Thomas Aubrey / Jul 2022
As the UK struggles to make sense of its new found position outside of the EU, it is illuminating to revisit Robert Birley’s 1949 Reith lectures if it is to forge a constructive relationship with the rest of the continent. Particularly if the UK wishes to promote a liberal order which it was so instrumental in founding after 1945.
The subject of Birley’s lectures was ‘Britain in Europe: Reflections on the development of a European Society’. Birley had led the “re-education” of British occupied Germany after the war with the aim of fostering the ideas of liberal democracy. He was also an opponent of the Apartheid regime in South Africa from the 1960s, following a stint as headmaster of Eton.
While Birley was sympathetic to the idea of a union to prevent another war, he followed the Italian poet Dante, articulating that a fundamental characteristic of European civilisation was based on the idea that diversity was something of intrinsic value. An idea that has since become ingrained in the very fabric of liberalism. Indeed, the tension between a desire for unity and the promotion of diversity has been at the heart of the UK’s relationship with Europe.
Birley noted that Britain had had a limited influence on the peoples of Europe except for two distinct periods. During the eighth century, the English monk St Boniface and his followers had helped forge a single Christian church across parts of Western Europe. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s contribution to science, philosophy and economics inspired many Europeans. The acceptance of the principle of the rule of law impressed Voltaire when he arrived in Britain in 1726. Arbitrary government appeared to have been made impossible by the exercise of the rule of law, which was the same for the governing classes as well as those they governed.
Birley thought that if the UK was to make a direct contribution to the creation of a European Union, its citizens would need to live there. Up until the UK joined the European Community in 1973, its influence on Europe remained limited. However, once it joined the community it had quite a remarkable influence on promoting a liberal order.
The Single Market, driven by Margaret Thatcher and implemented by Lord Cockfield and Jacques Delors, was focussed on ensuring fairness prior to exchange which is a fundamental principle of a liberal order. Moreover, such a liberal order enables individuals to benefit from greater competition which is essential for an individual’s freedom of choice and wellbeing. Following Thatcher, Tony Blair drove the expansion of the EU to the East further celebrating the diversity of Europe, despite the concerns of a number of core members.
The UK’s exit from the EU therefore raises questions over the future of the liberal order, particularly given the challenges of the single currency which is illiberal by design due to its centralisation of power. Contemporary political theory, however, has done little to capitalise on the creation of the Single Market, which can be considered one of the greatest achievements of liberalism. The Single Market has created a sui generis organisation, neither a state nor a confederation. One which is based on voluntary agreement to accept a higher authority, but which maintains the diverse values of its participants. Britain’s rejection of the single market can therefore be considered to be a rejection of liberalism itself, which is perhaps unsurprising given its recent drift towards populism and increasing disdain towards the rule of law. Any future relationship between the UK and the EU that promotes a liberal order must therefore focus on the Single Market.
In the short term, the UK should focus on the single market for goods, as its small market share in manufacturing will make it almost impossible for regulatory divergence to have much economic benefit. This would alleviate the ongoing export challenges facing UK firms, and help revive its flagging productivity growth. However, it is hard to see how the UK would accept financial services regulation from Brussels given its dominance of the sector which is why the idea of joining the EEA is unlikely to work. In the medium term, the UK should engage with the EU to extend the single market well beyond the boundaries of the EU, with the view that its institutional arrangements could adapt so non-EU members could also play a role in standard setting.
Britain has often found itself cut off from Europe, sometimes for good reasons but more recently less so. The challenge for those who continue to believe in a liberal order is that the ability to solve the problems of a liberal society depends on working with other like-minded countries. As authoritarianism continues its inexorable rise across the globe, and with Europe at war once again, the UK must re-engage with the EU in a constructive manner if liberalism is to have a future. As Birley declared: “We are fighting a bigger battle than many of us realise.”