Imagine this: as the Brexit negotiations reach a stalemate within the first hours of battle, David Davis bangs his fist on the table, looks Michel Barnier directly in the eye and says: ‘You are infringing upon our rights as Europeans!’
The Confederacy of the United States, the Republic of Ireland and even current designs for Scottish Independence all testify to how secession, if done in the wrong way, will produce a poorer and less important nation. In terms of Brexit, it is quite clear that the European Union does not want to see Britain thrive now that it has rejected “Ever Closer Union”. It is incumbent on Britain therefore to approach exit in the right way. Indeed, in order for Britain to be taken seriously in the coming years it is vital that we present ourselves as an exemplary European nation – and the European Union as an aberration of the European ideal. In order to declare independence, Britain must declare allegiance.
The American colonists did something very similar to this when they declared independence from the British Empire. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England William Blackstone had identified the ‘absolute rights of every Englishman’ as one of the touchstones of English law. Sure enough, when the American colonists began to question their position within the British Empire, they did so by invoking their rights as ‘Englishmen’. Such political cross-dressing can be seen in The Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress which specifically referenced the right to representation as the ‘undoubted right of Englishmen’. Amer-exit was justified because the British, or rather George III, had broken the contract between government and governed.
The 18th century was cloaked in Enlightenment social contract theory but that does not mean that we should forget the rules of democracy today. And so whilst it is reassuring to be told that Theresa May and her team are a safe pair of hands, we are going to need far more than “strong and stable” leadership in the days ahead; we are going to need inspirational leadership. Britain may be set to leave the EU, but it still faces an underlying problem both at home and abroad: namely that the legitimacy of Brexit is still questioned.
Just as the Americans invoked their Englishness when they took up arms against the British Empire, the British need to invoke their European-ness as they prepare to leave the European Union. We need a far more creative argument than ‘Take Back Control’ or ‘Brexit Means Brexit’.
Do not forget that the British people are the direct descendants of Europe: Celts, Romans, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Normans all came to our shores. The House of Windsor is of German descent and our Parliament, as we know it, was introduced by the Plantagenet (French) dynasty. Britain fought in two World Wars on the basis that it was defending the territorial integrity of Belgium and Poland respectively; and we sought entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 after eleven years of petitioning. Britain has been a place of refuge, a loyal ally and a dedicated European for most of the previous millennium.
In order for Brexit to succeed then we, the people, need to change the conversation. It should not be about Britain, Little England or ‘the rights of Englishmen’; it should be about Europe. Only through creativity – through writing the next chapter of our island’s story – will we convince our opponents that Britain has and always will be a good European, and in doing so forcefully legitimise our secession from the European Union. A constitutional convention could kick start this by bringing the nation together and harnessing its creative talent, whether it be Daniel Hannan, Nick Clegg or Brenda from Bristol. It was through direct democracy that the American Founding Fathers were given a voice, and perhaps, in doing the same, Britain might find its own.
It is time for the unacknowledged legislators to come forward.