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Brexit and the tide of political history.


Professor Simon Usherwood is having a bash at “Brexit and the tide of political history”... or the clash of two basic models of political organisation.


Partly, this comes off the back of where we are in Article 50 process, with the dawning realisation that the Withdrawal Agreement/Political Declaration bit of it is only one part of a much bigger thing.

Partly, it is from just finishing “The Fear and The Freedom” by Keith Lowe, which talks about how WWII has had lasting and global impacts

Any way, while this is all going on, it occurs that we are seeing the clash of two basic models of political organisation.

The first says that states are natural units of political organisation. Their marriage of territory and community is mutually reinforcing and beneficial, which is why they predominate.

Essentially, they are much better purposed to provide effective and enduring governance, so they out-performed their competitors in the early modern period and they look set to continue as such into the future.

The second model sees things as a long-term progression, from small to bigger political units.

We go from tribes, to cities, to states, and then to international and global governance.

This is made possible and desirable by developments in technology and civilisation, which also generate problems that require increasing levels of coordination: villages don’t destroy the ozone layer, if you like.

You can see how both models work, not least because both are in operation right now: we have more international/global governance than even before, but we also see nation-states very prominent in the mix.

Brexit looks like a natural experiment in this. Is it about exposing the limits to supranational governance, or exposing the limits of what states can do outside that movement?

Excitingly (for this piece), we will not know the answer for many years yet.

But we can make a couple of comments right now.

Firstly, even if one of these models is ‘right’, then that doesn’t mean we will have a clear-cut outcome. Indeed, if either were clear-cut, then this situation would never have occurred in the first place. Instead, they are macro trends, with lots of scope for variation.

Nation-states have never been the sole model of political organisation, and supranational moves have been highly uneven in both scope and depth.

So, the second key point is that we retain agency: we are not simply to be swept along by that tide, to be deposited wherever it decides.

Instead, we have the power to make choices, to guide where we want to go.

Of course, that will require us to have those kinds of discussions and to take the necessary actions to try and achieve our objectives.

And that is down to all of us to do.

A big part of that is going to be about working out what works for us, rather than what fits the bigger patterns of history.🔷



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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)


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(Cover: Flickr/John LeGear - Cool Globes Chicago Sad Earth. | 11 June 2007.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


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Associate Dean, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC's 'UK in a Changing Europe' programme.
Guildford, UK. Website

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