June 24, 2016    4 minute read

Brexit: The Age of Reason Comes to an End

   June 24, 2016    4 minute read

Brexit: The Age of Reason Comes to an End

“Pound plunges to 30 year low in huge selloff”


“Bank of England and ECB promise to protect markets”


“Global stocks dive on UK Brexit vote”


Headlines such as these are being published all over the world, describing the financial impacts of a surprise vote by the British electorate to leave the European Union. But this article is not an assessment of stock market performance. It is not an analysis of post-Brexit economic prospects. It is a commentary on the decision made to reject the progressive values of the Enlightenment; ideals based on reason, tolerance, economic individualism, and the free movement of capital, labour, and ideas across borders. The very same ideals which have acted as the driving force behind European integration over the past 60 years.

Enlightenment thought was born out of the Age of Reason – an 18th-century movement which represented a revolution in concepts of knowledge, self, religion and politics. Contrary to medieval philosophy which was based on tradition and religious dogmatism, the Enlightenment ushered in a new era which placed reason and individual liberty at the forefront of social relations; it fostered a period of great change in political and scientific thought.

German thinker Immanuel Kant was the most prominent of the Enlightenment philosophers. Often heralded as the father of the European Union, he believed that reason would lead humanity to a state of perpetual peace underpinned by a moral standard of rationality he termed the ‘Categorical Imperative’, and the a priori deduction of universal laws. In the aftermath of two devastating world wars, the European Union was constructed on a Kantian framework: the end goal was perpetual peace in a region which had suffered nothing but conflict for hundreds of years. This peace was to be brought about by the ideals of the Enlightenment: the European Union sought to deliver freedom, tolerance, and economic liberalism through universal legislation and co-operation amongst its members.

There are pro-Brexit commentators who have attempted to engage in a debate surrounding the extent to which the Union succeeded in this goal. Alistair Heath, Deputy Editor of The Telegraph, has written that:

“It is those who love Europe, its diversity, its history and its humanity who should be the most enthusiastic about Brexit.”

The European Union was broken, he claimed, and by voting to leave ‘Britain would have the opportunity to show that free trade, an open, self-governing society and a liberal approach could ensure the peace and prosperity at the heart of the European dream.’ In short, the core argument was the (albeit somewhat paradoxical) claim that the UK would be better placed to defend Enlightenment values of internationalism, inclusiveness, and openness by removing itself from the Union altogether.

Similarly Edward Chancellor, writing in Money Week, claimed that:

“By rejecting the EU I showed greater fellow-feeling for the citizens of Europe and was more faithful to the continent’s highest ideals than those who wish to remain.”

Having been a student of 18th century history at both Cambridge and Oxford, I wouldn’t doubt that he is well placed to make this judgement.

The referendum was not fought on careful consideration of these fundamental ideas, however; the battle lines were uncompromisingly drawn around immigration. The latent xenophobia of Little England reared its head and was cajoled into doing so by a campaign founded on a mythical perception of Johnny Foreigner occupying jobs and resources which would otherwise be allocated to British working class citizens. The Remain supporters were no different. It is telling that Saatchi and Saatchi – hired by Operation Black Vote for its proven ability to identify and harness the popular spirit driving any advertising campaign – honed in powerfully on ethnic relations as opposed to political messaging. It’s possible that the average voter in Thurrock and Great Yarmouth did not consider anything else in making their decision.

This anti-intellectualism is surely a worrying trend in contemporary politics. Already the vote has been celebrated by right-wing politicians including Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Donald Trump: there is a real danger of Brexit sparking a revival of nationalist, inward-looking ‘beggar thy neighbour’ politics, which represents the very antithesis of reason and tolerance.

Growing up in London in the 1990s and 2000s, I was proud of what a cosmopolitan United Kingdom represented heading into the 21st century. Imbued with the ideals of the Enlightenment, my generation was a product of a multi-national culture, with a steadfast commitment to the principles of solidarity, and afforded a unique opportunity to live and work in a multitude of locations across Europe. Those ideals have now been betrayed. This country may soon be saying goodbye to some immigrants, but an entire generation will feel like foreigners in our land.

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