As the UK finally left the European Union, Boris Johnson declared that ‘we’ had at last regained our ‘freedom’. But as every student of political theory knows, freedom is a highly contested concept. Everyone claims to favour freedom, but this consensus conceals deep disagreements about its meaning and value.
Benjamin Constant argued two hundred years ago, in his speech ‘On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared to that of the Moderns’, that a mistake about the kind of freedom suitable to modernity was the source of much that had gone wrong with the French Revolution. Its leaders and thinkers had tried to apply an ideal of collective sovereignty from the ancient world and had failed to recognise that modern people instead prize liberties to live, love and trade with whom they choose.
According to Constant, citizens of Athens, Sparta or the Roman Republic enjoyed political freedom when legislating together, but this came at a price. A patriotic and engaged citizenry could only govern together because they lived in a small-scale society where many citizens knew one another personally and unfree labourers worked to keep them fed and watered. The patria expected citizens to subordinate their private lives to the public good and those who failed the state received the direst punishments, including exile and death. The way such societies enriched themselves, if at all, was by war and plunder, expanding their power over others. We moderns, by contrast, live though vast networks of anonymous and mutually beneficial co-operation with distant strangers.
Western societies have never resolved the tension between collective sovereignty and individual liberty. While commerce has been vital to their wealth, it has often been promoted by conquest, and in the 19th century a martial ideal, inspired by the ancients and yoked to nationalism, infused the drive by European powers to divide the globe between them and subordinate other peoples. This competition ended in the disasters of two world wars. It would be a mistake to deny the continuities between Europe today and the imperial past, particularly in relation to the formerly colonised who are still excluded by the EU’s hard external borders. Yet the project that became the European Union can also be seen as a partial repudiation of the contest for blood and treasure, and a corresponding turn towards ties of commerce, co-operation and private happiness.
This was the light in which the UK saw joining the Common Market in 1973. The old maps, with half the world coloured red, were put aside in favour of co-operative ties with Britain’s neighbours. But the ancient fantasy of collective self-government, though impossible to realise in the large and complex modern world, had not gone away. Rather, it was nurtured both by right-wing Eurosceptics and on parts of the left that hankered after a national programme of economic control.
Many of the complaints made about the European Union over the years would have struck a chord with Constant. He worried that modern citizens, preoccupied with private concerns, would allow distant politicians with formidable powers of coercion and taxation to promote their own interests at the public expense. But looking at Brexit in terms of his classification of freedoms, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we will find many of our modern liberties truncated, as we lose freedoms to trade, travel, love and work, while the freedoms of the ancients have not been restored to us.
The losses have not been counterbalanced by a more participatory political realm. True, the vote itself was a decision made directly by citizens, and public contestation between partisans of Leave and Remain has not stopped since. But the post-Brexit debate, often involving the performance of allegiance on Facebook or Twitter, does not much resemble the collective deliberation of the ancient agora. Other aspects of the ancient city are making an unwelcome return. The first is a more prescriptive ideal of citizenship, according to which those who fail to measure up to a patriotic standard – ‘Remoaners’ and immigrants – lose their moral claim to membership. The ancient punishments of ostracism and exile are reprised in the enthusiasm of the Home Office for deporting people to countries they’ve never seen. Meanwhile, productive work on farms and in factories is often delegated to rightless foreign metics.
‘Sovereign Britain’ does not look much like a place where a reinvigorated citizenry will be able to control their rulers through effective institutions. On the one hand, we will be constrained, like a small Greek city, by the far greater power of neighbouring superpowers; on the other, Brexit is concentrating more power than ever in the executive and the party that controls it, with the modern analogues of tyrants, demagogues and oligarchs constantly working to unpick democratic control and the rule of law. We should have set more store by the quiet freedoms of association and exchange instead of giving them away for an illusion of self-rule.