Category Archives: Brexit

On Brexit, Slavery and Civil War, 1820-2020

The ‘defining sin’ of a country shapes its history and sparks fresh anxiety and discord whenever any social issue is looked at too closely, often over centuries. Genocide has that role across both American continents, but in the United States specifically the defining sin is slavery, with racism its after-glow. Here, from the 1787 Constitution to the 1861 Civil War, political crises were common between slave and free states, played out in Congress, the courts and the Presidency.

There were repeated compromises over which states and territories would be free and which slave, as the nation grew westward. One of them was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, by which free Maine and slave Missouri were admitted to the Union, on condition that everywhere north-west of the southern border of Missouri (36o30’N) would thereafter be free, and everywhere south-west of it would be slave.

But the compromises eventually broke down and the matter was settled in the Civil War of 1861-1865. Slavery became illegal (except for convicts) with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, and people of African ancestry were thereafter recognised as eligible for citizenship. That this breakthrough was largely cosmetic, until a further struggle in the 1960s (which still continues), shows just how powerful a country’s defining sin can be.

England also has a defining sin, which like America’s is accompanied by the sustained and characteristic injustices of inequity, exclusion, oppression and exploitation. In England it is ‘class’, not ‘race’, and it is based not so much on skin-colour as a marker of ethnicity and legal status, but on wealth, speech, education and other markers of social status. Many observers have noted how England’s defining sin of class arises whenever any social issue is examined closely, just as racism does in America. It is an interesting comparison, but what does it have to do with Brexit?

There’s little point in pretending that Brexit is not being advanced by parts of the wealth-owning elite in England, or that slavery was not protected by parts of the slave-owning elite in the slave states. In both cases, their causes needed mass support from people who had nothing much to gain from their success: poor people in England and poor whites in the slave states. In both cases, and in many others, nationalism, racism, fear, and envy of ‘othered’ and demonised groups were found convenient for this purpose, along with the active suppression of dissent.

Looking in more detail at slavery, enough white men (the only voters) were convinced by racist entitlement myths and fear to keep the slave system going, decade after decade. In this the slave-owning elite were helped by an electoral booster that they had managed to include in the 1787 Constitution. This allowed for slaves to be ‘worth’ three-fifths of a person in terms of the number of representatives that each state sent to Congress. In other words, the more slaves there were in a state, the more representatives it sent, even though the slaves could not vote for them. This is now hard to imagine, but it made a huge difference to who got elected.

In 1857, the struggle between slave and free states, and the thinkers, propagandists, activists and interest groups on both sides, had reached the stage at which the US Supreme Court could no longer avoid making a ruling on whether the Constitution sanctioned slavery, or not [1]. The point at issue was the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise, and it is worth considering the implications of bringing such a decision to such a forum. For it made the choice depend on the balance of opinions among a tiny group of old white men, all of whom had been selected by a corrupt and slavery-influenced system and subjected to years of pressure by cynical interest groups, of which the most cynical (to judge from the selfish cruelty of their regime) were no doubt the slave-owners.

The result is not so surprising with hindsight. The Court ruled by a 7-2 majority on 6 March 1857 that although the Missouri Compromise was indeed unconstitutional, the Constitution did not inhibit the states’ rights to keep slavery going. The judges’ grounds were that the men who wrote the Constitution couldn’t possibly have meant to include blacks in their fine worlds about men being equal, since people of African descent were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and none could therefore ever be considered citizens of the United States. The slave interests were overjoyed, and started going on about ‘we won, you lost, get over it!’. Most others – the intelligent, the educated, the compassionate, the religious, the professional, and the well-travelled – were stunned, and after a few days they all started moaning about it in the newspapers.

The Court’s decision can be understood in terms of how slave-owners managed to bring the decision to a corrupt forum that they largely controlled. In this, the similarities with the 2016 Brexit referendum are obvious, with its biased press, subverted social media, public lies, shadowy foreign influences and illegal campaign spending. The details are very different, but the underlying process by which the best-organised and most ruthless side of the debate brought overwhelming influence to bear on a single decision point masquerading as ‘democracy’ (just as the American one masqueraded as ‘law’) are much the same.

In America, the Court’s judgement was so obviously wrong that it was not sustainable, not with capitalist modernity demanding freely-recruited labour to work privately-owned machines [2], and not with the likes of Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln working against it. All it really bought was a few more years of suffering for slaves, and of profit-making and tax-avoiding for the slave-owning elite. And then, when the free states insisted on change after all, the slave states walked out of the Union. At least three-quarters of a million Americans died in the war that followed.

Returning to 2019, the EU may have its own defining sins, or at least influences (notably the Ancient Roman empire via the Church, and the Holy Roman empire via Germany), but it stands inherently for a way of life that has no real place for the English class system and its unequal education, its off-shore tax havens, its piratical traditions, and its weak environmental and social protections. This is surely why parts of England’s wealth-owning elite wanted Brexit in the first place: to perpetuate an unequal system, just as American slave-owners had sought to do. And there are obvious similarities between the tricks that the two groups used, and their success in delaying reform for centuries. But considering the United States in 1857-1861 and the United Kingdom in 2016-2020, the question is: what happens next, for us?

In America, the 1857 ruling began a countdown to civil war, while positions hardened and emotions escalated. In Britain, the 2016 referendum began a countdown to Brexit itself, while positions have hardened and emotions have escalated. But does Britain really have to play out the rest of the scenario, or can we dodge the civil war part? In trying to, we have the huge advantage over the Americans of 1860 that we’ve been taught to submit to the class system so thoroughly, and for so long, that we may no longer possess the social volatility needed for armed struggle. Remember that it wasn’t the oppressed slaves, weakened by the habits and hardships of slavery, who made the American Civil War; it was white folk, righteous, self-interested and free, with each side attacking the others’ homelands on a matter of principle.

So, do the English care enough? Do we realise how far we’ve been trained to accept the class system? Could the EU intervene militarily in England, as the free Union did in the Confederacy? If it did, would Russia (widely suspected of influencing the 2016 referendum and US election) support the Brexiter side in Britain (as England did for the South in the American Civil War)? Perhaps not. I suspect rather that the English will manage only a divisive, resentful grumble that will drag on for years, while most of us get poorer and the rich use us as they wish. Since the alternative may be civil war, this could be as good as it gets. Until, that is, the whole system breaks under the multiple catastrophes of climate chaos, whereupon we’ll all starve.

But we can imagine other endings to this story. We could postpone Brexit and hold a free and fair referendum, either to ratify its terms or to cancel it. We could cancel Brexit and revert, older and wiser, to count our blessings as citizens of an EU member state. After that, we could lead the EU in its efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And those efforts, replicated world-wide with the support of the EU, might be successful. To adapt Lincoln’s words at his 1861 inauguration, the bonds and friendships of our common European identity may be enough to save the day, when we are touched “by the better angels of our nature”. Those angels failed for Lincoln, but may still work for us.

© Julian Caldecott

[1] These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore (Norton, 2018).

[2] The Age of Capital 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962).

Extinction and Brexit: the Same Struggle

People ask why I campaign at the same time for the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and for the UK’s continued full membership of the EU. Some argue that Brexit is a trivial matter compared with climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, so why bother, why get distracted? I say the opposite: that the two issues are utterly one, that XR should be completely against Brexit, and that the anti-Brexit movement should be completely with XR. The two being separated is just what the poisonous elite who ruin the country want, the better to divide, delay, starve, and kill off the united opposition, and unity is what they truly fear.  So why do I think all this?

Before I answer, I want to acknowledge two things. First, the UK has in fact led the world in raising the alarm about climate change. I have documented in my books the impact on international aid priorities, for example, of HM Treasury’s 1997 Stern Report on the economic costs of climate change. The UK has also led the world in making legally-binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions. The EU’s relatively advanced position on climate change mitigation is largely a result of Britain’s lobbying and example in 1995-2015. The problem now, since 2016, is that the UK has fallen into the trap of Brexit, compromising its ability to lead on these subjects.

And second, I do acknowledge that the EU is in part a ‘liberal’ free-trade zone, dedicated to support capitalist enterprise and the ‘bourgeois’ middle-class lifestyle, with all that that implies for unsustainable and unequal levels and patterns of collective resource consumption and pollution, including the exploitation of the weak and the direct and indirect promotion of GHG emissions. However, the EU is also much more than that. It is a system of standard-setting, conflict-resolving, experimentalist governance that is capable of driving steady improvements in social and environmental well-being, and has in fact done so (with the Water Framework Directive being a potent example). Its underlying model, which allows for all its member states to solve common problems in their own ways with the intellectual, material and moral support of their neighbours, is equally applicable everywhere and is, I believe, the only viable model for a practicable global system that could ‘save the world’ and improve the human condition.

Any big diverse system is going to have more or less progressive parts, and the EU has plenty, but only an EU-type system is able to manage them all and help them all find their own paths to success in line with common standards. This is why the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was so good: it allowed everyone to agree on common standards, to compete and cooperate to build capacity to achieve them, and to tighten the standards and goals over time. It may be too slow for the climate campaigners, and it may be too slow for the biosphere, but top-down global planning and enforcement could not have worked without universal coercion, which was not and is not an option. This way, the EU way, we have a chance, especially with XR putting on pressure to demand tighter goals. As Greta Thunberg said: the EU must double its climate goals! And the EU could do that, and with EU leadership, so could the Paris Agreement signatories. Slowly, no doubt, but this is what global cooperation on solving a wicked problem actually looks like.

So, duly acknowledged. But where does it all leave XR and Brexit? My points are simple. First, the people of major parts of the EU are far more progressive on climate change than those of major parts of the UK. Because those parts of the EU also have proportional representation, their governments are much more responsive to public concerns than in the UK. Thus, we see the Nordic countries, the Low Countries, Germany, Portugal and increasingly France exerting themselves mightily on climate change, while England dreams of the past (specifically, and alarmingly, the 1930s). If a few hundred people turn out for climate strikes in the UK, tens of thousands do so in Belgium, etc. Thus, being part of a system influenced by mass support for climate action helps the UK make progress, even if it is now a follower rather than a leader.

Second, the EU has tough and progressive targets on climate action, and these are improvable through public demand. Moreover, the EU has potency at a global level which it can use, and is using, to protect and push its climate agenda forward, influencing trade, transport, aid and industrial standards worldwide, standing up to those countries that temporarily fall to bad leadership. This makes the EU almost the only entity that is remotely capable of promoting system change on the scale that the climate emergency demands. At least at a conventional level, negotiated, transparent and agreed. Obviously a universal Zeitgeist shift and the rise of a new globally-effective mass movement of militant ecologists might happen, or something else might happen, to change the whole situation. But while we hope and strive, there’s a lot to be said for working as best we can with what we have right now. And what we have right now is the EU.

Third, outside the EU there are few powers that have much interest in saving the biosphere. Whatever non-EU trade deals the isolated UK might negotiate will be with repressive regimes selling toxic and/or socially-suspect and/or environmentally-compromised products. An isolated UK will inevitably be forced to ‘dine with the devil’ or starve, and it will also have to be much more complicit than it would otherwise be in the destruction of the living world, while also having walked away from the only grouping that is determinedly willing and has the proven capacity to save nature, and us. And that’s why I carry on waving an EU and an XR flag, in solidarity with both, in the same struggle.

© Julian Caldecott

The EU Pledge

“I affirm my loyalty to the principles and practices of cooperation and social and environmental sustainability that are shared and collectively improved by EU member peoples and institutions, while understanding that this loyalty is compatible with others I may have to place, people and nature. I confirm my distaste for all movements that exploit lies and xenophobia to undermine cooperation among EU member peoples and institutions. I recognise ‘Brexit’ as the aim of such a movement and I reject it utterly: I will not forget those responsible for it; I will resist and strive to reverse its effects; and I will for ever seek a secure and peaceful union between my country and its neighbours, and through them the world and our common future.”

Julian Caldecott (31 January 2019).

The Fairy-Dust Republic

Unconscious folk history influences cultural choices over centuries. Even after so long in the US, Hawaii’s left-democratic politics reflect the influence of ancient Polynesian values, while Iceland’s return after seven centuries of Christianity to its egalitarian and pagan roots shows how a people’s integrity of spirit can long survive underground. Similarly, and shedding light on the Brexit referendum in 2016, the governance history of Europe has two main traditions, one inherited from the Ancient Roman Empire (ARE) and the other from the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), with Britain buffeted by both.

The ARE was a mafia state that radiated the glamour of conquest, imperium, ownership, and law, and lasted so long that its subjects accepted remote, god-like rule as the natural order of things. This model was replicated in many successor states and institutions, including the Catholic Church and Russia. But outside Roman influence, the HRE developed in eastern parts of the Frankish empire founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD. It was invented by the German peoples, and was run as an area of trading standards and human rights protections under the supervision of an emperor elected by lords and bishops based in different cities. These ‘electors’ were local rulers, so the peoples of the eastern Frankish lands had a millennium of experience with standard-setting but locally-empowering governance that eventually gave rise to the Federal Republic of Germany, and then the EU.

The world wars shattered nationalist dreams and scattered a kind of ‘fairy dust’ to create an HRE-like system across most of Europe, but this settled only weakly on England and Russia. England held onto its 1688 constitution, a compromise that suspended a bloody 150-year struggle between the two heritages, until Brexit reignited it 330 years later. Brexit is the work of hard-right politicians, with shady domestic and foreign backers, who have engineered the breakdown of an obsolete constitution to create chaos. This is not the first time. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of 1914 in The Age of Empire: “What made the British political situation dangerous on the eve of war was not the rebellion of the workers, but the division within the ranks of the rulers, a constitutional crisis …”, with Ireland having a key role as ever.

Part of the problem is misunderstanding of what the EU actually is. Thus, where Germans see the European Commission as an HRE-style emperor freely-chosen by ‘electors’ (i.e. member governments), many English people see the institution as a despotic ARE-style emperor and ‘freedom from Rome’ as an eternal national goal. The conspirators have thus been able to manufacture polarisation, and threaten with an angry mob those who oppose them. Their strategy is to paralyse and frighten, while normality is first eroded and then shattered by a hard Brexit, and forces favourable to the plotters are assembled.

This is Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ in action, haunting a country that is vulnerable because it never moved on from its class-based entitlement myths. ‘It can never happen in England’ people say, but they are wrong. It’s happening before our eyes, as Parliamentarians entrench themselves in positions that benefit no one but the conspirators. Our poor European allies, especially those like Germany that have learned from the past, must be watching in dismay, wondering what English fascism will look like, and how aggressive it will be. Russia, meanwhile, kept faith with its ARE heritage, making it plausible that its policy is to oppose vestiges of the HRE, including the EU. Since an HRE-like system is the only plausible way to organise a free and sustainable world, much is at stake in this struggle.

© Julian Caldecott

On ratifying Brexit (or not)

In my book Aid Performance and Climate Change (Routledge, 2017, p. 91) I wrote this on the pro-Brexit outcome of the June 2016 referendum: “This disruption of international cooperation when it is most needed against climate change is likely to be very harmful.”  And so it is proving.  For this and other reasons, there is now, in late 2018, strong public demand to subject the Brexit project to a new referendum by an electorate that is far better-informed than before, but the issue is clouded by calls for a referendum also on the terms of Brexit that are being negotiated with the EU.  To clarify (a) whether the UK should leave the EU at all, and (b) if so, the terms of its departure, I propose the following model for an urgent, two-part referendum.

Referendum on UK membership of, or terms of departure from, the EU
Part A: Membership of the EU

Question: Do you wish the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union?

Select only ONE option in Part A:


If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to remain a member of the EU without any condition.


If you selected this option you should proceed to Part B.

Part B: Terms of departure from the EU

Complete Part B only if you have selected ‘NO’ in Part A.

Question: Do you support the UK Government’s agreement with the EU for the terms on which the UK will leave the EU?

Select only ONE option in Part B:


If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to leave the EU on the terms agreed with the EU.


If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to leave the EU without any condition.

© Julian Caldecott