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Does Brexit really realise the ideals of JS Mill?

Written by Helen McCabe.

Boris Johnson’s Valentine’s-day speech intended to make a ‘positive’ case for exiting the European Union.  It was not exactly a love-letter to the EU and ‘Remainers’.  Rather it was an oratorical bouquet, intended to persuade lovelorn anti-Leavers to end their attempts to ‘frustrate the will of the people’.

Brexit, Johnson says, is not ‘a V-sign from the white cliffs of Dover’.  Instead, it would ‘fulfil the liberal idealism of John Stuart Mill himself, who recognised that it is only the nation – as he put it, “united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between themselves and others” that could legitimate the state’.

There are always questions regarding why politicians borrow the phrases of famous giants.  Is it to stand on their shoulders, and thereby come closer to the truth?  Or to enlist them as big guns in a battle of words in which fame gives missiles weight?

This use is particularly problematic, because it is impossible to know what Mill would have made of the EU, or of Brexit.  He’s dead.  Such supra-national institutions didn’t exist in his day.  Nor did fully-democratic institutions with universal suffrage, never mind 2016-style referendums.  Any attempt to recruit him for Leave or Remain is simply to put words in his mouth.

Democratic Deficit

Johnson’s underlying claim is that there is no ‘demos’ which the EU could represent as a ‘democratic’ nation-state.  Or, at least, if the ‘Europeans’ feel there is, the ‘Britons’ never have.  This might be true.  But, of course, it is misleading.  The EU is not a nation-state.  Nor does it claim to be.  And 48% of (voting) Britons appear to see some ‘common sympathies’ with ‘Europeans’.

The Legitimacy of the Nation-State

The underlying claim is that nation-states are the only legitimate form of government.  And thus, it is always illegitimate when institutions which do not represent a national ‘demos’ make rules or regulations for members of national ‘demoi’.  This might be Johnson’s view.  It is not clear that it was Mill’s.

Mill says, when ‘a portion of mankind’ is ‘united among themselves by common sympathies, which do not exist between them and any others – which make them…desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be a government by themselves’, then they ‘may be said to constitute a Nation’.  This claim is descriptive, not normative.

It is in the next few lines that Mill makes a normative case, one which might show him as a ‘Brexiteer’:

‘Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members…under the same government, and a government to themselves apart.  This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed.  One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do, if not to determine, with which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves’.

Of course, a prima facie case is not an absolute one.  Mill did not always think nation-states were legitimate.  After all, his day-job was being a colonial administrator.  He believed that, in some periods and places, non-democratic, and non-‘national’, states were legitimate.

He did think, however, support the demand for representative ‘nation’-states by the peoples of modern-day EU member-states.  Indeed, their ‘national’ rights are what the section of Considerations of Representative Government from which Johnson quotes is asserting.

But this proves very little as to Mill’s possible view of the EU.  It simply is not analogous with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


We ought also to note that Mill was very wary of ‘national’ sympathies.  In the same portion of Considerations from which Johnson quotes, Mill urges people to feel ‘common sympathy’ not justwith people connected to them through race, geography, language and a shared political history, but with everyone.  The eradication of ‘marked’ distinctions between what is ‘due to a fellow-countryman and what is due merely to a human creature’ is ‘one of the worthiest to which human endeavours can be directed’.

Mill’s was, normatively, a cosmopolitan view, even if he thought current realities meant people were more likely to be nationalists.

Multi-National States

Mill’s defence is not only of single-nation states.  There can be great benefits ‘to the human race’, of the ‘admixture of nationalities, and the blending of their attributes and peculiarities in a common union’, so long as this ‘blending’ is done in the right conditions.

In-particular, there could be great advantages to nations in being brought into the orbit and influence of more-advanced ones.

‘Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial to a Breton…to be brought into the current of the ideas and feelings of a highly civilised and cultivated people – to be a member of the French nationality, admitted one equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship, sharing the advantages of French protection, and the dignity and prestige of French power – than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world’.

Remainers might replace ‘Breton’ here with ‘Briton’.  Given his admiration for France, perhaps Mill would agree.


Of course, all of this regards the nation-state which, as already noted, the EU is not.  Nor does it claim to be.  It is a union of states.  And Mill’s defence of the right of peoples to form nation-states is followed by this thought:

‘portions of mankind who are not fit…to live under the same internal government, may often with advantage be federally united…both to prevent wars among themselves, and for the sake of more effectual protection against the aggression of powerful States’

Federation equalises relations between states; leads to world peace and free trade, at least within states comprising a federation; and ‘tempers’ extreme ‘national’ forms, as well as widening diversity, as individual people begin to occupy the ‘space’ between currently-fixed national characters.  ‘The formation of efficient and durable Federal Union[s and] the multiplication of them is always a benefit to the world’.

Perhaps the Britain of Mill’s day would not have benefitted by Federation.  But that tells us very little regrading Mill’s view of whether it would today.

Mill warns that powerful states find it hard to make a success of federation.  If one state is ‘able to rely, for protection against foreign encroachments, on their individual strength…they will be apt to think they do not gain, by union with others, the equivalent of what they sacrifice in their own liberty of action’.

I have a sense that many British people – and politicians – believe we are sufficient strong, powerful, militarily-mighty, rich and ‘civilised’ ‘to be able to rely…on [our] individual strength’, and that this has made the perceived ‘yoke’ of EU regulation seem burdensome; continental and domestic peace and prosperity not worth the price of restraints on our own freedom of political, economic and social action.  Mill can’t help us as to whether or not this is a well-founded belief; nor whether exiting the EU will be ‘a manifestation of this country’s historic national genius’, as Johnson hopes, or a self-defeating exercise in nostalgia-inspired hubris.

Helen McCabe is Assistant Professor of Political Theory the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.   Her research focuses on the work of John Stuart Mill, in particular his somewhat puzzling claim that he and his wife were socialists; on his claim that Harriet Taylor co-authored many of his major works; and on Taylor as a philosopher in her own right.  She also leads the ‘Forced Marriage’ project with the Rights Labs, a University of Nottingham Beacon of Excellence. This article was first published on the PSA blog and can be found here. She tweets@HRMcCabe .  Image: CC by Chatham House/Flickr.

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