One of the oddities of the Leave campaign, from a historical point of view, is the confidence with which its supporters look forward to the economic consequences of insularity. It is as though there were a potion of Britishness that is the certification, against all odds, of a new entrepreneurial spirit for the new reduced economy.
In one sense, the optimism is not odd at all. The sources of the Leave movement are to be found in the politics of the right (and extreme right) of the past forty years. The current euphoria is evocative, in particular, of the promises of Reaganism and Thatcherism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 on the vision of a “spirit” of America that was “still there, ready to blaze into life”. His policies of reducing government interference were expected to have “an electric effect on expectations” (in what was even then a “national crusade to make America great again”).
It is the European quasi-government that has now become the embodiment of the old, interfering state. As Reagan observed in 1981, “When Prime Minister Thatcher was here recently, we both remarked on the sudden, overwhelming changes that had come recently to politics in both our countries. At our last official function, I told the prime minister that everywhere we look in the world, the cult of the state is dying.”
But the euphoria of the Leave campaign is also an evocation of an older, odder and much more idiosyncratic illusion. This is the view, associated in the 1870s with the political writer Walter Bagehot, that the British are essentially economic and that being economic is in turn essentially British. “Commerce, as we have it in England, is not so full-grown anywhere else as it is here,” Bagehot wrote in 1876. It was “the most definite thing we have, the thing which it is most difficult to help seeing”, and in the rest of Europe there was “nowhere the same pervading entity”. Even the science of economic theory was essentially British, or English: “In some very large scenes of our present English life, political economy is exactly true.” In a “single kind of society – a society of grown-up competitive commerce, such as we have in England”, the abstractions of economic theory had converged with the “real life” of modern times.
For Bagehot, the empire was the enduring source of all this economic success. Britain was a commercial society at home and a civilising state in the outside world. The dominance of British manufacturing – when the country had the only “grown-up” economy – was already a recent memory by the 1870s. It had become an economic idyll, as kitsch as the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. Even the founders of “our English political economy” were, for Bagehot, not particularly English. David Ricardo’s economic theory was, in Bagehot’s description, the outcome of “the Jewish genius for the mathematics of money-dealing”, which is “a particular torture to most Englishmen”. Of Adam Smith, Bagehot wrote, “There is still, in the south of Scotland, a strong tendency to abstract argument quite unknown in England,” and: “Whether Adam Smith altogether liked this country may perhaps be doubted.”
The essence of competitiveness was to do, rather, with the special circumstances of Britain’s connections to the outside world. The eternal potion, for Bagehot as for the Leave campaign, was the British empire. The British were fitted by their national character for economic success and fitted, too, for “doing good in the East”. They had the purest (or most economic) of societies and the purest (or most virtuous) of states. They were commercial, in a sense that was inconceivable in the “imperfect but thickly populated civilisations, like those of China and of India”.
They were at the same time statesmen, the collective expression of the military-imperial-civilising state. They constituted a “civilisation whose spirit is progress” and that was engaged, for the long term, in the improvement of the “civilisation whose spirit is fixity”.
All these thoughts have faded. Yet they are implicit and sometimes explicit in the Leave campaign. “We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen,” Boris Johnson wrote in his Brexit manifesto. The British were “leaders in so many sectors of the 21st-century economy”, with “a dizzyingly fertile manufacturing sector”; “the most valuable British export” was parliamentary democracy.
This is the economic spirit that Brexiters expect will blaze into life the “day after Britain voted to leave the European Union”, in Michael Gove’s expression, “a happy journey to a better future”. But the spirit is not really economic and it is very remote from the juxtaposition of theory and evidence (or historical experience) that even Bagehot considered to be characteristic of “English” political economy. “One could wallpaper Buckingham Palace with the pages of recently released reports – from the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and a half-dozen academic institutions – concluding that a Brexit would diminish the British economy,” according to the New York Times. All this evidence, all this expertise, is as nothing in the national optimism of the Leave campaign.
The greatest failure of the Remain campaign, for Gove, is its pessimism; it wants us “to believe that Britain is beaten and broken”. But the change of the country since the 1870s – the traverse from existing in a world of conquest to existing in a world of co-operation, from a universe of more or less imperfect civilisations to a universe of ordinary exchange – is a source of optimism and even inspiration. So is the choice to live among equals and to be part of something larger and more open than states and empires.
Emma Rothschild is a professor of history at Harvard University.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe