Niall Ferguson changes his mind about Brexit (he’s now for it)Historians in the News
tags: Niall Ferguson, Brexit
Related Link "I was wrong" By Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson’s belated decision to back Brexit has aroused a lot of mockery today. Unkind souls are presenting him as a historian in a muddle, but for followers of his writing his new pro-Brexit stance really isn’t so surprising. He says that he had been inclined to support David Cameron and George Osborne, his friends. A noble reason. But it led him into making arguments inconsistent with those that he has been making most of his life. In backing Remain, Niall Ferguson was doing a very un-Ferguson thing.
His last book, The Great Degeneration, could have been a manifesto for Brexit. Its theme is the importance of institutions (“the rule of law, credible monetary regimes, transparent fiscal systems and incorrupt bureaucracies”) and the danger that emerges when their decay is tolerated. ‘The rule of law has many enemies,’ he writes. ‘But among its most dangerous foes are the authors of very long and convoluted laws.’ EU directives, anyone? The subversion of the English common law tradition by Brussels diktats offered a case study of the problem outlined in that book. ‘AV Dicey pointed out in 1885 that the English rule of law was the result of a slow, incremental process of judicial decision-making in the common law courts, based in large measure on precedents,’ he wrote. ‘There were no “grand declarations of principle,” just the interplay of judicial memory and statutory innovations by Parliament.’ So when British law had to conform to the EU-style declaration of rights, the results were awful. How much does this matter? Different people have different answers – but Ferguson would tell you that the health of legal institutions is absolutely critical. One of the most potent arguments for Brexit was that it would be a vote to ‘live under our own laws’.
Ferguson traces the success of modern Britain to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which subordinated the monarch to parliament and allowed for the creation of strong and independent institutions. The ability to raise money, innovate, form corporations – all protected by law and free from random raids by the government – explains Britain’s rapid industrialisation and rise to power. In Empire (2003) he writes about how the British introduced such institutions to a quarter of the world, with beneficial effects. In The Great Degeneration (2014) he quotes Adam Smith describing the sorry condition of ‘stationary state’ – i.e., a stagnating entity. One that has allowed its ‘laws and institutions’ to atrophy. Of which European Union is, surely, a rather conspicuous example.
Ferguson is also no fan of large, homogenising empires. In Civilization (2011), he explains that Europe pulled ahead of medieval China because our continent was broken up into “literally hundreds of competing states” whereas East Asia was (in political terms at least) a “vast monochrome blanket” with an emperor’s diktats upheld everywhere. Things are better when states do things their own way, he argued, which renders them better able to cooperate and compete. The Brexit argument – that Britain can be a globally-minded nation, engaged with its neighbours in the world but living under its own laws – is entirely in line with Ferguson’s view of the world. ...
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