26 February 2016

Niall Ferguson and Bruce Anderson are both wrong to oppose Brexit


Bruce Anderson is backing the Prime Minister David Cameron (no surprise there) in his efforts to persuade the UK to stay in the EU. He explained why in a recent piece on CapX. Anderson’s friend, Lord Salisbury‎, a former Leader of the House of Lords, and a board member of CapX, disagrees forcefully. Here he publishes an open letter responding to Anderson. Along the way he also contests the claims made by leading historian Niall Ferguson about Britain’s role in European history. Now, read on…  

Dear Bruce,

I have always admired Niall Ferguson. So his contortions in this week’s Sunday Times were almost as much of a disappointment as yours on the same subject: Brexit.

If I understand him, he suggests that Cardinal Wolsey was right in rejecting Henry’s breach with Rome as this weakened and divided Europe at a time when the European powers should have united to counter the Turkish threat. He says that every time we turned our back on Europe it has been immensely expensive for us to come back and sort it out. He cites 1808, 1914 and 1939 as examples. We must therefore stay in Europe where, in spite of our weakness compared to previous centuries, we can combine with our EU partners to counter the Middle Eastern and Russian threats.

There is so much wrong with this assertion it is difficult to know where to begin.

In 1808 Europe was under the heel of an ambitious and super-able dictator who aimed to dominate Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, taking advantage of the feebleness of the ancien regime European monarchies. In order to do so he had to win for France the principal contest of the long eighteenth century: the Anglo-French fight for supremacy. Among Napoleon’s weapons were the Berlin decrees forbidding the Europe he dominated from trading in British goods. The Russians eventually refused to comply, because commercial reality made compliance too expensive. The Bundesrepublik might find breaking its commercial relations with us equally difficult should the EU turn revanchiste in the wake of Brexit.

Anyway, the coalitions which eventually defeated Napoleon were financed by British gold and watered by a newly awakened Prussian and Russian nationalism. None of this had anything to do with our leaving Europe to its own devices. Pitt was reluctant to go to war in 1793, but did so because we had been involved with Europe for centuries. We had no alternative, but we did so without feeling we had to belong to an expanded version of the Holy Roman Empire. We valued our own sovereignty too much. It enabled us to prosper in the wider world outside Europe. Indeed, we eventually pulled out of the Conciliar system Castlereagh helped to establish after 1815, at least partly because it was increasingly dominated by the reactionary Dreikaiserbund. If we must draw strained historical parallels, for Vienna, Berlin, Petersburg 1822, read Brussels 2016.

As for 1914, we had been trying to avoid a war in Europe for decades. Until 1904 we had tried to lean towards whichever alliance seemed the weakest in order to keep an equilibrium of power. We eventually sidled into an alliance with France and therefore with Russia, forgetting Fashoda and the Great Game in the face of an economically powerful Germany led by an unpredictable juvenile with an inferiority complex. Going to war in 1914 was probably the right decision, but it was nothing to do with our having distanced ourselves from our European neighbours in the preceding decades. As in the eighteenth century we had been deeply involved. Even Salisbury’s settling the scramble for Africa was more about avoiding war in Europe than any quest for more “light land”.

As for 1939, the only turning of British backs on Europe that happened was appeasement of the dictators. It was feebleness not isolationism that made us fail to combine with the French to resist Hitler’s marching into the Rhinland.

In all these cases, we had not turned our back on Europe. There may have been failures of policy, but none of our troubles would have been alleviated by our belonging to an organisation which required us to abandon the ability to govern ourselves even in absurdly trivial matters. Indeed such an organisation would have been dominated by whatever reactionary and bureaucratic consensus ruled at the time, stifling innovation and enterprise, because that is the nature of such organisations.

As for today, it is absurd to suggest that we owe our security to membership of the EU. EU members spend even less than we do on defence and, which is much more to the point, they cannot agree on how to deal with any of the great security questions of the day, whether Russia or migration. We need to engage with them on such matters as we tried to do in 1808, 1914 and 1939, to take Niall Ferguson’s illustrative dates, but we do not need to be EU members to do so. They have as much interest as we do in exchanging information on criminals and on our Salafist brethren. We do not have to be members of the EU for that either. We could even come to an agreement on more mundane matters such as air traffic control without EU membership.

Much more worrying for our security is the increasing feebleness of the United States, because it is to the Americans and NATO that we owe our post-war security, not the EU which only began to develop into its present form after the Berlin Wall came down. You only have to suggest that the EU is capable of taking the Americans’ place to realise the absurdity of such a proposition. The last time it tried to do so was in Bosnia when a Prime Minister of Luxemburg suggested that the Americans could now leave it to Europe. Some of us still remember how that worked out.

So what about Mr. Ferguson’s criticism of the choice made by Henry VIII? I agree that the choice was of immense importance for our country. However, I think Henry clearly made the right choice and it is a choice that we have benefitted from ever since.

Of course, his motives were entirely reprehensible, driven as he was by lust for Anne Boleyn and desire for monastic riches to refill his depleted treasury. Had the imperial troops not captured and sacked Rome in 1527, forcing the Pope to bend to Charles V’s will, Henry would probably have got his annulment and Wolsey would not have fallen. However, in the event no divorce was forthcoming from Rome and the warnings of the greybeards counted for nothing against Anne’s charms and the gold of the monasteries. However much Thomas More and the others warned against the dangers of incurring the joint enmity of the Empire, the Papacy, France and Spain and of the possibility of the sixteenth century equivalent of three million jobs being lost, Henry took the risk.

At the time England was a country of relatively little importance, a bit player, rich, but unreliable. Europe was hardly united against the great Turkish enemy as Niall Ferguson implies and as he certainly knows. France in the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth, even when King Jan Sobieski was saving Christendom at the gates of Vienna, saw the Ottomans as a natural ally against her Habsburg rivals. Not much European solidarity there. And increasingly Europe was divided between Protestants and Catholics, although again Cardinal Richelieu hardly let considerations of religion get in the way of dynastic advantage when he backed the German Protestant princes in the Thirty Years’ War.

This idea of European solidarity against a common enemy has often been aspired to, but mostly by reactionary dynasts, unpleasant dictators and woolly minded idealists whose views have hitherto been anathema to Niall Ferguson.

As for the effects of Henry VIII’s decision, they were monumental. They enabled England and then the UK to become the dominant power. It became possible for it to reject the sort of obscurantism that persecuted Galileo in Rome and welcome the intellectual and political revolutions of the late seventeenth century. Newton, the Bank of England, the growth of Parliamentary government, the dominance of the Royal Navy were all made possible by Henry’s Declaration of Independence. This did not happen overnight. There was much in the way of obscurantism still to overcome on this side of the Channel, but Henry gave England a chance the absolute monarchies of the rest of Europe did not get until much later.

Today we are in the throes of another intellectual and therefore technical revolution. Our own constitutional arrangements will have to change in order to accommodate it. If they do we could enjoy advantages even greater than those made possible by Henry’s lust for Anne. It will be difficult enough for us to achieve such change in our own country. Enmeshed like Laoccoon in the toils of the European Union, it will be well nigh impossible.

I am only sorry that both you and Niall Ferguson are on the side of Tsar Nicholas, the Emperor Franz Joseph, Frederick William of Prussia Pope Clement and the Emperor Charles V.

I write from Australia, a country of just over 20 million people which has controlled its immigration and which seems to survive without being a member of the EU, in spite of disposing of an economy several times smaller than ours.

Yours in despair at your Leninism: “my leader right or wrong.”


Robert Salisbury is a former Leader of the House of Lords