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Brexit was reckless but not immoral

7 July 2016

12:52 PM

7 July 2016

12:52 PM

I voted Remain. I felt that the arguments for and against Brexit were pretty evenly balanced, except in terms of economic risk – and maybe geopolitical risk. So why risk it?

But we did risk it. A reckless move, but not a morally indefensible one, as most Remainers are now saying.

Let me explain why I’m on the fence about the morality of the decision. Let me come at it in a rather eccentric way – by talking about ideas in a rather general way. I think we have to start by considering what our most basic common creed is, what unites us (in as far as anything does) as a nation.

I suggest that we call it secular humanism, our common creed. By this I mean that it’s a moral vision, of the worth of all human beings, that is framed in non-religious terms (which doesn’t make it anti-religious, by the way). Of course this creed is not confined to us Brits: it’s international in scope.


Our national political institutions express this creed – imperfectly, of course. And so does the EU – again, imperfectly. An organisation that promotes such a creed on an international level is surely a good thing: it can influence other nations, with less liberal histories than our own, in a benign way.

But here’s the complication: the EU expresses this creed in a way that makes many people dislike this creed. For it is over-prescriptive, legalistic. And self-regarding: it forgets that it is the national expression of this creed that really matters. For only nations really have the power to enforce human rights.

So a nation is justified in being sceptical of a morally ambitious international body – even if it has the right moral ideals. For the international body is likely to make these ideals feel alien, distant, bureaucratic, imposed.

It’s a very tricky trade-off between the desire to see these good ideals enshrined in a supra-national way that increases their influence, and making sure they are grounded in national moral culture. There is a case for taking back control of our moral economy.

Many Remainers will say: most of those voting Leave were not seeking to refresh our national humanist tradition; they were motivated by dislike of foreigners. But in fact these motives are hard to disentangle. They disliked the idea of a foreign-based bureaucracy telling them that decisions about immigration were beyond their control. And that’s not an entirely unhealthy dislike.

The task (oh dear!) is to start discussing the underlying moral ideas with more honesty. Otherwise we cannot meaningfully debate the rights and wrongs of expressing those moral ideas on a supra-national level. Let Brexit spark a new back-to-basics discussion of our shared values – one that goes beyond the usual guff about Britishness.


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