Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Brexit and Freedoms

In this hyperstrange post-Brexit world I suddenly have many questions, and few answers. The landscape seems to change every day. One thing, however, is clear and that is that a lot more people are talking about politics in the UK than I've ever seen. It is my belief that, if good is to come of the referendum outcome, we must use the political consciousness that has been raised in its aftermath as an opportunity to enquire deeper and renew our understanding of what living in society is about. We must encourage conversations, not just with those that agree with us, but also with those we didn't know feel different from ourselves.

Rhetoric aside, what prompted me to write this post was actually a chance rereading (or listening, in this case) today of the first chapter of John Stuart Mill's classic text On Liberty. Halfway into the first chapter I realised that the social and political context he was writing in sounds eerily familiar. Here is one quote:
"In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power, with private conduct ... The majority have not yet learnt to feel the power of the government their power, or its opinions their opinions." (p. 16)
Unhappy with government interference, the British?? Who would have thought! And bear in mind Mill wrote this in 1859, over 150 years ago.

Ten pages later, it sounds almost exactly like a version of Big Brother and the increasing surveillance of the internet (by the government!):
"there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable." (p. 26)
Wow! So if individual liberties are not a given, then surely we should have been a bit more ... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Those who genuinely care about freedom have in recent years become complacent. Society at large has become bored because British politics is notoriously boring, and elections generally seem to be a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

No more! This referendum has put the cat among the pigeons.

Post-Brexit some feel they have gained "sovereignty" and others feel they have lost certain "freedoms".

Because of the stark differences in the two choices, some may go so far as to say that the referendum's outcome is nothing but a "tyranny of the majority", a will of one section of society imposed on the other.

Mill says the following:
"... the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."  (p. 8)
What Mill is talking about is social tyranny, not the outcomes of political democracy. Civilised democracy, surely, is not mere populism. The referendum is advisory, and it is up to the representatives of society to follow up on the outcome in a way that is in the interests of society at large. That is their duty. And yet when many bemoan the fact that the referendum took place at all, that it was all just an internal party squabble, the argument could be made that those representatives were not making reponsible decisions from the outset. The farcical fallout has eroded the line between popular sentiment and responsible politics in a way that has taken almost everyone by surprise.

Yet this situation came about at least in part because of a laxness to campaign with conviction in favour of Remain. The Remain campaign - the side who now feels that freedoms are in clear and present danger of being lost - ran a decidedly lacklustre campaign.

What would Mill have thought about Brexit? The simple answer might be that he would be livid; but it's not quite so simple.
"In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (p. 18)
Adjust that sentence a little, to refer to a nation and its borders, rather than an individual and his body, and you have the argument that the Leave campaign has been making: sovereignty, independence from Europe, control over borders. In a word: freedom!

Of course, Mill was speaking about individual freedom, but many in the Leave campaign felt themselves united as if they were more than just an individual stating a preference. The individual on a national scale.

On the other hand, take this quote:
"The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." (p. 23)
It could be argued that the Leave camp voted to deprive the Remain camp of freedoms that the Remain camp held to be essential to their interests, and by extension individual health. But Leave would perhaps rightly respond by saying, well, we've been neglected for decades and various actions taken by selfish leaders in London has hurt our spiritual health, for decades.

At the heart of the conversation are two overlapping states of inclusion. There is the EU, a kind of "virtual state", and the UK, a national state.

What about those UK citizens and residents for whom the "body" of their chosen state is not simply the nation state, but also the "virtual state" - the EU? And what of those from other nation states within the EU, who live within the borders of the British nation state because they want to be there, who had the freedom of movement, but not the freedom to vote? It is all a bit confusing, but clearly they will feel their freedoms associated with movement and association are in serious danger of being truncated. They will feel sad, stressed, angry, unhappy. Something they had has been taken away.

How can this knot be untied?

What's clear to me is that a simple solution is not available, and the after effects of this referendum will be felt for a long, long time. We've become complacent, but now is the opportunity to go back to understand and grapple with the concepts that underpin this society, and start conversations with each other to start making this world a better place again - for all.

Mill's On Liberty is a wonderfully articulate defense of freedom, and even a single chapter provides plenty of food for thought.