Brexit chaos: we need to look at the bigger picture


This article was first published in the Times of Malta

To many of us the Brexit associated chaos is incomprehensible. It seems like UK democracy is having a self-imposed nervous breakdown.

That may be true. But the breakdown is not without cause. And other countries should be wary of seeing this as a peculiarly British problem. It is not. Its roots lie in the tensions created by increasing globalism and, unless we’re careful, no country is immune from breaking down under the same tensions – even if the breakdown takes a different form.

Globalisation, with its very many strands, has brought economic benefit to billions of people. It has, for a period, increased collaboration between nation states as economies became increasingly intertwined. People have been exposed to others’ cultures and norms increasing mutual understanding and cultural exchange.

But all good things can be taken too far.

Globalisation has now reached a stage where the concept of a political economy has been fractured. While political legitimacy, that is where people feel connected to their polity, has remained largely national or subnational, our economies have become transnational or global. This has broken the legitimising link between politics and economics.

National governments feel increasingly helpless. Buffeted by global events, at the mercy of global bond markets, with ever decreasing fiscal revenues due to industrial scale tax arbitrage, being increasingly played off one against the other in industrial investment, never knowing when the next major multinational corporation will disinvest and move elsewhere leaving them to clear up the resultant social disruption.

In such circumstances, it is no wonder that citizens are left to wonder whether their democracies have any function left. Does it really make a blind bit of difference who they vote for – or if they vote at all?

Harvard’s Dani Rodrik has long argued that there is an inherent tension between legitimate democracy and globalisation. The Brexit chaos can be assessed in this context. It is proving impossible to find a reasonable accommodation between the desire to maintain close economic integration with neighbouring trading partners while simultaneously having a self-determining and legitimate national democracy.

Looked at in this way, it may not be surprising that the UK, Europe’s longest established nation and the longest established parliamentary democracy, has been the first to open this Pandora’s box only to find that the tensions may well be irresolvable.

While the UK may be the first, it is unlikely to be the last. In country after country the backlash against globalism is seeing the rise, and increasing success, of parties and leaders that stand on a nationalist platform.

Such parties do not focus much on economics. Their appeal is cultural. They focus on the erosion of national identity in a globalised world; a world where multiculturalism has been imposed on their people without consent, where governments are increasingly powerless to protect the people against global economic and social forces.

It is easy, unjustifiably condescending, and intellectually lazy simply to dismiss such forces as ‘populist’. They are a response to real political, cultural, economic and social changes – many of them a direct result of increasing globalism.

Neither is this a new phenomenon. As far back as 1907, Friedrich Meinecke explored the writings of German intellectuals from the Enlightenment until the late 19th century. He showed how the rise of German nationalism was intimately intertwined with a form of cosmopolitanism.

But we seemed to have learned nothing from it. We have kept pushing an ethic of globalism to the point where many feel that their national identity is under threat; that they are, in effect, being deprived of their emotional and cultural home.

For those who still believe that the idea of the nation state is obsolete, I would ask them to reflect on this question: with the waning of religion, ethnicity, geography, and common cultural norms as uniting forces in society, what is there that will hold our societies together?

The answer cannot simplistically be individual economic prosperity. An excessive focus on economics at the expense of cultural and social cohesion risks transforming communities and societies into an incoherent gaggle of self-centred individuals only out for themselves. The result will not be the cohesive society with a sense of shared solidarity that is the bedrock of any democracy and welfare state. Rather it will be a Hobbesian world of all against all.

We need to revitalise the nation state. Not simply as a set of borders on a map. But as a collection of peoples who have a significant degree of cultural cohesion, a shared narrative as to who they are, where they came from culturally, and why they belong together in mutual solidarity. Only then can democracy and the welfare state survive.

We are all now at risk of creating societies made up of two warring tribes – the globalists and the nationalists. These two opposing forms of identity politics will all too easily focus on fighting and demonising each other rather than trying to find ways to meet what are fundamental challenges that threaten the survival of democracy.

That is what is happening in full technicolour, and in the global public eye, in a Brexit UK. But it is happening in very many other places too.

To overcome this, we need to rediscover the concept of internationalism (or inter-nationalism) – the nurturing of willingly given cooperation between culturally and socially cohesive nation states – rather than the more recent concept of a globalism shorn of any shared values and against which we see a widespread backlash.

These principles apply to Europe as much as anywhere else. It is debatable whether the European Union can survive if ‘ever closer union’ can only be achieved at the expense of the cohesion and sense of identity provided by nation states.

Germany is right to resists Macron’s man-in-a-hurry attempts at further integration – at least for now. Moving too fast in that direction will emasculate the cultural and social cohesion provided by nation states well before European culture and solidarity are strong enough to have any hope of filling that void.

The result is likely to be further social breakdown and further strengthening of nationalist political forces. Moving forward in these integrationist directions should be evaluated in generational time frames not electoral cycle ones.


  1. John Holmes says

    Joe absolutely first class analysis and comprehension of such critically important issues; I just wish the rest of the world could see the problems so clearly; great article

  2. Peter Arnold says

    I agree that this is an excellent article. For me, it hits the nail right on the head, and the questions raised are the ones we need to attempt to answer in a positive way. Let’s hope that many others agree and begin to propose answers to the questions posed. This could be the beginning of the end to the current chaos, and the beginning of a new approach to politics and economics.

    In no particular order, I have a number of points to make.

    First, the chaos in the UK over Brexit is the responsibility of the current government. It is as clear as day that the UK government in 2016 had made no provision for the country to leave the EU. The ignorance, naivety, and ignorance of the Cameron government was outstanding, but hardly surprising. If your approach to issues is that the status quo is the correct response, then you must not be surprised if the result produces chaos. Conservatives will never accept that change is the natural rhythm of life; this means that their response to problems will always be faulty and limited.

    Second, you are absolutely correct to point out that, by and large, all governments, everywhere in the world, have lost control of their own nations to the unaccountable and uncontrollable multi-national corporations who actually decide what happens, both politically and economically. This is the fundamental question that needs to be addressed and tackled. Everything else is simply a distraction.

    Thirdly, I do not agree that the nation state needs to be supported to take back control over its destiny. The nation state has outlived its usefulness. Nearly every modern state is an amalgam of differing communities and peoples. The concept of the homogenous nation is a myth. Instead of uniformity, the need is to manage diversity, and the most effective way to do this is by granting devolution to the multifarious communities that exist in every nation state. Much as it grieves me to admit it, the devolved federal system in the United States answers this need far better than most other states in the world. Trusting people in their communities to know what is best for their community is a far better way to address the questions diversity poses. It isn’t a panacea, but it has the potential to deliver a far more democratically accountable political system than the UK’s mistaken belief that the centralised bureaucracy that runs the country presently will ever do.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says


      Thanks for this comment.

      I agree with you over the need to devolve more power to communities (however defined). But I think that is an issue of how the nation state organizes itself rather than whether it should exist. I, too, believe in a federal system. But those countries that have that (US, Germany, Switzerland) only make it work as part of the organisation of their nation state.

      Neither is devolution a magic answer. As you know from your own region, local authorities can spend more time fighting each other than collaborating.

      We need to abolish from our vocabulary statements like ‘the nation state has outlived its usefulness’. This is the oxygen on which what I shall call uncollaborative or isolationist nationalism thrives. It is statements like that that have led to Brexit.

      The nation state is a cultural concept as much as it is an organizational one. It doesn’t mean that the nation state has to be centralized. That is a choice. And, in my view, not a good one.

      But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The issue is to engender a climate of collaboration – between nations, between component parts of nation states and the central bureaucracy (which, in some form will always be needed), and between the different component parts of the nation state however it chooses to organize itself.

      Once we go down the road of framing things in opposition to each other (nation vs nation; localism vs the nation state; etc), then we are encouraging division rather than collaboration and solidarity.

      The nation state has anything but outlived its usefulness. It will remain the bedrock of cohesive societies. How that cohesion is achieved in a more diverse society is a challenge that we haven’t yet come to grips with. And neither is localism a panacea. After all, local communities are, today, just as diverse as is the nation so that doesn’t resolve anything.

      The attacks on the nation state has been one of the most destructive liberal mantras of our time. It must stop if we are not to descend into a war of all against all.

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