‘Freedom from’ versus ‘Freedom to’: What Brexit teaches us about liberty

Brexit is illuminating the idea that the UK wants to be free, but no one agrees on the meaning of the word, says Andy Martin

Friday 21 June 2019 16:11 BST
Should I stay or should I go?: Britain’s all-consuming clash of opinions
Should I stay or should I go?: Britain’s all-consuming clash of opinions (AFP/Getty)

Probably the saddest thing – among so many sad things – about the current Brexit debate, exemplified by the two television compare-and-contrast PM contenders shows, is that it’s now all about mechanics: when, how, with or without an agreement. The question of why has been all but eclipsed. But if – or when – the second referendum becomes a reality the argument about ends rather than means is going to have to make a comeback.

Camus said that all fiction contains a metaphysical aspect, and something similar applies to politics. When we vote for divorce or continued membership, it is clear that what we are voting for or against is not a real EU or a real UK, but only an idea. It must be in this sense that Boris Johnson intended the phrase, “F*** business!” I would say that it’s not the economy, stupid (as Bill Clinton may have once said), it’s the philosophy. And the fundamental argument boils down, finally, to a single word: freedom.

If we had a constitution, that irresistible word – as in both American and French formulations – would almost certainly appear in neon lights. We are bewitched by freedom. Both pro- and anti-Brexit sides can lay claim to protecting or enhancing it. Brexiteers speak of being “free to crack new trade deals around the world”, as if everyone was about to be issued with a business-class ticket to every country under the sun; while Remainers speak more fondly of “freedom of movement”, suggestive of backpacking and youthful Eurorail passes.

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