Will: An independence day for Britain?
LONDON – Leaders of the campaign to end Britain's membership in the European Union hope that next month's referendum will make June 23, 2016, a date as luminous in modern British history as May 3, 1979, when voters made Margaret Thatcher prime minister. Michael Gove, secretary of justice and leader of the campaign for Brexit — Britain's withdrawal from the EU — anticipates a "galvanizing, liberating, empowering moment of national renewal."
For Americans, Britain's debate about Brexit is more substantive, and perhaps more important, than their dispiriting presidential choice. American conservatives would regard Britain's withdrawal from the EU as the healthy rejection of political grandiosity.
Gove's friend, Prime Minister David Cameron, who opposes Brexit, says that the referendum is "perhaps the most important decision the British people will have to take at the ballot box in our lifetimes." Advocates of Brexit agree, but add: If Britons vote to remain in the EU, this might be the last important decision made at British ballot boxes because important decisions will increasingly be made in Brussels.
The EU's "democracy deficit" is mistakenly considered merely an unintended injury done by the creation of a blessing — a continent-wide administrative state. Actually, the deficit is the point of such a state. In Europe, as in the United States, the administrative state exists to marginalize politics — to achieve Henri de Saint-Simon's goal of "replacing the government of persons by the administration of things." The idea of a continent-wide European democracy presupposes the existence of a single European demos, the nonexistence of which can be confirmed by a drive from, say, Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.
Gove believes that the ongoing concentration of power in Brussels, seat of "the bureaucratic regulatory temptation," guarantees "regulation in the interest of incumbents" who "do not want a dynamic, innovative Europe." Under Europe's administrative state, Gove says "interest groups are stronger than ever" and they prefer social stasis to the uncertainties of societies that welcome the creative destruction of those interests that thrive by rent-seeking. Gove likens the EU's figurehead Parliament to "the Russian Duma under the czars, or the Hapsburg parliament." The EU is "a rigged cartel in the interest of the smug."
If, as some serious people here fear, Europe's current crisis of migration is just the beginning of one of the largest population movements in history, the EU's enfeebled national governments must prepare to cope with inundations. But each EU member's latitude for action exists at the sufferance of EU institutions.
Gove believes that most of the British public, and even most members of Parliament, see the familiar trappings and procedures of the House of Commons and think nothing has changed. But most of binding law in Britain — estimates vary from 55 percent to 65 percent — does not arise from the Parliament in Westminster but from the European Commission in Brussels.
The EU has a flag no one salutes, an anthem no one sings, a president no one can name, a parliament that no one other than its members wants to have more power (which must be subtracted from national legislatures), a capital of coagulated bureaucracies that no one admires or controls, a currency that presupposes what neither does nor should exist (a European central government administering fiscal policy), and rules of fiscal behavior (limits on debt-to-GDP ratios) that few if any members obey and none have been penalized for ignoring.
Journalist and historian Max Hastings, who will vote Remain, says the bitterness between Leave and Remain Conservatives is reminiscent of the Suez crisis of 1956 and is "wildly unreasonable," given that Britain's gravest problems — an unsustainable National Health Service, a "failing" education system, low economic productivity — "have nothing to do with Brussels." Besides, especially given the worsening migration crisis, "I cannot believe that the EU, and even more the eurozone, will or should survive in their present form through another decade." Supporters of Brexit agree that, such is the EU's flux, there is no stable status quo to embrace, so leaving is no more risky than remaining.
Mildly invoking 1776 for an American guest, Gove says "self-government works better than being part of an empire that doesn't have our interests at heart." So, the 23rd of June can become Britain's Fourth of July — a Declaration of Independence. If Britain rejects continuing complicity in the EU project — constructing a bland leviathan from surrendered national sovereignties — it will have rejected the idea that its future greatness depends on submersion in something larger than itself. It will have taken an off-ramp from the road to serfdom.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.