwell. And vice versa. The argument is flexible, like the British constitution to whose development it contributed. So when Charles II ascended to the thrown, far from being on the naughty chair, Hobbes once again became a monarchist and was given free access to the king, protection, and a pension.

This tale of Hobbes contains both a theoretical and a practical argument for Brexit: theoretical because, as philosophers generally accept, sovereignty cannot be divided; and practical because it illustrates the necessity of adjusting to political realities as one finds them.

During the period immediately after the EU referendum, the Cavalier Tories did rather better at this than the Roundheads. Perhaps Tories are more comfortable acknowledging the unintended compliment in the words of the French philosopher Hippolyte Taine, who said that “The first fruits of English society is hypocrisy.” Having hedged her bets brilliantly, Remainer May said “Brexit means Brexit”, and gave her Three Brexiteers a choice either to work “all for one and one for all” or enjoy terms of office that turn out – to misquote Hobbes – “solitary, poor, nasty, British, and short”.

Meanwhile, Labour was pitched into a leadership election. But with Owen Smith’s defeat and John McDonnell’s reiteration that Labour too has “to respect the decision of the referendum”, the two main parties now agree that it is not a case of if, but when and how Britain leaves the EU. This is as it should be.

For any party that seeks the support of the country, the first step must be to accept the result of the countrywide vote – even if that means doing a Hobbes.

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