The seismic shock of this referendum has exposed the depth of the rifts within contemporary British society.
So wrote Alastair Roberts a few weeks ago, in an article entitled Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood. Of all the post-Brexit analyses I’ve read, I think this is probably the most perceptive. At over 11,000 words, it’s certainly the longest. My purpose here is to give you the basic gist in just a few hundred words, hopefully in such a way that you decide it’s worth reading the whole thing.
The bulk of the article describes, in rather idealised terms, two different groups of people: cosmopolitans and provincials. The difference between the two is most apparent when considering their respective ethical value systems:
The ethics of cosmopolitans are ethics of universal benevolence, equality, and altruism. They resist making any distinctions between persons, prioritizing one set of persons over others, and discourage the creation or definition of groups that would in some way exclude or marginalize anyone. The opening up of borders has a profound ethical symbolism for such persons … . No human being should be regarded as any more my neighbour than any other. Those who subscribe to such universalized ethics will often be deeply morally engaged with the well-being of completely unrelated persons or creatures, in many cases pointedly siding with other groups against their own group of origin. For the cosmopolitan, the state exists to ensure universal human rights and the equality of all persons within the area it administrates.
By contrast, the ethics of more provincial persons are the ethics of filial love. This love is necessarily particularized, committed to particular people, places, and things over others—and even to the exclusion of others in some cases. Loving one party doesn’t mean you have to hate or be indifferent to others. But it does require that you commit to and prioritize the good and well-being of that party over all others. The particularity of love for one’s family does not prevent one from showing hospitality to the stranger—nor deny the existence of a moral duty towards them—but a person who treats all people exactly as they treat their spouse and family will be seen to have betrayed their kin.
For those ‘Remainers’ who struggle to understand why anyone would vote for Brexit, it is well worth making the effort to understand this ‘provincial’ mindset, as Roberts does: it is not simply a matter of xenophobia or racism that would lead someone to be concerned about the effects of immigration, for example.
Having articulated these two competing visions of nationhood, Roberts then helps us to see that this doesn’t describe two clearly-defined groups of people, but two mindsets that exist, to a greater or lesser extent, within each one of us:
I have identified some keys to understanding many of the divides of modern British society revealed by the Brexit vote. My discussion has focused on extreme forms and, as such, is vulnerable to a charge of caricature. The vast majority of the British population are neither pure cosmopolitans nor pure provincials: neither of these two ideal sets of values typically exist without admixture in a given person. Nor is there a pure alignment between provincial values and the Leave campaign or cosmopolitan values and the Remain campaign. I have considerable sympathy for many provincial values, yet supported the Remain cause.
Nevertheless, in cosmopolitanism and provincialism I believe that we identify two competing logics in most British souls and in its society as a whole. While necessarily exaggerated and focused upon extremes, then, I trust that my descriptions have served to pick out real phenomena. Within this tension, I believe that we will discover many of the underlying reasons for the disconnection, mutual alienation, and opposition between the two sides of our current national debate.
In some moving personal reflections at the end, Roberts describes his own experience of these values, in a way that resonated strongly with my own experience:
In the past five years, I have shared houses—shared homes—with four people from France, a woman from Germany, a woman from Spain, and a man from Corsica (in addition to four Chinese people and a Bruneian Muslim woman). The freedom of movement the EU facilitates has promoted and facilitated threads of friendship that traverse borders and enrich my life. Borders that once represented mutual distrust and enmity no longer stand for our historical antagonisms. …
In my life, I have lived in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and a few locations in England. I expect that most of the rest of my life will be spent on the far side of the Atlantic. I have never felt that I have belonged anywhere, yet I possess a hunger for locality uncharacteristic of the cosmopolitan, a yearning for a rootedness I can never possess. I peer through the window of locality and provincial identity, my nose pressed up against its glass. I inhabit England and am English, but am a vagabond and an exile in my own land. What I love is ultimately inaccessible to me, yet that love defines me. I consume locality, but cannot really produce it. I have lived in Durham for many years, and continue to struggle to escape the state of being a tourist—consuming the ephemeral surfaces of the place—to become a pilgrim who engages with and moves through its depths.
Now go ahead and read the whole thing…