We need to talk about Europe

What are the Brexit answers – and what indeed are the right questions? Anthony Barnett’s new book, ‘Lure of Greatness’ triggers a lively exchange of opinion with Simon Maxwell.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Simon Maxwell
5 November 2017

Image: Brussels Great Market Square, WikiCommons.

Dear Anthony

Congratulations on your challenging book, ‘The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump. Well done, too, on finding so many people to crowdfund publication. There are 541 of them listed at the back of the book. I counted.

This is a flamethrower of a book, which leaves behind the charred remains of the British establishment, the past and current leadership of the Labour Party, the ideological underpinnings of neo-liberalism, and the vaunting ambition of the EU elite. You don’t seem to have many heroes.

I took away the key idea that Brexit should be seen as an expression of specifically English dissatisfaction with our internal constitutional arrangements in the UK. Those who argue that the key swing voters were the losers from globalisation in England’s decaying industrial towns have missed the point, or at least part of it. I would expect no less from a veteran of Charter 88.

Your enthusiasm for ‘citizenship’, proportional representation, devolution and an English Parliament all remain undimmed. That made me smile. Knock down Buckingham Palace! Turn the Palace of Westminster into a museum! Others give more weight to the economics, especially the impact of globalisation on vulnerable groups and forgotten places, and less to the deep Faragist sentiments we are all alleged to harbour. But the two explanations of Brexit are not mutually exclusive.

I can see how your frustration translates to EU constitutional arrangements, and especially to the Lisbon Treaty, both the top-down process by which it emerged, and the substance. You don’t say much about constitutional reform in the EU, which is a pity. I could sign up, for example, to an EU wide election of the next President of the European Commission.

In fact, you don’t really talk about Europe at all until Chapter 27, on Pg 263. That’s Chapter 27 out of 35, so quite near the end, and you don’t stay for long. By Chapter 31, just 40 pages later, you have kind of changed the subject, and are onto immigration. And most of the EU chapters are concerned with how the referendum debate was played in the UK.

That is a pity, because the question of why we might need the EU deserves more careful scrutiny. In the first part of the book, you wear your heart on your sleeve as an ideological European, and are scathing about the merely instrumental and transactional approach of especially David Cameron. I think that is a mistake. There is nothing shameful or disreputable in making a case for European Union membership which looks at the present day costs and benefits, alongside the emotional attachment and historical achievements.

The value of combining head and heart are central to all thinking on collective action, and by extension on sovereignty. Think of Mancur Olson’s work on rationality,  or come to that the work by this year’s Nobel prize winner in economics, Richard Thaler, on how to bring psychology to bear on brute economic arithmetic. My own work has emphasised the need for both culture and calculus to be brought to bear on reform of the EU.

We can take culture as given, you and I, at least for a friendly and long-term partnership with other European societies – which I agree, before you complain, is not quite the same as a deep cultural commitment to the political and administrative arrangements we call the EU. Still, like Theresa May, by the way, I would like the EU to thrive, and I imagine you would too.

Calculus is more difficult, and needs a clear-eyed analysis of why collective action through the EU will benefit the subjects, sorry, citizens of the UK. It is not pre-ordained that global collective action problems and solutions can best be approached via a regional grouping. Sometimes, the UN will provide the best answer. On some topics, NATO. Or the Commonwealth. Or the Council of Europe, which includes countries not members of the EU. Why Brussels, and not, e.g., New York?

Can we have that conversation? Let’s start with the ‘great intractables’, the global problems that really require global collective action. Climate change is top of my list, but that is because it is a topic I work on. Global poverty reduction is on the list, too, for the same reason. Security? Pandemics? International terrorism? Financial stability? Some would say containing Germany.

I can make the case for Europe-wide collective action on the topics I have listed – and have done so, many times. But what is your list? And why?

Best wishes



Dear Simon,

Thank you for reading Lure of Greatness and for feeling moved to write to me to start a public conversation headlined: ‘We need to talk about Europe’. Yes, let’s. I’d like that very much. But not by starting with global problems as you suggest, like climate change, pandemics, terrorism and poverty. All ways of not talking about Europe!

This brings me straightaway to something that has struck me since Lure was published and which I think you demonstrate too. A reluctance by the pro-European English to engage with the real causes of Brexit, while hoping we can stop it without having to change anything in British society.

This exchange started when I responded to your invitation to join an initiative designed to achieve exactly this. Namely, to write to Angela Merkel and other European leaders to ask them to adjust their policy on migration in a way that would help solve their own domestic problems and allow the UK to rejoin the EU. It is a sign of your importance, standing and network of connections that we can be confident that if not Merkel then certainly her advisors would take note of such an appeal.

I suspect, however, that they will say to themselves, even if they are too diplomatic to say it to you: “Surely, in these circumstances, you have to make some sort of reckoning with yourselves, along with asking the EU to change”. 

This is what I set out to do in my book. It is a reckoning with a purpose. We are both Remainers. We both want to frustrate Brexit if it can be done democratically. This is should be the starting point for us to talk about Europe. But your letter points the other way. While you are generous in congratulating me on the book you say it is “a flamethrower”. This implies it is indiscriminate, which I reject. More important, the reader is left assured that you at least are completely un-scorched by its pyrotechnics.

Attempting to summarise a key argument you identify my concern with the destruction of the UK’s constitution and the disorientation which this generates in the English. Your response? “Fine. I would expect no less from a veteran of Charter 88”. (This is the campaign for constitutional reform I helped launch under Thatcher that then influenced Labour.) I’m sure you meant it as a friendly pat on the back. But I’ve had this response before from mandarin circles. Allow me to dramatise the process, if unfairly. When the Grenfell Action Group repeatedly published warnings of fire hazards I bet those who ran the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea said to themselves, “I would expect nothing less from people who live in tower blocks”. The technique is to pigeon hole so as to neutralise and ignore.

I make the constitutional arguments forcefully; you tell me this makes you “smile”. I set them out in a 21st century way, very different from Charter 88; you applaud my “undimmed” passion.  All this amusement, smiling, expectation, are ways to avoid the question. The same question the leaders of the Royal Borough should have asked themselves when they got those complaints from Grenfell residents. Namely: “Is this true?”.

I show that Brexit was the result of large, deciding majority across “England without London”. Is this true? I propose this is the expression of a frustrated Englishness that can only identify as Anglo-British. Is this right?  I spell out how the British Kingdom, as an uncodified multi-national entity, cannot but feel threatened by membership of the larger, codifying multi-national entity of the EU. Is this true? I show how New Labour shredded the old constitution without replacing it, placing our democracy in danger. Surely this is so? I argue that now, it is only by normalising England that can we can become the European country that we are. Do you agree?

Another of your evasion techniques is to say you give “more weight” to other factors and to add that it is right to consider “costs and benefits, alongside the emotional attachment”. This implies I present a lopsided argument, saying that emotions are all that matter. Of course, I don’t. I do the opposite. I make a case for “combined determination” and list the economic situation, the loss of trust in the British state and our democracy, the nature of the EU, and the lack of any alternative democratic vision for the EU, as equally important causes. Brexit was the explosive outcome of a long process. To make an explosion you mix ingredients. What matters is not how much one part weighs vis a vis the other but the mix, for it is the combination that is decisive. I argue that our then Prime Minister David Cameron was catastrophically mistaken to base the whole Remain campaign on an appeal to costs-benefit without making any positive case for European membership. This does not mean I do not agree that there are huge practical advantages. Of course, head and heart are both vital to any defining international policy.

How can our country become European? This is the question we have a duty to answer, to earn the right to talk about how to best reform the EU and as a contribution to opposing Brexit.  I have proposed my answer in the spirit of enquiry, passionately perhaps but not dogmatically. What is yours?

With many thanks for starting this exchange, looking forward to hearing from you,



Dear Anthony

Thank you for your letter. Please don’t mistake a conversational writing style for arrogance. I enjoyed your book, and am perfectly happy to acknowledge that constitutional infelicities may have played a part in the Brexit vote: ‘Take Back Control’ was a powerful slogan, as Tim Shipman shows in his book on the referendum, ‘All Out War’.

It’s just that I suffer the handicap of being an economist, and spend a lot of time thinking about the winners and losers of globalisation and technical change: ‘Who gains? Who loses?’ is a fundamental question in my field of development studies.

I can certainly tell you that the economic issues were evident to all of us canvassing the streets last year, even in the prosperous Southeast (I live in Brighton). In any case, we can agree: ‘combined determination’, as you put it, explains the vote. So, let’s move on.

You avoided answering my question about the instrumental case for the EU, so let me help out. Shared values. Economies of scale. Lower transaction costs. Diplomatic and military might. A certain degree of political neutrality in relation to former colonies. We see those play out through the single market and the customs union, but also, for example, in the global climate change negotiations, the World Trade Organisation, or the 17 military and police missions that the EU is currently supporting overseas, in Iraq, Somalia, the Sahel and elsewhere. The EU played a crucial role in the talks leading up to the Paris climate agreement, helping to create the High Ambition Coalition, and working especially with the poorest countries.

Seen from the desk of a British Minister, therefore, looking out on the world, the EU adds to the options available when it comes to tackling global problems. It combines the financial clout of the World Bank with the political reach of the United Nations. That means it is sometimes easier for the EU than either the World Bank or the UN (but making use of both those institutions) to broker global deals, pursue human rights abuse, or support economic and social development in poor countries. And it is why calculus comes into play as well as culture in making the case for the UK as a European country. Piracy in the Horn of Africa? Peace in the Balkans? Iran? Putin? British ministers surely have reason to be glad of the EU.

But here, then, come three crucial points, on which I hope we can agree.

First, the case for Europe can be made as strongly in the other 27 countries as it can in the UK – in fact more strongly in smaller countries without the economic power or international networks that characterise the UK. Self-interest is the essential matrix which binds the EU together.

Second, and few topics are more discussed in the capitals of Europe, radical change is needed for the EU to fulfil its potential. Juncker, Macron, Merkel and Renzi have all made this point, as have the populists in every country. Whether integrating the Eurozone, managing migration, reducing inequality, or securing sustainable growth, the EU needs reform. Of course, visions compete. Perhaps the Europe-wide ‘democratic conventions’ that Emmanuel Macron has proposed might not be such a bad idea. 

Third, and this to my mind is the killer, the matrix which binds the EU will fracture without the UK, and progress will be harder to achieve. If the UK leaves, the EU will, at a stroke, lose its leading financial centre, 15% of its population, income and budget, half its seats on the UN Security Council, one of its two nuclear powers, nearly 20% of its scientists, all 4 of its global top 20 universities, and a market worth £300bn a year to the rest of the EU. We might add to that list a pragmatic and progressive voice on global affairs.

If I were an EU leader, I would be quaking – and would be hastening to the negotiating table. You were kind enough to reference my open letter to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, suggesting that only they could break through the stalemate and act to keep Britain in the EU. Free movement and reform of the European Court of Justice are the two arenas where reformers on both sides of the Channel coalesce.  

You ask about the steps we must take to become a European country. My answer is that we should recognise our self-interest, but also help Europe to be truly the indispensable alliance.

But how do we raise the UK debate to a more constructive plane?

Best wishes,



Dear Simon,

Thanks for your reply, you are not arrogant in the slightest and I didn’t take your letter in that spirit. It is I who should apologise for being too personal. But I am trying to get through to you something that I have so far failed to communicate.

For example, the British minister at his desk may gain added clout from EU membership when he or she looks out at the world, as you say. But do the people in towns across England, whose local government has been decimated, gain a similar added clout? I say their loss has nothing to do with the EU. It was wrongly scapegoated, not least by politicians who led the Remain campaign saying globalisation can’t be defied. But in combatting Brexit we have also to deal with this question of our democracy and the lack of control that voters fear. Not instead of, but at the same time as taking on the Brexiteers.

The argument to remain in the EU was clearly right. But the way in which it was argued was wrong. Not just tactically wrong, but cowardly and evasive. Given that they had the money, the initiative, world opinion, and by far the best case, it is the leadership of the Remain campaign who are primarily responsible for the disastrous outcome. Unless this is faced up to, it will not be reversed.

Facing up to it means acknowledging that a driver of Brexit was a frustrated English nationalism that expresses itself in “Great Britishness”. (I show this in an article I’ve just published.) I asked you point blank, do you agree. You reply is that you are, “perfectly happy to acknowledge that constitutional infelicities may have played a part in the Brexit vote”. 

Can’t you see that this is an evasion? The English on the war path are not a constitutional infelicity. They are force that must be countered. If you can’t agree to its existence of such a force you can’t possibly counter it, and Brexit will not be reversed.

You counter-claim that I’ve “avoided… the instrumental case for the EU”. No, I regard this as obvious: no disagreement here. Similarly, you suggest I deny that “the economic issues were evident” in the referendum. I don’t. I make this point strongly in Lure of Greatness. Drawing on Shipman’s account I quote the Prime Minister’s head of communications, who ruefully but emphatically observed after the referendum how successful they were in getting the economic message across to the public - but that the first law of politics no longer held. “It was not the economy, stupid”. Practical, instrumental and transactional arguments about the advantages of EU membership remain most important. But the argument for membership cannot rest on them alone. The EU is also a political project about sovereignty.

Perhaps, as you say, being an economist you confine your view to ‘Who gains?’, ‘Who loses?’.  Simon Wren Lewis in his excellent blog has struggled with the same problem. Being an economist he sees the self-harm and regards this as a disturbance that needs to be diagnosed. But membership of the EU is about more than a matrix of self-interest, as you put it. It concerns nationalism and democracy and ‘who we are’. President Macron gets this when, in the Sorbonne speech you link to, he projects the economic interests of Europe in terms of a European sovereignty.

Will Brexit put an end to this, and fracture the EU? Clearly other EU leaders sense this and are moving to ensure it does not. Macron suggests in his speech that after Brexit the UK’s 72 seats in the European Parliament should not be distributed to its remaining members by an obscure process but should be assigned to a trans-European vote based on the EU as a single constituency.  In this way he is trying to use Brexit to reinvigorate the EU.

Which brings me back to my initial concern about your writing to him and Chancellor Merkel. Even if they want to change to make the UK’s readmission possible, which would be wonderful, they are entitled to ask how, for our part, we in Britain will change to become more pro-European.

I feel I am trying to wake you up with a call you just don’t want to hear. You resist recognising that we on the remain side got something fundamental wrong. You don’t see that Brexit was a demand for change that had good cause although the wrong solution. You need to recognise that we must offer our fellow citizens a better form of change, more and better democracy, if Brexit is to be stopped.

Many thanks for starting this helpful exchange,



Dear Anthony. 

Thanks for another stimulating letter. 

I am not going to be drawn on whether constitutional reform to tame the beast of English nationalism would have been enough on its own to swing the referendum. It might have helped. It might even have been necessary. It was certainly not sufficient. Which is not to say, by the way, that constitutional change does not have intrinsic merit, independently of any decision about membership of the EU. There, I've said it. Happy? 

Where I can agree with you unequivocally is that 'remain and reform' would have been - is - a better slogan than either 'remain' or 'leave'. I tried to make that point to those in charge, as I'm sure did you. We were both trumped, it seems, by focus groups. And stymied, in the end, by the unsatisfactory outcome of David Cameron's negotiation of the terms on which we might remain. Not so much Pompey's head on the plate, more a small portion of over-sweetened fudge. I wonder whether Angela Merkel regrets not offering more? 

A huge frustration about the EU is that it so often privileges vision over implementation, the ecstasy engendered by new initiatives over the hard grind of making them work. Never mind freedom of movement, which is problematic in many countries, not just the UK. How on earth were leaders allowed to get away with such a poorly designed and implemented common currency? Or such an unfair and horribly managed migration policy. No wonder voters are angry. I'm angry. 

That's why I want to hear the British lion roar - Boris style. But not for British or English nationalism. Not even for Global Britain, independently of the EU. I hope for a vision of the world which is enthusiastically internationalist, for reasons of both culture and calculus, and which brings to bear on the design of institutions those virtues of practicality and pragmatism for which we are supposedly famous. An EU, with Britain in it, which excites our passions, in a good way. And an EU which commands respect by dint of good administration and careful, well planned, incremental evolution. 

But how do we get there? The Brexit boil has to be lanced, and there are only two alternatives. The first is that we are left dangling until we change our minds. Explicit or not, that is the import of proposals by the likes of Andrew Adonis or Nick Clegg, or of the position taken by those who want a vote in Parliament at the end of the negotiation. The economic damage of such a course is already evident. The alternative rests with the EU 27: make us an offer which can be characterised as a material change and which will justify a second referendum, soon. Then we can put all this behind us and hurry on with championing change in Europe. If the objective is win-win, for them and us, this, surely, is it. 

A final point, before I give you the last word, on what leaders must do. As much as anything else, this is about framing, about reaching what Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, calls the five taste buds of the mind: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. His key insight is that none of these can be ignored. I've been through this in thinking about how to make the case and win the argument on climate change. Fear on its own won't do it. Nor will science, even, apparently, when led by experts. Nor, I hate to say, will constitutional change. Our conversation about Europe, framed by those we follow, must be values-led and practical, optimistic, inclusive, respectful of history but looking to the future. I am up for that. Are you? 

Thanks again for a fun and practical exchange.



Dear Simon,

I’m aghast. It is like the terrible fascination of watching a car-crash you can’t prevent, terrible because people I love and respect are in the vehicle. Yourself included.

Brexit is not a boil. Your image suggests something very unpleasant but superficial which when ‘lanced’ will go away, leaving only a slight scar. But as I have shown, Brexit is a breakdown thanks to structural tensions that must be addressed.

As well as a socio-economic response, there needs to be a democratic one. This is a matter of the gravest political consequence. You persist in regarding my call as a mere plea for “constitutional reform”. We are well past that. I’m talking about responding to a popular force, not the need for legal adjustment that fiddles with the existing parts.

If I have failed to communicate my argument clearly enough, let me quote Fintan O’Toole,

'If there are occasional tinges of “I told you so” in The Lure of Greatness, they are entirely justified. He did tell them so. What Barnett was telling them – which is to say the establishment he labels “the political and media caste” to emphasise the fluid movements of its members between journalism and PR and Westminster – were, in part, things that any sane observer could have said in any western democracy: that the disruptions of neoliberal globalisation and its rising inequalities would have profound political consequences. But he was also telling them something very specific to Britain: that English nationalism was on the rise and that it had to be given a political form in keeping with its best democratic and egalitarian traditions. Otherwise, it would become an enormously disruptive force.’

This is what we have to confront, not a boil but an enormously disruptive force. Read John Harris’s vivid description of the “backlash that would be sparked” if it is ignored.

In your opening paragraph, you concede that giving the English nation a political form might have been “necessary” to swing the referendum but not “sufficient”. I never said it was sufficient. But let’s focus on that necessary. If it was necessary before the referendum it must be necessary now to reverse Brexit.

As you are an environmentalist, you will understand the argument of proceeding on the precautionary principle. If responding to the lack of English democracy is necessary this has mighty consequences. As it might be, we had better proceed as if it is.

In which case dealing with it is a priority. But neither of your “two alternatives to Brexit” address it.

I’d love to move on to the role of care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity, as you suggest. But before we get to them we must talk about democracy, self-determination, sovereignty.

In a striking Observer column last week, an old mucker of mine in Charter 88, Will Hutton, responds to a vile attack on him by the Daily Mail. He says it is us and the enlightenment versus them and their populist darkness. Like you he posits internationalism against nationalism. But the Enlightenment triumphed (insofar as it did) thanks to the American and French revolutions, i.e. to national claims for self-government. Like you, he too walks around the national question packed into Brexit.

At least Hutton sees that a Brexit reversal must include “a credible offer of change to the left-behind, white working class and the parts of the country in which they live and recognition of the vital need to shore up threatened identities”. I show in my book why this clichéd description is inappropriate, but that’s another matter. The crucial point is that you can’t treat the judgment of 17.4 million voters as pus.

If you do, if you turn around to a large majority of the English and tell them that their views are no better than some infected bacteria that must be lanced and drained, they will not take it kindly. The disruption will be very dangerous indeed. In the country that emerges, you and I are unlikely to be exchanging friendly emails on an open website.

This is why it is so misconceived to want an outcome where, you put it very honestly, “we can put all this behind us and hurry on with championing change in Europe”. What you are calling for is literally a fuite en avant, a hurry into the future to avoid the verdict of the present. Were this to happen the outcome is bound to be dire. Which is why I am aghast.

Many thanks for your patience and for initiating this exchange,

Warm regards


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