The UK should lead rather than leave, says the FT’s Phil Stephens


The FT is an enthusiastic supporter of Bremain, and especially so Philip Stephens, the author of an article entitled ” Britain: a time to lead rather than leave the EU”. Given its readership, this makes it a significant article. I précis its content.

Empire and parliament.

These are the two millstones around the UK’s collective neck to lead in Europe: nostalgia for Empire, now dressed up as a bucannering UK in a global economy, and a romantic attachment to parliamentary sovereignty. Both of these, he suggests, are Victorian inventions.

Tracing the roots of the present debate back to the 1950s and the 1960s, Stephens reminds us that MacMillan government’s came to the conclusion that Britain could no longer keep up the pretence of being a great power on a par with the US and Soviet Union; that it could not be isolated from its own continent; and would be advised to “pool”sovereignty with its neighbours.

“But, Stephens asks rhetorically,  the unanswered question is why, after more than four decades of membership, the outcome is in any doubt.”

One answer, he says, is nostalgia for empire. “Todays Brexiters hanker after Elizabethan glories, reimagining Britain as the footloose privateer leaving Europe behind to make its fortune in far-flung lands. Ask them about trade with Europe and they talk about the deals to be made instead with India or China, about revitalising the so-called Anglosphere of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and about refurbishing ties with the nations of the Commonwealth.”

A second explanation, he suggests,  is that “the Brits have never seen the EU through the same lens as its partners. For France and Germany, Europe was the answer to war; for Spain or Portugal, the escape route from fascism; for eastern and central Europe the guarantor of freedom. Britain, though, finds it hard to forget that it “won” the war, and that, since 1066, it has never been conquered by a hostile army.”

A third is the “the temper of the times — a national mood that since the 2008 financial crash has grown disgruntled with austerity and ever less trusting in the political establishment and business elites — also favours those who want to leave. Add to the mix stagnant household incomes, the excesses of the 1 per cent and the economic and social disruption caused by immigration and the Brexiters have fertile ground for their populism. The Leave campaign is as much about harnessing popular rage against the economic insecurities and open borders of globalisation as about defenestrating the Eurocrats of Brussels.”

For all that, Stephens argues, “The rise of populism, drawing from the well of economic and social discontent, carries disturbing echoes of the 1930s. A confident Britain would see this as a moment to lead rather than leave. But perhaps the best that can be hoped of the referendum is that the British will decide finally that the time has come to actually “join” Europe.”

My comments.

Lets comment these points one by one:

Imperial nostalgia: I have no doubt that MacMillan’s generation felt the urgent need to keep sitting at the top tables of global diplomacy. Only a couple of decades previously, the British empire had been the world’s sole great power. But the world war had hastened its demise. There definitely was an argument to be made that by joining with its like-sized neighbours, the UK could greatly augment its influence on the world scene. And given the exaggeration of Soviet strength current at the time, there was a belief that keeping up with the “superpowers” was an impossibility.

But the Empire is now history;  being at top tables is not something the British public get very excited about; the Soviet Union has disappeared, and Russia’s GDP is less than that of the Netherlands. One Brexiter, Daniel Hannan, waxes lyrical about the Anglo-sphere, but the main economic argument for Brexit is free trade.

The debate about collective memory: There is a huge literature on this subject, one branch of which focuses on the complex phenomenon of nationalism. It goes without saying that Phil Stephens deplores nationalism, as do the many who support the idea of the EU. Nationalism, in this view, is the bain of Europe, helped to precipitate Europe into two world wars, fragmented the continent into a system of kleinstaaterei, and flourished on various doctrines of essentialism. These doctrines, revived recently by  leftist supporters of identity politics, maintain that you can only be French to appreciate the essence of France; Russian to appreciate Dostoievsky; or gay to feel the pain of the recent shooting in Orlando.

There is something to be said for this, but like other attempts to find single causes for complex phenomena, the “nationalisms-are-Europe’s-weakness” argument is simplistic. If we think of nationhood as a coin, on the one side is the dangerous poetry, on the other is the sense of civic community. The dangerous poetry has been well analysed by the late Connor Cruise O’Brian, for instance in his Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1994), which focuses on the origins of Sinn Fein and Irish terrorism, appropriating the Celtic myths of Irelands past, mixing them in with Jacobin ideas imported into the Ireland of the 1790s from the French revolution, and deploying the symbols of the Catholic Church.

The civic side of our national coin is very evident in the historiography of the United Kingdom’s constitutional and legal evolution, which would include reference to Magna Carta of 1215, the Great Charter of English Liberties; the first summoning of parliament by Simon de Montfort in 1265; the Petition of Rights, setting out the liberties of the subject including freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment; and vitally, the Bill of Rights of 1689 which settled  the primacy of Parliament over the monarch’s prerogatives, providing for the regular meeting of Parliament, free elections to the Commons, free speech in parliamentary debates, and some basic human rights, most famously freedom from ‘cruel or unusual punishment’. This was shortly followed by the Act of Settlement (1701) which controlled succession to the Crown, and established the vital principle of judicial independence.

The unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom has been commented by Sir William Blackstone in the eighteenth century, Frederick William Maitland in the nineteenth century, Lindsay Keir just before the outbreak of the second world war, or Ferdinand Mount and Vernon Bogdanor, more recently. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the common law exerted great influence on the founders of the United States.

Phil Stephens contention is that UK constitutional “essentialism” is rooted in the Victorian era. This assertion rests on one branch of the literature referred to above on nationalism. To stylise, the literature has two branches: one Marxist, and one cultural.

The famous texts from a Marxist perspective on nationalism are: Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and Eric Hobsawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780. The point these authors make is that nationalism was a concoction that emerged in a particular period of technological evolution and economic growth, and is by implication heading for the dustbin thereof as its utility declines. Stephens is firmly in this Marxist camp.

An  alternative analysis of the phenomenon of nationalism is provided by Anthony Smith, in a series of writings, one prominent book of his being Nationalism and Modernism. Smith argues that the phenomenon of nationalism is protean, highly complex, sometimes with deep historical roots, whereby from one historical period to another conflicts and identities become crystallized in new forms, and at the very most elusive of any one explanation. I consider Smith as by far the best guide to the phenomen, and add my own perspective, whereby every community considers itself special, sharing a set of common values, and thereby distinguishable from, to use the post-modernist terminology, the Other.

The fact is that the UK electorate has such an essentialist view of its own constitutional rights, privileges and evolution. And the reason is straitforward: the UK electorate knows that for centuries UK voters, and nowadays from dustmen to dukes, go as equals to the ballot box and elect or sanction the government of the the time. This they cannot do to the “decision-makers” in Brussels, as Phil Stephens approvingly describes what goes on there.

The substance of democracy, Mr Stephens, is for the electorate to vote in the new government. The symbol of sovereignty is for a state to be called sovereign, but to become a province of a United States of Europe. Mr Stephens  thinks the politics of nation-statehood is all symbolism, whereas pooling sovereignty in the decision-making complex of Brussels is about substance, economics, large internal markets, standing up to the great powers of the future, and not being dwarfed.

All arguable, Mr Stephens. But in the Europe of the real world, the EU is not rooted in the consent of its peoples. Without deep consent, the whole European project is no more than a fair weather contraption.

Different experiences to the continentals: this of course true. But then the continentals share very different experiences among themselves. “Europe” was the answer to war, yes, but which Europe: a Europe of states, a federal Europe; a supranational Europe; an Atlantic Europe? Germany is now the champion of a Europe of the states, while France is deeply divided about “more Europe”. Spain, Portugal and Greece all equated “Europe” with their emergence from different forms of fascism. But that memory for Spain was very badly bruised in 1990, when Foreign Minister Genscher blurted out that Germany, having acquired self determination, would now support it anywhere in Europe. Madrid immediately thought Catalonia. The hard nosed bargaining to get access to closed French and German markets took the gloss off further. Then came 2010, the emergence of Germany primacy, and six years of austerity. Different memories are now awakening in view of the recognition that Germany is once again on top, and Europe is once again in trouble.

And then, it is of course true that that the British islands have not been invaded since 1066 (not quire true as there were attempted but unsuccessful landings, but passable as a general statement).  But Stephens-by repeating the argument so frequently heard among some continentals that of course the UK did not suffer occupation and worse-omits the detail that  an awful lot of British blood and treasure was spilt on European soil in the two world wars. One million lives, Mr Stephens, and the UK issued from the second world war having sold its overseas assets and endebted itself to the hilt to the US,and also to India. Why Stephens thinks that these gratuitous insults to the memory of the British war dead are in good taste remains a mystery. At the very least, an attentive FT editor should have excised them before going to print. In any case, the memories of the two world wars  remains a powerful reason for many people in the UK to vote Remain, but equally for many British people to be suspicious of continentals. Suspicious because it is not as if their inherited liberties came from the continent.

Phil Stephens also mentions  Robert Schuman, who put his name in 1950 to Jean Monnet’s idea of a coal and steel community.The author of the ECSC, Robert Schuman, as a member of the 1940 National Assembly, had signed full powers to Pétain. When he tried to stand for the National Assembly after the war in his home province of Lorraine, he was excoriated as a traitor.

The ECSC was a supranational idea, designed a few years after the war. The UK’s constitutionalism was bound to keep it out. That was one of its benefits from the perspective of a France, where pro Vichy forces were resurgent. France had, the idea held, to reach an accomodation with a Germany that would pool the war-making industries of the time, considered to be coal and steel.

The Coal and Steel Community’s public rationale would be to thereby ensure the peace in Europe. Within a few years, the ECSC was a failure: oil replaced coal, and the German steel industry went its own way, ignored the ECSC’s penickety steel quotas, and hugely expanded capacity.

Lord Home also earns Phil Stephens’ plaudits. As Sir Alec Douglas Home, MacMillan’s Foreign Secretary had served under Chamberlain prior to the outbreak of the second world war. Chamberlain and his government were the authors of the appeasement policy. To illustrate how far appeasement went, Charlie Chaplin relates in his autobiography, My Own Story, how the British embassy tried to exert pressure on the US authorities to stop Chaplin from making his classic, The Great Dictators. The argument ran that Hitler might be “offended”.

Stephens quotes Home as Macmillan’s foreign secretary in 1961: “Let me admit at once that the Treaty of Rome would involve considerable derogation of sovereignty.” This was true to a limited extent: but the Rome Treaty was not supranationalist at all, and there was no treaty commitment whatsoever to a federal Europe, other than “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, a vague commitment with multiple possible interpretations.

Jean Monnet, being pragmatic, had seen his coal and steel community whither, and his proposal for a European army defeated in 1954 in the National Assembly. His supporters,  optimists of this new European relaunch, put their trust in the supranational Euratom Treaty, and considered the Rome Treaty a sideshow. But with Charles de Gaulle in office, Euratom was firmly put in its place, and de Gaulle used the multiple interpretations possible of the Rome Treaty to liberalise the French market, open it to German capital goods, impose an EEC Common External Tariff, and ram through a common agricultural policy, highly beneficial to the Big Agriculture of the Paris bassin. In other words, Home was reading what he wanted into the Rome Treaty, as did de Gaulle. de Gaulle used the Rome Treaty to create a French sphere of influence in western Europe. Home read supranationalism in the Treaty where there was none.

The temper of the times: this clearly plays a very significant part. Having promised too much, political and business leaders definitely have lost a lot of kudos. The UK economy is doing relatively well, but it is no news to report that many people do not feel prosperity coming their way. Where Stephens is talking rubbish is to bring “globalisation” into the discussion: there is something called globalisation, but it is also very true that government policies vary enormously among the 200 or so political entities in the world. Immigration is a case in point. It was a Labour government in 1998 that opened the UK door wide to immigration from the subcontinent in 1998, and then in 2000s to the new members of the EU from central and south-eastern Europe. It is the post-Lisbon Treaty Brussels position that the free movement of peoples is intangible, regardless of what all those locals think. And the post-2010 austerity policy imposed on southern Europe and France by Germany and The Netherlands is almost entirely political. The UK in recent years has produced four-fifths of the EU’s jobs. A very high proportion of those jobs go now to UK natives, but the UK remains a vital escape for southern Europeans from unemployment and wasted lives.

Britain’s immigration problem is firmly rooted, Mr Stephens, in public policy, marginally in a handy deus ex machina called “globalisation”.

Brexiters are using immigration, Stephens writes, to foster “populism”: so whenever working people express concern about what they experience as competition on wages or express worries at  muezzins calling to prayer in Bradford or Luton, in Stephens book they are “populists”. This is just old fashioned class snobbery. Nowadays, its called liberal metropolitanism. The phrase evokes the distance that is widely visible between political leaders and their electorates.

The UK has an opportunity to lead: I agree with Stephens here, but for completely different reasons. Let me explain: For years, self appointed “pro Europeans” in the UK have peddled their wares as the true internationalists. Along the way, they have treated those they identify as opponents like mushrooms in a dark room, covering them with manure. Yet it is their vision of Europe that is little Englander. It does not even have support among the public in the UK, let alone across the length and breadth  of Europe. What Phil Stephens favours  is a supranational Europe, one “Europe” among many, and of all the most unpopular.

It is also the vision of Europe that lies embedded in the 1972 European Communities Act(ECA), Section 2.1. which stipulates that EU law prevails over UK law.  As Lord Denning famously stated, in the 1974 case of Bulmer versus Bollinger, (

“The treaty does not touch any of the matters which concern solely the mainland of England and the people in it. These are still governed by English law. They are not affected by the Treaty. But when we come to matters with a European element, the Treaty is like an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back. “He went on: “Any rights or obligations created by the Treaty are to be given legal effect in England without more ado. Any remedies or procedures provided by the Treaty are to be made available here without being open to question. In future, in transactions which cross the frontiers, we must no longer speak or think of English law as something on its own. We must speak and think of Community law, of Community rights and obligations, and we must give effect to them.” There is no appeal.

Denning puts his finger on the key feature of the UK position: the Heath government espoused the supranational ideal, hook, line and sinker, signed the UK up to this British definition of “the project”, and presented it as the true Europe. Yet the British public is not for abrogating its rights to sanction whoever makes its laws, and even more importantly,the little Englanders-of whom Stephens is a prominent representative and who uses his bully pulpit from the FT to preach his gospel- have peddled a view of Europe, which has support among the knights of Whitehall, the Eurocrats in Brussels and in the State Department, but not much further afield.

My position is that we Bremain on redefined terms of the 1972 Act, assert the primacy of UK law over EU law, and then lead a campaign inside the EU to whittle down the supranationalist pretensions of the existing EU on the solid grounds of a new European alliance of constitutional states.See my blog:

Comparing the EU to the RAC.

How can you remain in a club, the objection has been made,  on your terms? It’s like joining the RAC then unilaterally deciding not to wear a tie in the bar.

This is an excellent point, and needs addressing.

My response is that there is no comparison between joining the RAC and being a member of the EU. In the RAC, you have to wear a tie at the bar, and, I discovered just recently, the same goes for breakfast at the Farmers Club in London. That’s fine. The club has a constitution, appointed officers, a budget and a rule book. Its breakfast, too, is worth the trouble of a tie.

But the EU does NOT have a constitution,it has a treaty;  it has appointed officers and a budget, but the rules are opaque(as is the budget). And the reason is simple: all the members of the EU are sovereign states, jealous of their sovereignty, and each in a specific way. The EU is NOT a club with a uniform definition of sovereignty.

The German Constitutional Court’s opinion on the Lisbon Treaty is that the EU is in no way a new sovereign. The EU is , the CC says, an alliance of sovereigns. The full document is available, in English translation, too, on the internet. It is worth adding that the CC regularly challenges the primacy claim of the ECJ. states.

In France, the key component of the (adapted) 1958 constitution is Title XV. I suggest readers read the Constitution and the Title. I draw attention as an example to Article 88-4:”The government shall lay before the National Assembly and the Senate drafts of European legislative acts as well as other drafts of or proposals for acts of the European Union as soon as they have been transmitted to the council of the European Union.”

Not least, the ECJ has no treaty based powers. Here is an extract from the opinion of 22 June 2007 
on which the annex to the Lisbon Treaty(to which the ECJ’s powers were relegated, an annex note) is based: “It results from the case-law of the Court of Justice that primacy of EU law is a cornerstone principle of Union law. According to the Court, this principle is inherent to the specific nature of the European Community. At the time of the first judgment of this established case law (Costa/ENEL,15 July 1964, Case 6/641 there was no mention of primacy in the treaty. It is still the case today. The fact that the principle of primacy will not be included in the future treaty shall not in any way change the existence of the principle and the existing case-law of the Court of Justice.” (,_annexes_and_declarations_attached_to_the_treaties_of_the_European_Union/Declarations#17._Declaration_concerning_primacy)

In other words, the ECJ’s powers are a convenience. The principle exists in thin judicial air, and with the support of the UK government.


What does this all add up to? Each member state is jealous of its sovereignty. Each plays along with the EU, but essentially to get what it can out of it, while playing a game of holier than thou regarding its own “European” zeal.

In the case of the UK, the UK’s view of sovereignty is to get the sovereign to mute it, without appeal. EU law prevails in the UK fullstop, curtesy of the UK government. This makes the UK, the EU’s Supranationalist Numero Uno. This accolade holds a number of advantages(particularly on the holier than thou front),not least that the ECJ and Commission be backed to the hilt to create the “single market”;  and one major disadvantage:the idea that Brussels decides UK law etc has not, does not, and will not sell to the public at home.

My recommendation would win Cameron a stunning victory. This referendum is his to lose, and also all those, like Mr Stephens,  who have a Little Englander view of the EU as a club with fixed supranationalist views of the EU, held by the UK but not by others. To repeat, the EU is an alliance of sovereign states.

If Cameron made clear between now and June 23 that a vote for Bremain would be a vote for the UK being a sovereign member of the EU, with oversight of all laws and judgements emanating from Brussels, and powers of amendment and rejection to boot, he would win a landslide. This would not necessarily mean automatic rejection, amendment, oversight etc, it would mean simply that UK citizens, via their representatives in parliament, have discretion over what Brussels does.

The hostility to Brussels in the UK is justified, but misdirected. It should be directed at the UK’s Little Englander supranationalists, like Mr Stephens, whose ideological blinkers are driving the UK to the exits, and by the way, reinforcing the ideologues in Brussels who consider that a one size fits all regime is just what the doctor ordered for a continent as diverse as Europe.

Cameron has the opportunity to lead the UK with a massive mandate to essentially transform the EU into an alliance of constitutional states-an alliance that trims down the ludicrous supranationalist pretensions of Whitehall, the 5 Presidents, and the State Department. Its time to get real in Europe, and thereby head off the menacing emergence of radicals across the length and breadth of the continent in the name of constitutional democracy. The UK has all the credentials for that. But first, lets ditch the Little Englanders-the first of whom was Ann Boleyn(not, I may add, a recommendation that they meet the same fate as the unfortunate Ann).

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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