14 April 2016

The EU is an ‘ancien régime’ that is no longer fit for purpose


Bruce Anderson is backing the Prime Minister David Cameron 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 and has published an open letter in reply to Anderson. Anderson responded here, and now Salisbury continues their correspondence. 

Dear Bruce,

Thank you for your lengthy and idiosyncratic ramble through British and European history from earliest times to the present day.  I will resist the temptation to comment on your roman fleuve and merely say how happy I am that we agree on two things in particular: that Henry VIII declared independence from the Pope and the Emperor for the lowest of reasons, his lust and his wallet; and that this country has always engaged with Europe because it had to.  I almost added a third, but I am not quite clear whether you feel the French were being good Europeans in your terms by encouraging the Protestants in the Thirty Years War and by trying to encircle their Hapsburg enemies by sucking up to the Turk. I am also not entirely clear whether you feel that Henry’s rift with Rome was a good thing or not. I hope that you, as I do, feel that Henry’s passion for Anne and for monastic riches released this country from its obscurantist shackles and made the industrial revolution and the period of British dominance possible. After all we were not the only ones. In many ways the long Dutch struggle with Spain and Rome enabled them to beat us to it.

What is sadly missing from your reply is any appreciation of the nature of the European Union. Brussels and its institutions are an ancien regime as incapable of adapting to the demands of a world in turmoil as the France of 1789, the later Ottomans or the Hapsburgs. It seems to me that ancien regimes tend to have a number of characteristics in common. One is that the people who run them primarily look inwards. That is where their promotions will come from and so they have learned how to work the system. They are not stupid, very often they are highly intelligent, but their mastery of their own bureaucracy renders them incapable of adapting to a rapidly changing world. It is that deformation professionelle which enabled Louis XVI to write “rien” in his journal for 14th July 1789 and for the incident that Gibbon records to occur when the entire administration of the later Byzantine Empire spends months discussing the administration of two provinces lost to the Seljuk Turks several years before.

The EU seems to suffer from an almost identical weakness. We can see it in its handling of the migration crisis, born as it is out of the gap between the rhetoric of a common Foreign and Defence Policy and the embarrassing reality. The European Union does not command the allegiance of the populations of any of its members, except perhaps for Luxembourg. So, when the chips are down and a real crisis hits, as it has with the tragedy of the migrants, understandably it is the member nations rather than the EU who act and to whom the demos turns.

To me, this illustrates quite neatly another characteristic of ancien regimes. They tend to crumble when challenged by rapid technological change. It is difficult for a construct conceived by visionaries moulded in the Napoleonic hothouse of the Grandes Ecoles, born of the European tragedies of the 20th century and reared in a world where Western Europe, the United States and Japan were the only economic powers of any consequence, to adapt to the enormous and irreversible transfer of power from bureaucracies to the individual. After all, the EU is a bureaucracy or it is nothing and you only have to visit South Kensington to understand what top-down government by Enarchs is doing to France and by extension to the members of the EU.

You and I both know that national European governments are far from perfect, including our own, which is why some associates of mine and I are engaged in drafting a bill which proposes a new Act of Union. However, governments need the authority to govern. This is especially so in times of rapid change when governments tend to lose that authority as a matter of course. I fear our own government is losing that authority, as are many governments in Europe and the Americas, including the United States. It has happened before: in the British Empire as former dominions and colonies fought for independence, in Europe at the end of the 18th, in the 19th and in the 20th centuries and in the United Kingdom, both in Ireland and in the 19th century with the demand for parliamentary reform. We failed to renew the authority of government in the 26 counties, we hope that we have not failed in Scotland.

We have succeeded when we have been able to adapt to changed circumstances. Our institutions in the past have become more representative rather than less, and representative of a sense of nationhood. We need that to happen again now in this time of technologically driven change. If it does not happen, economic atrophy will follow, just as it did in pre-revolutionary France, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. In the long term, economic success and effective representative institutions come as a package. It took the authoritarianism of Wilhelmine Germany and the insane incompetence of Hitler to humble the industrial genius of Germany and the representative institutions of the Bundesrepublik to sustain it once the allies had brought it back to life.

Our country has a record of being able to make its representative institutions evolve in response to the demands of changing circumstances. There is no guarantee that we will succeed this time, but we have a better chance of doing so as a sovereign nation than as one subject to the diktats of a European blob which is in practice responsible to no institutions which the peoples of Europe feel represent them.

The price of failure to adapt is always a high one. We are beginning to see it in America with the rise of Trump and in Europe with the rise of extremist parties. People like you, the CBI and other “remains” are wont to talk of how important it is for us to stay in a reformed EU. You are betraying implicitly, and often explicitly, your acceptance that an unreformed EU is unsustainable. On that, too, we can agree.

Sadly, however, what you are all suffering from is a triumph of hope over experience. The EU is incapable of adapting, because it is not in its nature to be capable of doing so, any more than the France of 1789 was capable. If Europe is once again to become ” the great continent”, it must become a continent of independent nation states, defended by NATO, dedicated to free trade with the rest of the world and with itself and with a habit of mutual collaboration that does not route every partnership through a Brussels bureaucracy that kills enterprise, new ideas and representative institutions.

I am only sorry that you who share most of my opinions and, no doubt, prejudices cannot see that clinging to the punctured life raft that is the EU is not keeping hold of nurse, but an illusion of safety perpetuated by your being unable to see over the waves because the raft is in a trough.

Our only hope today is the same as that expressed by the great William Pitt the Younger, of which you certainly need no reminding. “England has saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.” For that to have a chance of happening we have to vote to leave on 23rd June. We certainly cannot change the EU from the inside, and if we vote to stay the EU will exact a terrible revenge for our bloody-mindedness. However, by leaving we might just encourage people like the Dutch, the Germans and the Scandinavians of the need for real, as opposed to superficial, change.

I do admire your loyalty to our leader, but wonder whether it should obscure the appeal of the greater good.

Yours ever,


Robert Salisbury is a former Leader of the House of Lords.