‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

15 January 2019

On the Record | Is Britain Really Going to Leave?

Please see my latest wire as Brexit diarist for The New York Sun, ‘Is Britain Really Going to Leave?’:

“Is Britain really going to leave?” This is the question put to Boris Johnson from people around the world, the former foreign minister informed the House of Commons last night, during debate on the Government’s proposal to withdraw from the European Union.

“Do we really have the courage and the self-belief to deliver what people voted for?” Mr. Johnson pressed. “And to seize the opportunities? Independent, democratic self-government? Real free trade deals?” Will a liberated Britain have the foresight to institute a tax and regulatory regime that incentivizes entrepreneurs and investment, domestic and foreign, based on “laws made in this country and not in Brussels?

“Are we really going to embrace that future?” BoJo asked.

Mr. Johnson is not alone in putting this rhetorical question before his fellow MPs. G.K. Chesterton raised it more than a century ago. Britons, Chesterton wrote, enjoy “a lonely taste in liberty” that “perplex their critics and perplex themselves.” As the United Kingdom grapples with the fate of Brexit, this latest iteration of perplexity is played out before us.

Magna Carta, the charter in which medieval barons exerted their rights against King John, is considered the benchmark of liberty in Britain. “Magna Carta is the greatest constitutional document of all times,” senior judge Lord Denning opined, “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

Margaret Thatcher was all in. To a Parisian interviewer who asked during the bicentenary of the Fall of the Bastille, “Are human rights a French invention?,” she replied trenchantly, “No, of course they are not.” The Iron Lady’s riposte to Gallic chauvinism? “We had Magna Carta 1215.”

Read more . . .

Remarks are welcome on DMI’s Facebook page.

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My thanks to editor Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun.

13 January 2019

On the Record | Brexit Beckons the Courage of Thomas Paine

Please see my latest wire as Brexit diarist for The New York Sun, ‘Brexit Beckons the Courage of Thomas Paine’:

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So Thomas Paine consoled revolutionary America, when hopes of independence seemed dashed by circumstance. He expounded his revolutionary politics in England, too, a plaque at the White Hart Hotel at Lewes, East Sussex, reminds. Today, as Britain revolts against EU membership and for its own independence, Paine’s words bring it home. Brexit hangs in the balance as the scales weigh the uncertain benefits of withdrawing on terms dictated by Europe or striking out at the appointed hour minus them, without regret.

No contest, I say. To quote Disraeli: “Departures should be sudden.”

In the 2016 referendum, the choice before Britons was stark. Whether, on the one hand, to leave the European Union and regain the marks of sovereignty and self-government or, on the other hand, to remain in the EU and see their laws subservient to a foreign court, their acts of parliament subject to the approval of unelected EU bureaucrats.

The people opted for independence. Yet their Brexit vote is being frustrated by insiders who deride it, lament it, abhor it. Either by a political class with a share in EU control, who do not want their power curtailed. Or business interests with a financial stake in trade according to EU regulations — “crony continentalism” — and fear selling their wares in the competition of free markets.

Or ordinary citizens, who have lived so long under the paternalism of the EU that they want for the confidence that independence engenders and the self-respect that is the reward of self-rule. Brexit’s troubles are compounded by politicians who do not believe in it and do not want it; who promote it publicly but do all within their power to frustrate and despoil the vote for freedom.

Read more . . .

Remarks are welcome on DMI’s Facebook page.

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My thanks to editor Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun.

07 January 2019

On the Record | British Solons in Tight Spot on Brexit

Please see my latest wire as Brexit diarist for The New York Sun, ‘British Solons in Tight Spot on Brexit’:

“Depend upon it, sir,” said Samuel Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” With Brexit 81 days away and counting, we begin to wonder at the focus of British politicians. How concentrated is the mind of Prime Minister Theresa May? And what of her adversaries?

We’ll know soon enough. Parliament is scheduled to take up Brexit when it meets on Monday [to-day]. Center stage will be the Withdrawal Bill setting out the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union. Again. That same bill that Mrs. May punted to the new year when she delayed a December vote in the House of Commons.

That tactic led Conservative colleagues to hold a confidence vote on her leadership — a vote Mrs. May ultimately won. But while her tenure as Tory head is assured, her premiership definitely less so. Mrs. May retains the keys to No. 10 due only to the lack of a credible alternative. (Boris Johnson, whose bravura we admire, enjoys strong support with the grassroots but little on the Government benches.)

With March 29 as “Brexit Day,” the Prime Minister has a fortnight from Parliament’s return to get her Bill passed, to initiate a series of meetings preceding “secession.”

Read more . . .

Remarks are welcome on DMI’s Facebook page.

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My thanks to editor Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun.

11 December 2018

On the Record | Brexit Retreat Opens Door for BoJo

Please see my latest wire as Brexit diarist for The New York Sun, ‘Brexit Retreat Opens Door for BoJo’:

Prime Minister Theresa May’s retreat on Brexit is best seen as an opening for her former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who is the last contender for prime minister to have seen the European Union question clearly from the start. What Mrs. May is doing, after all, is what Mr. Johnson proposed, once it became so clear to so many that she had been snookered in Brussels.

What Mrs. May did in the Commons this afternoon was to announce that she was postponing Tuesday’s vote on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement bill with the European Union. “While there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal,” Mrs. May confessed, “there remains widespread and deep concern.”

The Prime Minister made it clear she comprehends that had she proceeded, “the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.” In the context, it is a breath-taking admission by a leader who’d seemed almost willfully blind on the point. Now, she said, the Government “will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the House at this time.”

It is easy to see why Mrs. May is vote-shy. Just last week, after all, the government lost three votes. Two were in relation to the legal advice the government had received on the agreement. Parliament had asked for the advice in November but, when only a summary was provided, the Commons demanded the full report.

Mrs. May lost one vote to postpone this vote, then lost the vote itself — a vote that many say was signaling that the Government was in contempt of Parliament.

The third vote is even more momentous. The Commons won a vote to set out its own Brexit “Plan B” if the Government cannot get its plan through Parliament. This could be another Withdrawal Agreement or another referendum vote — even to shelve Brexit unilaterally, as the European Court of Justice announced today in answer to a query from the Scottish legislature and for hopeful Remainers.

Read more . . .

Remarks are welcome on DMI’s Facebook page.

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My thanks to editor Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun.

28 November 2018

On the Record | Will Thatcher’s Ghost Haunt Mrs. May?

Please see my latest wire as Brexit diarist for The New York Sun, ‘Will Thatcher’s Ghost Haunt Mrs. May?’:

What an irony that Prime Minister Theresa May’s crisis over Brexit is coming to a head on the 28th anniversary, to-day, of the fall from power of Margaret Thatcher. If only the Iron Lady were alive today.

She was challenged for leadership in November 1990 by fellow Tory Michael Heseltine. His perfidy fell short of toppling her outright, but Mrs. Thatcher failed to secure the margin needed to survive the vote. So a further vote of confidence became necessary. After consulting colleagues, Mrs. Thatcher concluded she lacked the support to see off the second round.

What was Mrs. Thatcher’s political sin that turned her caucus against her? Obstinacy in the face of growing resistance to a poll tax that levied rates regardless of one’s ability to pay was the catalyst for her removal, say opponents, who did not lack for self-justification.

Read more . . .

Remarks are welcome on DMI’s Facebook page.

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Addendum. Though I remain sympathetic to Edmund Burke’s sentiments expressed to the electors of Bristol in 1774 — ‘that a politician betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices [his judgement] to your opinion’ — Public Choice Theory has heightened my suspicions of politicians and government officials who claim to have skills and knowledge of which the general public is deprived.

As Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations, no one person enjoys the breadth and depth of knowledge required to direct the whole economic programme of a nation (cited in my New York Sun wire). F.A. Hayek explored this theme in his Nobel Prize for Economics acceptance speech in 1974, ‘The Pretense of Knowledge’.

Public Choice also questions the conventional wisdom that private individuals are self-interested, whereas public officials are directed by the best interests of the commonweal. Does this mean that public actors never consider their own interests when making political decisions?

Finally, with respect to Brexit and Britain’s efforts to leave the trade apparatus imposed by the European Union: economics teaches that the best option available, based on the division of labour and the law of comparative advantage, is free trade. While there is much discussion of Britain securing free trade deals with the global community, it is far more likely that ‘managed’ trade agreements will be secured — still a better option than what the EU presents. Nevertheless, it suggests that the UK Government, in a paternalistic fashion, does not trust its business community to strike out on its own, unsupervised. But as Ludwig von Mises wrote, ‘If one rejects laissez faire on account of man’s fallibility and moral weakness, one must for the same reasons also reject every kind of government action.’

Thus it is with Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. The document not only insinuates that Government officials must protect British citizens from their own worst instincts for freedom, but it abrogates the 2016 referendum that voted to restore lost liberties and UK sovereignty.

Does anybody now question why Britons feel more secure in their own opinions over the wisdom of their elected representatives? Those same Government officials who run roughshod over the rule of law and trample in the mud the traditions of British parliamentary democracy?

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My thanks to editor Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun.