Frank asked:

What would be a philosopher’s take on the British EU Membership Referendum?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Graham Hackett, writing before the EU Referendum vote on 23rd June, has given an exemplary answer to Frank’s question, focusing on the supposed ‘moral duty’ to vote, and whether — and the extent to which — this duty also requires ‘careful deliberation’ and ‘due diligence’.

Like Graham, I am not arguing for a view about either side in the Referendum debate. In yesterday’s Issue 202 of Philosophy Pathways, in a news item on a new book European Identity and Citizenship by Sanja Ivic, a member of the Board of the International Society for Philosophers, it states, ‘The ISFP has no political affiliations and no view — official or otherwise — on [the] rights or wrongs of European Union membership.’

— We don’t want to alienate any of our readers, do we?!

In order to gain a better context for the debate (still on-going, despite the result) the classic book to read is Hobbes Leviathan (1651, 1668) or to give the full title, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. I’m not going to try to summarize this great book, but a central theme is the definition of ‘sovereign power’ and the case for there being just one such sovereign (per state). The short argument is, if you have two or more rulers, then you have not overcome the ‘original position’ where issues are decided not by the rule of law but by force. How issues or disagreements are resolved between states is a different matter.

Although the book was originally intended to defend the case for an absolute Monarch, contemporary political philosophers have seen the concept of sovereignty as applicable with tweaks to a liberal democracy. In the UK, Parliament is the sovereign power. ‘Devolution’ of power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is ultimately subject to decisions made at Westminster. The devolved assemblies/ parliaments have the power to debate proposals and act on what they decide, but in principle such decisions can always be overruled by central government.

Parliament can, theoretically, pass a motion today stating that the United Kingdom hereby repeals all legislation deriving from the EU. There are a number of practical reasons why this is not going to happen, although some have argued that it is ultimately the best game plan. Just brazen it out — and then deal with the consequences.

Let’s now look at the EU. In an interview on the BBC ‘Outside Source’ News program yesterday, a member of Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, stated his view that the ‘majority’ of Germans would like to see ever-closer union and the formation of a EU state (some have used the term ‘superstate’). It would not be unfair to assert that such aims are shared by many in the EU governing hierarchy. Could the EU ever become the sovereign power over the 27 (or whatever number it is when the UK leaves) member countries?

To be the sovereign, as Hobbes understood, you need the power to exercise that sovereignty. If a country rebels against the ‘Union’ (as the South did in the American Civil War) then ultimately only force can decide the outcome. The Confederacy could have thought about their situation and decided that, all things considered, it might be best to remain with the Union and avoid bloodshed. Whether the threat is exercised through military or economic means, the result is identical. Once you have made the decision to stay, the same threat hovers over any future ambition to leave.

Arguably, this is the situation that the UK faces today. Even though the EU state does not yet exist in its fully-fledged form, the same economic threat applies now and in all future scenarios. ‘Leave us, and you face financial ruin.’ If you think the answer is to leave and to hell with the consequences, are you not in the same position as the Confederates (if only they had had access to a crystal ball)?

For those who are not immediately affected by the outcome, one way or another, this is a classic lesson in political philosophy. It is the essence of what a state is, or what has the ambition to be a state, that it has the potential to exercise the necessary power to rule. Those who wish for whatever reasons to rebel against the ‘Leviathan’ have to be prepared to respond with equal or greater force. The game is on.