Berlin & Brexit

Berlin is the name of Germany’s capital but it is also the name of one of the most important thinkers of the last century: Isaiah Berlin. In his prolific writing he either defended liberty outright or he traced the intellectual roots of anti-liberal thought.

Why bring up Isaiah Berlin now?

On June 23rd the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Since then we have been discussing the economic and political consequences of the leave vote. I want to add a less tangible point to the discussion. In loosing Britain I feel that Europe is loosing a unique voice, the British voice, at the table. To say what makes this voice unique I will look at a speech by Isaiah Berlin that was given in his name (he was too old to make the trip) some 25 years ago in Toronto.  In it, Berlin makes the following assertion:

[…] I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer […]

It always seemed to me, that such a statement is more natural for a Brit to make than for someone from, say, Germany or France. Instead of offering a strong answer and a clear path he offers caution. In fact he urges us to distrust any such dramatic answers. Now, what is the question that he doesn’t have the dramatic answer to? It is the question of how to constrain those people who think that they have found the one true solution to the questions of human life.

The last century was shaped by people who thought that they had indeed found such a solution. If such a solution can be found then surely no price is too high to actually implement it. All obstructions that stand in the way of its realization must be pushed aside. This then leads to the coercion, torture, and murder of those, who have other ideas about how to live their lives. Berlin’s first point is that no such ideal solution exists. Not all human goals can be accomplished at the same time. Liberty is a fine goal and so is equality but both can not be achieved at the same time. So, instead of looking for the one solution, we have to make „compromises, trade-offs, and arrangements“. Berlin implores us to „weigh and measure, bargain, … , and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals.“

It is not that this attitude is completely absent from continental Europe but it does seem to be more evolved and more ingrained in Britain. With Britain leaving the European Union, this measured voice will disappear from the European discussion. It will disappear at a time of pressing super-national problems. Climate change, terrorism, proper bank regulation, or the refugee crises are all challenges that no nation state can hope to solve alone. Organizations larger than single nation states are clearly needed. Organizations just like the European Union. It is a great shame that Britain is leaving the European Union now that so many issues need to be dealt with. Issues that would greatly benefit from Britain’s voice.

© Olaf Dreyer


Isaiah Berlin’s speech in Toronto can be found on the website of the New York Review of Books here.





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