At Midnight CET, Britain departed from the European Union after 47 years of membership. This departure, from a bloc that the country never truly seemed a comfortable part of, closes a chapter on several turbulent years of negotiations both with the EU and within Britain itself. It also opens a new chapter in which Britain will seek to reckon with its new place in the world, for better or worse. In our first piece of 2021, Simon Schofield examines not whether Brexit was a correct or erroneous decision, but through the lens of Bobbitt’s “Shield of Achilles”, the geopolitical reasons that drove a decision about the future direction of the nation-state. This is a question that – should Bobbitt prove correct – Britain is unlikely to be alone in wrestling with.
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Much time and energy has been devoted over the last half decade to the great national autopsy of the decision to leave the European Union. In general, analysts and commentators have largely fallen into the trap of confirmation bias and there are broadly two narratives split along the lines of the referendum question.
The ‘Brexiteer’ narrative is that the British people have long been denied the opportunity to vote for a mainstream party genuinely committed to standing up to Brussels, which is a self-serving, elitist project hell-bent on unifying the continent into a supranational superstate, constructed along more continental political sensibilities including more market regulation and a greater emphasis on socialising risk and redistributing wealth.
The ‘Remainer’ narrative is that a small majority of the British people were duped by their political masters; the Vote Leave campaign, and perhaps also the Russians, into making a profoundly self-sabotaging decision, fed on a diet of fake news pandering to reactionary xenophobia and crude nationalism. This narrative tends to hold that those voting in the referendum were not fully aware of what they were voting for and that the real winners will be the disaster capitalists looking to cash in on economic Armageddon, and fanatical Thatcherites who want to deregulate the British economy to become the Singapore of Europe.
The real answer is much more ‘big picture’ than this, and may perhaps be found in the seminal works of American scholar Philip Bobbitt, an expert in law, strategy, and history. Whilst Bobbitt’s name is relatively obscure outside of his own narrow field, his works are perhaps the most informative about how the future of the world could look, as well as presenting the closest thing we have to a complete theory of the state and its history.
Whilst both narratives have some merit in explaining the decision to leave the EU, they both miss the enormity of the decision that voters were asked to make. This was not simply a decision of deciding to stay in the Brussels clubhouse or not, British voters were asked to vote on which ideological direction they wanted the state to go in. The last decade has been the final, rasping, death rattle of the nation state and the rest of the century will unfold as a political inheritance dispute between the three children that the nation state has left behind.
The Long War and the Short Twentieth Century
The Twentieth Century was largely defined by three global Great Power conflicts: the First World War (also known as the Great War), the Second World War, and the Cold War, ranging from the outbreak of war in 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This is what both Iván Berend and Eric Hobsbawm name ‘the Short Twentieth Century’, denoting how the first 14 years of the Twentieth Century were defined by the imperial concerns of the Nineteenth Century and how the latter 11 years looked more towards the Twenty First Century’s more globalised order.
In his book The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, Professor Philip Bobbitt connects the conflicts of the Twentieth Century, depicting them all as part of a wider epochal war. This war would decide which competing ideological manifestation of the state laid claim to universal legitimacy as the best model for fulfilling the promise of the nation state, which took power from the people and, in return, maximised their welfare and material wealth using mass education, social security, and ever more advanced technologies. The three contenders in the Long War were Fascism, Communism, and Parliamentarism.
Fascism emerged as a political force from Bismarck’s attempts to unify Germany, underpinned by twin ideological pillars of strict militarism and ethnic nationalism, but of course was also adopted in slightly different flavours by, inter alia, Mussolini’s Italy and Hirohito’s Japan. Its fundamental idea was that the state was a vehicle for delivering supremacy for the national/ethnic group it served, even, or perhaps especially, at the expense of other states, nations, and ethnic groups. Fascism held that the world was essentially Hobbesian in nature, that trust was best established and maintained within an ethnically coherent society, and that each individual’s best sanctuary from the predations of nature and of enemies was to submit oneself to the demands of the state and in return be rewarded with security, prestige, and material prosperity. Fascism is the political expression of the creed of social Darwinism: that some nations/ethnic groups are stronger than others, that the weak and the strong are separated by economic competition and military might, and that the winners had the right to the spoils of the losers.
Communism has its roots in the Bolshevik Revolution, as the Parliamentarist Provisional Government which had successfully removed the Tsar failed to restore order and win the confidence of the Russian people with its commitment to the rule of law. Many Russians had specific animus towards the rule of law and were demanding that the Government intervened to seize and redistribute property and land, whilst organised workers’ movements were pressing for radical industrial reforms. Communism’s fundamental thesis was that, left unchecked, political and economic elites would rig the system in their favour, leaving the common worker disadvantaged, exploited, and excluded. Only through society collectivising, overseen by the state as the ultimate representative of the people in the global class war, could the common worker be assured of seeing the full fruits of his or her labour.
Parliamentarism of the kind that was fought for in the Long War traces its origins back to the British system of common law. It holds to the liberal traditions that all individuals are equal with one another and equally entitled to pursue their own interests, provided they abide by rules which ensure fair play. The system is inherently linked to capitalist economics and rests largely on the twin pillars of the rule of law, and of supply and demand, both economic, in the sense of embracing laissez faire principles to one degree or another, and political in the commitment to popular suffrage and a government legitimated by the consent of the governed expressed through regular elections.
Most simply these three propositions for how best to fulfil the promise of the nation state can be boiled down to three academic schools of thought, which, between the three of them, both produced and defined many of the political issues of the Twentieth Century: the biological school, the sociological school, and the legal school.
The First World War universalised this competition, setting the stage for each developing nation state to decide in which camp it would pitch its tent. Virtually every country produced its fair share of Parliamentarists, Fascists, and Communists, but the unique sets of political, social, and strategic circumstances generally pushed one model to the forefront in each state.
The Second World War saw the sundering of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy by Allied forces in Europe, and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons unleashed by the United States. This left Fascism a diminished and discredited political force, which had incontrovertibly failed to rise to the challenge and to satisfy the promises of national glory made to its citizens. With the conclusion of this war and the partition of Germany into East and West, the stage had been set for the final showdown between Parliamentarism and Communism, but in their all-too-painful awareness of the horrors that could be loosed on the world by what was euphemistically called a ‘nuclear exchange’, this competition would be fought under different rules, where restraint and subterfuge counted for more than bombs and bullets.
The Cold War played out over the second half of the Twentieth Century, with espionage, ideological propaganda, deft diplomacy, ‘active measures’, and proxy wars constituting the main tools of the two rivals. Whilst there were victories and losses on both sides, ultimately the winner was decided not by who was right, but by who was left, as the West’s strategy of containment hollowed out the Soviet state and it eventually collapsed under its own weight, most symbolically represented by the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading to reunification under West Germany’s Parliamentarist model.
This epochal war to decide which model of the state can best lay claim to universal legitimacy was not the first, nor will it be the last. It is a necessary part of the political condition – so long as competitors to one model’s legitimacy exist, that model is faced with an existential threat. This logic still rings true today. Parliamentarist states with capitalist economies which far outcompete Russia in the realms of financial, technological, and military advancements will always remain a threat to Moscow. When its citizens compare their quality of life to what is experienced by those in the West, who enjoy larger salaries, greater freedoms, and better international relations, there will always remain the possibility that a large enough group of discontented Russians might one day bring the Kremlin kleptocracy down and seek to establish a Parliamentarist democracy of their own. Unable to match the West on the battlefield or the bank balance, Russia has opted instead to use the enormously increased flow of information around the world as an asymmetric weapon both to remind their own citizens how good they have it and how awful the societies of the West are, and also to sow seeds of doubt abroad in the minds of citizens on whom the Western world relies for its legitimacy.
The Crisis of the Nation State
The nation state model is now in crisis, a victim of its own successes. For a time following the disintegration of the USSR, it seemed that humanity had reached a blissful zenith, a long summer of halcyon days in which peace and prosperity were finally within reach for all people. The constitutional question of how best to organise a government had been solved, there were no more questions to answer. Indeed, whilst it is now a hackneyed trope, this sentiment was adroitly articulated by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, where he confidently declared that:
“[w]hat we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
This seemed a genuine prospect for some time after the end of the Cold War. In fact, it was arguably only the cataclysmic attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon of 11th September 2001 that exposed the political thinkers in the West to the underlying vulnerabilities in their assumptions, the lack of political consensus to Pax Americana and the fact that history might only be on a temporary pause, rather than having stopped at a point of enlightened perfection.
Nation states will soon become delegitimised because they will no longer be able to fulfil the promises of economic security and public goods on their own. Globalisation and privatisation, which have both brought their own advantages to the wider state system, mean that states are reliant on other actors such as other governments, NGOs, supranational entities, and private enterprise to supply these. In addition, the challenges facing nation states, including climate change; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); transnational terrorism and organised crime; fake news; energy security, and a resurgence in Great Power competition are not problems that can be tackled alone by a single government. Many of the solutions to these problems will increasingly be found in ceding power downwards to locally devolved administrations, upwards to supranational institutions, and sideways out to private contractors.
In particular, Bobbitt points to three developments which empowered the Parliamentarists to win the Long War, but which in turn are now contributing to the demise of the nation state itself: WMD, global telecommunications, and rapid computation technology.
WMD, and nuclear weapons in particular, allowed the West to vaporise not only cities and citizens, but more importantly the social contract between the Japanese Government and its people in an instant. No Fascist government in Japan could even begin to make a case that it could better provide for the Japanese people’s welfare with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ruins, whilst London and Washington DC still stood proud.
In the Cold War nuclear weapons played the opposite role, of stalemating the military conflict between the two combatants, as neither side was willing to risk the mutually assured destruction implicit in a ‘nuclear exchange’. The fact that both sides had nuclear weapons created the conditions which allowed for one side to win without being obliterated.
However, as technology has continued to advance, the threshold for entry to the nuclear club has lowered considerably, to the point where most governments that set their mind to it could develop an atomic bomb and, indeed, it is possible for the first time in history that nuclear weaponry might fall into the hands of non-state or private actors, giving rise to the spectre of nuclear terrorism (explored in greater detail here) and non-state actor-assisted nuclear proliferation, as confirmed with the shocking discovery of the AQ Khan network’s activities. The consequences of a rogue state or non-state actor acquiring and using nuclear weaponry would have devastating international implications and the risks can only be mitigated by a concerted effort between states. Whilst non-state actors and rogue states have long been a feature of history, this is the first point at which they could pose a genuinely state-shattering threat to the established order. A threat for which the advanced industry, mechanised military, and disciplined hierarchies which defined the nation state have no answer.
Global telecommunications and rapid computational technologies have flattened hierarchies, allowed organisations to thrive across time and space in ways previously unimaginable, and have facilitated the rise of a global market of exchange which allows for commerce to take place instantaneously. The era of big data has borne great economic fruits. These developments have led to great things, but of course they came at a cost. To quote Bobbitt again:
“The price these states were compelled to pay is a world market that is no longer structured along national lines but rather in a way that is transnational and thus in many ways operates independently of states. At the micro level, this is true of the multinational firm, which moves its location to optimize conditions for its operation, taking into account the nation-state only as a source of tax breaks and incentives to be sought, or as a nettle of regulations to be avoided. Far from being dependent on local government, these corporations are seen as providing desperately needed jobs and economic activity, so that the state is evaluated on whether its workforce has the necessary skills, and whether its infrastructure has been suitably configured to attract the corporation. At the macro level, this development applies to capital flows, in the face of which every country appears powerless to manage its monetary policy.”
States are now deeply reliant on international markets over which any individual government only has minimal control.
As is implied by the name ‘nation state’, in addition to there being economic and security dimensions to the nation state’s legitimating promise, there are also cultural dimensions. To quote the opening lines from the Wikipedia article on the word ‘nation’:
“A nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.
“A nation is more overtly political than an ethnic group; it has been described as “a fully mobilized or institutionalized ethnic group”. Some nations are ethnic groups (see ethnic nationalism) and some are not (see civic nationalism and multiculturalism).
“It is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity, and particular interests.”
Whilst not necessarily known for its academic rigour, Wikipedia has the virtue of being crowdsourced and therefore offering definitions crafted, edited, and agreed by a large number of diverse people.
The globalised world presents distinct challenges to many of these concepts of nationhood. Transnational migrant flows mean many places are diminishing or growing in population, impacting on the stability of communities. Migrants by definition come with different languages, history, culture, religion etc. and whilst they bring with them net benefits, they do not necessarily bring with them a consensus towards the existing political, social, and cultural norms and customs that have developed in a specific place over time. This has raised questions of identity, tolerance, and ‘the other’ throughout the world. Not only this, but improved transportation and communications systems mean that people tend to move further afield from their own home. Millennials and Generation Z in particular are distinctive for their wanderlust. Again, whilst this brings net benefits to the individuals involved, it presents a challenge to the concept of having a community defined by a stable culture when many people are travelling, living, and working abroad. Even for those who do not jet off to go hiking in Cambodia or Peru, many people now no longer remain in the community in which they were born, they go to university in distant cities and settle elsewhere. Whilst many of us see this as the expansion of opportunity, and therefore on balance a good development, it has also created a political fault line across which the future of the state will be debated, and possibly even fought.
The Market State
So, as the nation state lies abed, heart monitor beeping as if to count the seconds down to the moment this model of government gasps its last, what will replace it? We are already seeing the features of the nation state’s successor, which will be defined by flat hierarchies; nodal networks; a greater focus on participation over representation; an instinct to privatise; an acceptance of transnational phenomena such as capital markets, multinational corporations, and supranational institutions; an emphasis on providing opportunities and skills to citizens, rather than embarking on ambitious redistributive endeavours, and a pragmatic indifference to moral values, social norms, and group culture.
The nation state gave birth not to one, but to three market state models, whose task over the next century will be to compete with their siblings for the inheritance of universal legitimacy. It is likely to be, to quote Colin S. Gray, ‘another bloody century’.
The three models of market state are the mercantile state, which seeks to improve its own relative position in zero-sum terms against other states; the entrepreneurial state which seeks to advance its own absolute position by the production and distribution of collective goods in demand by the international community, and the managerial state which seeks to improve both its absolute and relative position, by pursuing hegemony through the establishment and maintenance of formal regional blocs. These phrases are somewhat clunky, so it is perhaps easier to capture the essence of these three models in the names Bobbitt gave to three scenarios he laid out to demonstrate how each model operates: the Garden, the Meadow, and the Park.
The Mercantile, or Garden model, puts the greatest emphasis on cultural values. Perhaps the best example of a mercantile proto-market state is Japan, which has a strong grip on its own currency, a restrictive immigration regime, and a history of using state resources and powers to back its home-grown businesses in international commercial competition. Imagine a household garden, it is walled to keep unwanted intruders and observers away; organised according to the tastes of the householder, but there is still a sense of needing to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ to ensure one’s own garden has the best patio/conservatory/swimming pool.
Whilst it has dabbled in all three, it would appear that Russia is leaning in the direction of the Garden model too. Putin continues to use unified Russian culture as a political tool, weaponises information streams to allow Russia to make gains at the expense of other nations, and operates a foreign policy specifically aimed at preventing a coherent anti-Russian group of nations from being able to challenge it effectively. This said, Moscow’s ‘anything goes’ style of capitalism and its attempts at world leadership through the production of collective goods such as the Syria chemical weapons deal and its efforts to be seen as the peacemaker in Afghanistan, indicate potential for an Entrepreneurial (Meadow) change of heart, and its formation of the Eurasian Economic Union as a regional bloc also plants the seeds for a more Managerial (Park) approach in the future.
The UK outside of the EU would be free to pursue a Mercantile approach. Mostly likely this would entail aggressive competition against the EU, to lure European companies into redirecting investment and relocating corporate headquarters to British territories, which of course could also include Gibraltar as well as the mainland and Northern Ireland. It would require a relative increase in military spending to ensure that London could cope with any potential retaliations and escalations in response to their aggressive policies. Immigration policies would likely be tightened considerably, and integration policies would be introduced to increase speaking of English and acceptance of British cultural values. Britain would look to replace ties with the EU by building bridges with other mercantile states, possibly Turkey, Japan, and Russia, which would more likely resemble informal marriages of convenience, rather than formal, institutionalised alliances. In order to maximise opportunities to improve the relative national position, the UK would likely take a step back from global leadership in international institutions, as these are committed to ensuring level play between nations, rather than allowing each to capitalise on their competitive advantages at the expense of smaller or weaker countries. International aid spending would likely be cut or redirected towards projects which grow British influence, perhaps along the lines of a more modest version of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to cultivate soft power, build trade routes, and foster debt reliance. A significant challenge that a Mercantile UK outside of the EU will face will be the preservation of the Union – with fresh questions being asked of whether a border poll on Irish reunification should be held, and the referendum on Scottish independence not having set the issue to rest, a Mercantile UK focusing on British cultural values will have to face down the various separatist factions and attempt to forge a pan-British identity and culture separate from the EU, of which it has been a member since 1975 based on a mixture of pre-existing cultural values. The maintenance of the Union would be a policy priority and a key acid test to the success of a Mercantile UK.
The major benefits of pursuing such a path are that this route best preserves British cultural identity, albeit likely at the cost of significant conflict, both between the UK and its neighbours in the EU, and also between ‘native’ Britons and immigrants from other countries. Further, without the emphasis on rules and cooperation, the UK would have maximum room for manoeuvre and minimum obligations to allies.
Of course, the drawbacks are largely the reverse of the benefits. A mercantile Britain is almost certain to get into conflict, particularly with the EU both on its doorstep across the Channel and attached at the hip in Ireland. Whilst ideally placed to undermine Brussels’ highly regulated Single Market by offering tax breaks, incentives and inducements, and more lenient regulation, a trade war with the EU would be damaging to both sides. A kinetic war hardly bears thinking about. Whilst the extra emphasis a Mercantile Britain would place on military spending would leave it relatively well-armed compared to its neighbour, which is now notorious for not keeping up its NATO commitments, it is fair to say that the UK going to war with the combined might of 27 other countries would lead to a suboptimal outcome. Even should no kinetic war take place, the additional military expenditure may serve to dampen, rather than enhance competitiveness, and has the potential to lead to decline if excessive resources are diverted away from economic growth towards the defence budget. Further, the strategy of aggressive competition is likely to build a culture in the UK of suboptimal choices, based on suspicion of international partners, like the participant in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the fear of betrayal will likely trump the benefits of cooperation.
The Entrepreneurial state, imagined as the Meadow, seeks to improve its absolute position by producing collective goods which drive national and international economic growth. Such collective goods could include ensuring nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection, and free trade. Consider this model a wild meadow, an organic state in which nature herself (or the market) determines the successful from the failures. Every actor in the meadow has a defined role for the good of the wider ecosystem. Those who win, win big, and those who lose are left with nothing, if they are left at all. There is a much greater variety of species in the wild meadow, compared to its more manicured counterparts in the park and garden. Evolution (or innovation) is driven by the demands of nature (the market), rather than shaped by a gardener or park warden.
Perhaps the best example of the Entrepreneurial state is the USA prior to the election of Donald Trump, who has sought a more mercantile posture. The USA ensured the maintenance of the liberal rules-based international order with a complex array of alliances and leadership in multilateral institutions, such as the G8, G20, UN, and NATO. The post-Cold War economic boom would not have been possible without the stability and security provided by the American-led order. Relative to other Western countries like the UK and France, the USA has a permissive immigration regime, where people are welcome to come and try their hand at building a successful life for themselves, an idea referred to in shorthand as ‘the American Dream’. Under Joe Biden, the USA is likely to reorient itself towards Entrepreneurialism, with his promises to reengage with international institutions and re-join the Paris Climate Accords.
Under Boris Johnson, the route the UK is most likely to take post-Brexit is the Entrepreneurial route. He has stepped up the UK’s contributions to the WHO in response to American withdrawal, leaving it the largest single contributor, the UK put the most money of any government towards the international effort to develop a vaccine to the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic, and is now at the cutting edge of rolling out both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, which will hopefully allow the various government restrictions across the world to ease, releasing the stranglehold on the economy caused by the outbreak. Such undertakings are quintessential of the Entrepreneurial market state. An Entrepreneurial UK will replace EU mechanisms with multilateral relationships, leaning more heavily on institutions such as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership, NATO, and the Commonwealth. Based on the UK’s strong background in science, engineering, and other knowledge-based disciplines, an Entrepreneurial UK might decide to have a more permissive immigration system, allowing the world’s finest minds to come to Britain to add to the knowledge economy, perhaps even employing incentives such as grants, tax breaks, and citizenship. A commitment to global stability would mean that whilst the UK is unlikely to deploy its hard power wantonly in the service of an aggressive competitive policy against other states, it would feel more obliged to intervene on the ‘big picture’ issues. For example, a future Entrepreneurial Britain might look to rally an international coalition to put pressure on Brazil to prevent the Amazon rainforest, the very lungs of the Earth, being destroyed.
The Meadow model presents a number of advantages vis á vis its competitors. First and foremost, its focus on the strategic issues that have global benefits means it is best placed to address the major threats to international security, whereas mercantile states are more likely to be narrowly focused on outmanoeuvring rivals and managerial states will be more concerned with the affairs of their regional bloc. The Meadow will be a greater source of innovation, likely making more technological breakthroughs than its opposing models. Further, it will offer maximum freedom for individuals and organisations within its territory, freed of what it might see as the cultural hangups of the Garden states, and the stuffy bureaucracy of the Parks.
However, there are also disadvantages to take account of. The Meadow states will likely have the highest levels of inequality, and all of the social, cultural, health, economic, and other implications that entails. This will require greater efforts to address inequality through one mechanism or another, or otherwise risk a sharp decline in social cohesion, as the winners take all the spoils and the rest are left in the cold. Whilst a rising tide lifts all ships, the stark contrast between living conditions of the haves and have-nots will put pressure on the social contract between citizen and state. Further, the Entrepreneurial state’s excessive focus on improving its absolute position may leave it unprepared for challenges mounted by mercantile states looking to improve their relative position in a zero-sum fashion at the expense of its rivals. To quote Bobbitt: “The Entrepreneurial state may become so intoxicated with its own absolute position that it fails to prepare itself – by not deferring consumption in order to invest in infrastructure – for relative challenges from states whose competitive drive is masked by the improved wealth positions of all major players”.
The Managerial State, metaphorised as the Park, seeks to improve both its absolute and relative positions, by deftly using formal institutions such as regional trading blocs. Whilst there are plenty of examples of regional organisations that could give rise to Managerial states, such as the EU, ASEAN, and NAFTA, there is no reason in the modern age of rapid communication and transportation, that such blocs are necessarily organised around regional geography. Blocs could be organised on the basis of shared identity, philosophy, or ideology, for example the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation could operate a pan-Islamic bloc, perhaps led by a major power such as Saudi Arabia, which would then increasingly have to adopt a Managerial posture. Similarly, shared languages would be an ideal basis for a trading bloc, perhaps if France opted to align more closely with the Francophone sphere, rather than the EU. The Managerial state would likely ensure a tight grip on the monetary policy of the bloc, perhaps using a single currency or central bank. It would likely aim to become a net exporter to its fellow bloc members and would prioritise stable growth, strong regulation, and political alignment to the potentially chaotic innovation offered by the Meadow, or the emphasis on preserving national culture of the Garden. Imagine this model as a public park, built using contributions from everybody through taxes, to offer a public good for everybody to use. Offering less variety than the Meadow, and made available socially, rather than exclusively for the householder in the Garden, the Park brings order and stability. Unsavoury elements with antisocial intentions are sanctioned, and those who want to come to the park to indulge in excess at the expense of others are not tolerated. There are clear rules that all visitors are expected to follow, set by a central authority that governs the standards to which all are to be held.
The best modern example of the Managerial proto-market state is Germany. Under Angela Merkel, Germany has been a bulwark of stability, which has helped the Eurozone ride out numerous economic crises, avoided major conflicts within the EU’s borders, and brokered many compromises (Brexit notwithstanding) to help ensure member states continue to pull in the same direction towards the same end. German oversight has ensured a degree of fiscal discipline, which has maintained a strong Euro, prioritising continued political and economic alignment, even at the expense of the discomfort of member states such as Greece and Italy. The EU now has a German Commission President in Ursula von der Leyen, who has a keen interest in defence policy and will be looking to add greater defence and security integration to the agenda, which could yet see the creation of a single European Army in response to increasing Russian provocations, particularly around the Baltics. Germany has used its position in the EU to maximise its exports and amass large amounts of wealth, which it then uses to make the largest contributions to the EU budgets, ensuring a large degree of influence over regulation and policy. This strategy is clearly aimed at both increasing Germany’s relative position within the EU, but also looking to improve the EU’s absolute position.
Had the UK voted to Remain in the EU, a Managerialist approach may well have been the optimal strategy, and was essentially the main argument of those campaign for Remain – that the EU’s absolute position is better with the UK among its ranks, and that the UK should stay in and use its influence to shape the EU more towards the UK’s interests and therefore improve its relative position.
Despite having voted to Leave, the UK could still pursue a Managerialist strategy within a different bloc. The most likely options would be to seek closer ties with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, often abbreviated as CANZUK, or going even further to include the whole Commonwealth, comprising other countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, and Mozambique. As the Commonwealth is largely made up of nations formerly under the British Empire, its members have a long history of doing business in British Pounds Sterling in addition to their own currencies. A Managerialist UK could potentially push for members of the Commonwealth or other future bloc to peg their currencies to the Pound, creating more stable trading conditions with fixed exchange rates. Further, the Commonwealth could agree specific trading standards, perhaps using the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), or a subcommittee of the body, to agree and negotiate these. Initially these would likely cover high-level standards and rules of fair play within the bloc, but over time, as with the EU, regulation and alignment would address increasingly specific matters within particular sectors. The UK as one of the most developed nations with the largest economy in the Commonwealth could take the role of the stabilising force, helping to anchor the others, many of which are experiencing rapid population growth, industrial development, and economic change. The UK might even assume the role of diplomat and peacemaker, helping to ensure alignment and harmony by brokering peace talks between India and Pakistan, or working to address the issue of Biafran separatism in Nigeria.
The Managerialist approach first and foremost has the benefit of promoting stability and harmony within the bloc, moreso than either of its competitors, which respectively pursue more global and more parochial concerns. The greater size of a trading bloc allows each member state to benefit from greater economies of scales and the power of collective bargaining against outsider states. A good example of this is how the EU stood up to America over steel tariffs imposed by President Trump. Whilst the dispute is still ongoing, the EU’s collective action has imposed retaliatory tariffs, the likes of which would have been laughable if imposed by individual member states. Further, when executed successfully, this strategy allows a nation to punch well above its weight in terms of economic clout and influence, harnessing the skills and various comparative advantages of its member states towards the benefit of all. On the expectation that a bloc would allow for free, or at least easy, movement of goods, services, capital and people, in the mould of the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ structure of the Single Market, a Managerialist state can also offer its citizens greater opportunities for employment, skills, travel, commerce, cultural indulgence, and intellectual exchange. Finally, a Managerial state is better able to insulate itself from threats from corporations, demanding subsidies and threatening to relocate – if a bloc-wide policy can be agreed, then private sector and non-state actors are less able to play members off against each other for their own benefit.
Nevertheless, as with each model, there are drawbacks to be mindful of with this model. Its bureaucratic nature makes the Park model cumbersome and the regulatory burden will inevitably dampen innovation and research and development, albeit it does not preclude the likelihood that great discoveries will be made. Whilst it promotes social stability, there will also be conflicts, both between the bloc and outsiders, who may feel aggrieved at the preferential treatment offered inside the bloc, and also within the bloc as certain members chafe at particular measures aiming at greater alignment. Further, if a state puts itself forward to shoulder the heavy mantle of leadership, it also accepts a responsibility on its shoulders for other states, and therefore will have a broader range of interests to cater for and be sensitive too. It is not a millstone that is easily put down, once taken up. Finally, with alignment comes a degree of sameness and a loss of individuality, which is one of the major criticisms levelled at the EU by those who campaigned to Leave. This erosion of cultural identity, and the forging of a larger single bloc identity, can be painful, particularly if one bloc member feels this more acutely than others.
So, having gotten this far, what does all of this have to do with Brexit? During the Second World War, whilst the UK was inarguably on the side of the Parliamentarists against the Fascists and Communists, it was not uniformly so. There were members both of the establishment and the public who had sympathies with the Nazis and the Soviets, who had criticisms of the Parliamentarist model of Government and saw greater benefits offered by Fascism or Communism. In 2016, the same was true of the proto-Market State models emerging. Different parts of British society leaned towards Mercantile, Entrepreneurial, and Managerialist schools of thought. The single largest group was likely the Managerialists, the overwhelming majority of whom supported the UK Remaining in the EU; there was very little discussion of leaving the EU only to embark on another journey of political and economic alignment with the Commonwealth or other bodies. As evidenced by the referendum result, the Managerialists made up around 48% of the total population (give or take a margin to account for the leanings of those who did not vote and the small number of anti-EU Managerialists). However, whilst this was the largest single group, it could not outvote the combined efforts of the Entrepreneurialists and Mercantilists, who both wanted to Leave the EU because they could not build the kind of state they envisioned inside the EU. Whilst these groups did not agree with each other, they both agreed that the first step was to leave.
Seeing the referendum through this lens sheds light on a number of questions which remain open to discussion and interpretation. Firstly, it explains the question of why, during the campaign, there was no clear plan of ‘what Brexit looked like’. There was no one plan. The Mercantilists would have sought to pull up the drawbridge, institute restrictive social policies to preserve British cultural identity and reduce immigration, and embark on an aggressively competitive economic programme, which would likely have put the UK in conflict with the EU. The slogans that might best capture this sentiment could be ‘Britain First’ or ‘Take Back Control’. The Entrepreneurialists, on the other hand, wanted to leave the EU in order to engage with multilateral international institutions in the UK’s own right, seeking to maintain good relations with Brussels, but also to extend them internationally to find strong trading partners beyond the EU. The slogan that best captures the essence of this idea is ‘Global Britain’, a line now closely associated with the administration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Secondly, this lens helps reveal why the referendum did not settle the matter. It was not one question with two options, like a proverbial fork in the road. There were at least four options (Remain, Leave – Mercantilist, Leave – Entrepreneurial, Leave – Managerialist) and so the very simple question masked a number of complexities which have since played out in increasingly frustrating ways as the various factions have fought one another and advocated for different positions with different end states in mind. Further, whilst there has been much discussion of ‘you lost, get over it’ and whether this is a fair line to take by those who campaigned for Leave, this analysis suggests that the matter was not like elections, where Governments are elected with a specific policy programme for a time-limited period. The referendum was a battle for the very soul of the country and which side of history it would take. A Remain-supporting Managerialist would no more roll over and consent to his country becoming an Entrepreneurial or Mercantile state, than a committed Communist would consider becoming a Parliamentarist or a Fascist. It becomes a fundamental matter of ideology which transcends even civic identity or party affiliation. Remain-supporters consider themselves to be European as much as, if not moreso, British, and are deeply committed to the EU project and the benefits it inarguably confers – being free to live or work in any member state, benefiting from cultural exchanges, free importing and exporting of goods etc. Had the referendum result come out in favour of Remain, the reverse would have also been true. The Entrepreneurialists would still have favoured a ‘Global Britain’ and the Mercantilists would still be committed to ‘Britain First’. Once divisions dig down this deep, they hit bedrock, and there is no way in which one could move the spade that would cause someone to move.
In conclusion, the Brexit referendum was a battle for the soul of the country, not so much between Remain and Leave, as between Mercantilists, Entrepreneurialists, and Managerialists. The political strife that followed the vote is in no small part down to a three, of possibly four-way conflict being boiled down to a two-answer question, and the final result came about because the largest single ideological bloc was not able to outvote the combined votes of the other two, which is also why delivering on the referendum outcome has been such a fraught process. At present, Mr Johnson appears to be steering the UK towards an Entrepreneurial future, which will see Britain’s path diverge significantly from the EU. 2021 will likely see more friction, not just within the EU, but further afield, as the geopolitical tectonic plates continue to realign and the three faces of the Market State begin to take on more substantial forms. Bobbitt’s theories, whilst written in 2005, set down a remarkably prescient roadmap for us to interpret today’s events and peek a glimpse of the world of tomorrow.
Suggested e-learning courses related to this topic:
- Contemporary Issues in World Politics – University of Naples Federico II
- Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press – Harvard University
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (Philip Bobbitt)
- Breaking peace: Brexit and Northern Ireland (Feargal Cochrane)
- Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics (Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford)
- Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit (Stephen Wall)
- Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union (Guy Verhofstadt)
- The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (John B Judis)
- Disintegrative Tendencies in Global Political Economy: Exits and Conflicts (Heikki Patomaki)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2020 reading list
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Simon Schofield is a Deputy Director of the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.
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Cover Image: U.K. Prime Minister’s office