Important (for good or evil) as Brexit may be to the future of Britain, it is not without its importance for the European Union. Indeed, it was always essential for the Union that Britain’s departure should be an economic disaster for Britain: for if it were not, why have a union at all?
The British election reveals the coming clash between the old and young in much of the West. The social welfare state naturally creates divisions between groups with immutable characteristics like age as each group maneuvers to get a larger share of money from the state before it runs out. This sad truth was at the heart of the Conservative Party’s lost majority in the last election.
The young voted almost two thirds for Labour, despite the fact that party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who was regarded by his own parliamentary party as an unelectable tribune of left wing protest and had as its shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, an open admirer of Lenin and Trotksy. To be sure, the young do not remember the real costs of socialism of either the hard Eastern European kind or the softer British variety. It would almost contribute to the net happiness of Europe if a member of the old Soviet bloc remained to be a negative exemplar for everyone else.
But even with its compromised leadership the Labour party knew how to exploit the fault line between the old and the young created by the modern welfare state. Much of the budget of Britain, like other Western democracies, goes to pension and other benefits to the old for which those younger are largely paying. But given longer life expectancy and lower birth rates, young people fear that they will never get similar benefits, because the well will have run dry by the time they become eligible. Thus, they are energized by the Labour Party’s promise of free college tuition. That promise can be cashed in now, unlike the illusory ones of state pensions four decades hence.
In politics, there are no final victories and no lessons that are learned for good: error, like hope, springs eternal. Moreover, what counts as error for some may be wisdom, or at least temporary advantage, for others. There is no catastrophe, political or economic, from which someone does not benefit.
In modern democracies, promises to tax-and-spend are like sin, a permanent temptation: only that they are worse, in so far as they are an instrument for some to gain and (as they hope) to keep power. And so the pendulum swings, seemingly for ever, between extravagance and retrenchment, the former always being more popular than the latter.
In Britain, Mrs. May has overthrown the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher, though nominally she is of the same political party.
The year 2016 demonstrated the enduring relevance of political ideas. A political idea is distinct from and more fundamental than a stance on a policy or issue. It is a way of understanding political phenomena in light of a worldview. A political idea connects the dizzying array of available facts, forming a coherent vision of what is really happening in the world.
Nearly every political idea involves at minimum three components, corresponding to these questions:
- What is a good society—in other words, what should the world look like?
- Why doesn’t it look that way?
- What would set things right?
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher together moved the world decisively back toward classical liberal principles in the 1980s. Thatcher was elected earlier than Reagan, and she was a harbinger of what was to come in America and the world. Thus, it is significant today that new Prime Minister of Britain, Theresa May, is moving the Conservative Party decisively in the opposite direction—toward more statism and less liberty. It is not only in the United States that the party of the right seems to have lost its classical liberal bearings.
This week sees the unfolding in England of two long-running legal sagas upon whose outcomes the future of the rule of law there could depend. And not just there, its future could be affected throughout Europe and even beyond.
The first legal saga is the resumption of the British Government’s ten-year long battle to deport the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada back to Jordan, where he awaits trial on terror related charges.
To date, Abu Qatada, whom England granted refugee status after he moved there from Jordan his wife and children, has successfully resisted all government efforts to deport him. He has done so by invoking his human right not to suffer torture or trial using evidence gained by its means.
During the long period in which he has been fighting this legal battle through the English and Strasbourg Courts, Qatada, along with more than a dozen other foreign terror suspects domiciled in Britain, have also been able to secure their release from custody by invoking their human right not to suffer (more than briefest period of) detention without trial.
After Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May had obtained from Jordan all the assurances she needed to render his deportation to it lawful in her eyes, Abu Qatada was arrested in the early hours last Tuesday morning, after his arresting officers had informed him that the deportation process against him had been resumed.
So confident was the Home Secretary that her department had finally closed all legal loopholes that had earlier enabled Qatada’s lawyers to prevent his deportation, she felt able, later that same day, to stand at the despatch box in the House of Commons from where government ministers traditionally deliver important statements, to announce, much to the general relief of all those present and much of the rest of the country, that by, the end of the month, Qatada would be on his way back to Jordan.
She had not counted on the ingenuity of Qatada’s lawyers quickly to spot and exploit a small loop-hole that had evaded both her eye and those of her legal advisors at her Department, or else that his lawyers had craftily opened up literally at the eleventh hour.
With less than an hour to go to mid-night on Tuesday, after which time which he would have forfeited all possible legal right to do so, Qatada’s lawyers submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg an appeal against the ruling that it had made exactly three months earlier over the legality of his deportation. It was that ruling which had formed the legal basis on which the Home Secretary had been acting in resuming his deportation.