Monday, October 21, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, October 21, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Turmoil Continues in the U.K. as Parliament Postpones Brexit Again: The Importance of National Sovereignty in a Global Age
Back in 2016, a majority of British voters voted for the nation to leave the European Union. Over the past weekend and into this week, all eyes will be on Britain precisely because that issue and the credibility of democracy or democratic government itself is very much on the line. Yesterday, the Associated Press ran a headline, “Parliament Withholds Brexit Support.” The story's actually a lot bigger than that headline would indicate.
Jill Lawless reports for the Associated Press, "Prime Minister Boris Johnson, grudgingly asked the European Union late Saturday to delay Brexit after the British parliament postponed a decision on whether to back his departure deal. But Johnson, defiant,” said the Associated Press, “also made clear that he personally opposed delaying the United Kingdom's exit from the block scheduled for October 31st.”
Johnson and his government had been working over against a late Saturday night deadline in order to get parliament a sufficient number of the members of parliament (320) to vote to approve his deal. That would've led to a plan formally agreed to by the British government and the European Union for an orderly exit on October the 31st. But instead, the parliament basically is now requiring the British Prime Minister to go back to the European Union and ask for yet another extension.
But the reality is that's not even guaranteed. If even one of the twenty-seven remaining members of the European Union, that is nations, refuses to approve the idea of the extension, that there will be a so-called hard exit, a Brexit on October the 31st, that means that Britain will withdraw from the European Union without a deal.
But this story's a lot bigger than Britain and even the issue of Britain and the European Union. It gets right to the question of what makes a nation a nation, and what it means for a nation to be sovereign, or what it means for a nation to subvert and compromise its own sovereignty by treaty with a league of nations, or in this case, a league of European nations known as the European Union. There are huge issues at stake here and this issue has huge importance for the United States of America, not only in observing this issue now in Britain and the controversy and struggle that is unfolding, but questions about how we maintain our own national sovereignty in the midst of a very tumultuous international situation.
A bit of historical background might be helpful here. In one sense, Europe is a medieval project, especially looking at the Holy Roman empire during the medieval era and the idea of a common European identity. But that common European identity never loomed larger than the national identity. This is one of the issues of the last several centuries in European history. It turns out that the Polish people consider themselves, first of all, Polish and only secondarily European. The same thing is true for the French and the Germans and the Italians, and you can go down the list.
This is too the frustration of those who want to have a larger citizenship identity as primary to national identity, and the reason for that is that the experience, especially of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries taught many people that the existence of the nation is horrifyingly problematic because nations go to war with nations. The great project of trying to create this pan-European identity is, as has so often been attempted in Europe, an attempt to try to forge a European identity for an age of peace rather than national identity that would lead to national competition.
But of course the great scar of the Second World War in the 20th century is what produced the current situation, and so as the war ended in 1945 and in the ruins of that horrifying world war, the reality is that Europe was looking for some way, anyway, to try to avoid a repeat of the 20th century with its two massive world wars in which supposedly civilized European nations went to war against one another.
All of this resulted eventually in 1957 in what was known as the treaty of Rome. That treaty proposed what was known as a European Economic Community that eventually became what we know now as the European Union. But Britain was not a signatory to the treaty and Britain was not an original member of the European Economic Community. But it became so by a very interesting story. Britain, united to the United States in so many ways, as Churchill described as the community of the English speaking nations, and tied to so many other nations of the world by what had been its empire, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British at first decided that they would not enter the European Economic Community. But almost immediately some in Britain, especially those national leaders more inclined to a European identity, began to argue that Britain was going to lose out on the European future and its economic expansion and its civilizational glue.
So conversations began in 1961 between Britain and the European Economic Community. And in 1963 and in 1967, Britain formally applied for membership only to have that membership application vetoed by the French. The French president then, Charles de Gaulle, famously Gaullist in his outlook, did not want the British in the European Union or what would become the European Union because in his view, Britain was too close to the United States of America. De Gaulle wanted to see a European supremacy and he wanted to see an American retreat. But by 1972, de Gaulle was no longer able to veto, and a treaty was achieved in that year between Britain and the European Economic Community, and Britain entered by treaty on January the 1st of 1973.
But in worldview, some of the big issues that immediately arose are the fact that this meant that bureaucrats in Brussels and in other European capitals began to make administrative decisions that were binding on the jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. The same thing took place even more importantly in matters of justice and law. In 1950, the Europeans had adopted the European Convention on Human Rights and eventually they established the European Court of Justice. And that court on so many issues, some of the most controversial issues of the day, could trump the British courts and could effectively push European law through the system in the United Kingdom. You've seen this elsewhere in Europe where laws adopted by European governments, national governments, have been called into question or modified or nullified by the European authorities, especially through the European Court of Justice.
And even as the British people began to wonder at first if they were wrong to stay out, they very quickly began to wonder if they had been wrong to get in. They became a part, as I said, just on January the 1st 1973, but by 1975 there is already a referendum asking the British people if they want to stay in the European Union or what we now call the European Union. The vote was overwhelmingly, yes. That was 1975.
But again, there arose discontent within Britain and this began to multiply over and over again. Fishing regulations, agricultural regulations, agreements concerning the free movement of peoples between borders without any kind of controls. There has been measured discontent in other European nations towards the European Union, but in Great Britain it is a quite different situation because Britain has its own national identity. It has a very long legal tradition, and it also does not have the same experience as, for example, France and Germany in trying to forge together a European identity because those nations has so repeatedly gone to war with one another, sharing, we might point out, a common border.
Organized efforts to try to require the British government to withdraw from the European Union began years ago, but they began to accelerate, especially in the conservative party, although it is not entirely a liberal conservative issue in Great Britain. For example, leaving the European Union was at one point a part of the platform of the more liberal party, the far more liberal party at one point an openly socialist party in Great Britain, that would be the Labour Party.
So what you're looking at is the fact that the basic division that is now seen in the Brexit issue is between those who are in the United Kingdom, but want a primarily European identity, and those who want a national identity, a British identity. They want to operate by laws adopted by the British parliament and other appropriate units within the United Kingdom. They do not want their laws made elsewhere. And they do not want their cases heard in European courts that trump the authority of British courts. They do not want bureaucrats in Brussels and elsewhere adopting fishing and agricultural and trade regulations that are binding upon local grocers and farmers and fishermen wherever they are found throughout the United Kingdom.
The pressures between the more and the less European inclined amongst British leaders has been a dynamic for a long time, at one point even explaining the toppling of British conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from office by more Europhile leaders, as they have been known, in her own Tory Party.
But it was another British prime minister, another conservative prime minister, David Cameron, who would decide in 2016 to put yet another referendum before the British people to decide whether they would or would not stay within the European Union. The vote was held early in 2016, 52% of the 33 million voters voted to leave a British exit that is from the European Union — British exit, therefore, Brexit — 48% voted to remain. It was a clear victory, if not an overwhelming victory.
But the point is this, if you are claiming to have a government that is in some way genuinely democratic, that is the populace, the people, the citizens eventually will have their way, you can't offer a referendum, which generally is a bad way to do government and have the people vote and the government then not accomplish what the majority of people voted that the government must do.
That is the moral and political impasse that is now taking place in Great Britain. Boris Johnson, now the conservative prime minister, was an avid advocate for Brexit when the vote was taken in 2016. Thus, he has the credibility to lead a conservative government and he should have the credibility in that sense to lead a conservative majority in parliament to adopt a proposal, and thus for an orderly exit. But this is where the problem really comes in, where you see that there are many within his own party who are actually reluctant to deliver on the vote of the British people in the referendum back in 2016.
Now, as Christians look at a political process like this, we ask the question, what would be a more or less appropriate process for law making or for national decision-making? In the United States of America, we have a constitutional republic, a representative democracy, as it's called, which means that we elect members of Congress, we elect senators, we elect a president. We have an entire political process which is based upon electing representatives. That's why we call it a representative democracy.
We elect the people who make the laws. We don't make them ourselves. We don't bring a referendum of vote amongst the populace for every single issue. Voters do not vote the national budget. Congress votes the budget, and the president must sign it into law. We elect Congress and then Congress legislates. We elect a president and then a president executes the laws, and offers presidential leadership.
One of the things we need to think about is that when David Cameron's government decided to call for that referendum, it was, rightly understood, an admission of his own government's failure to legislate, which was the responsibility of the Prime Minister and of his party, which after all was the majority party in parliament to deliver on its legislative responsibility.
But this takes us to another dimension of the Brexit controversy and in this dimension, you now have a million people over the weekend protesting, demanding a second referendum. A second vote on the same question? Basically, yes, because the people who are disappointed in the first vote now want another referendum. They want an opportunity to reverse the vote.
This is making a total travesty of the very idea of democratic self-government. But an article on this issue by Karla Adam that appeared yesterday in the Washington Post raises perhaps accidentally a very interesting issue. "Pollsters say that it's not that people have changed their mind, but rather that some older voters have died and young people are overwhelmingly pro-EU." That's an astounding admission. It's the admission that the second referendum, they believe, might be likely to reverse the first referendum because given enough time, some of the people who voted for Brexit in 2016 have died and more will die. There are more young voters coming along, so let's re-legislate by referendum. It's one of the most cynical moves in democratic self-government imaginable.
But here is the big Christian worldview issue. We've often talked about the principle of subsidiarity. And that is that meaning and authority and truth subsists in the smallest governmental unit, not in the largest — the smallest, most concentrated, most natural units of society. The most natural unit of society is marriage, and then the family; and after that, the extended family and the neighborhood and the kinship system; and after that the local community, you might say the village or the city; and after that, the county; after that, the state; after that, the nation.
Here is one of the experiences of human beings over the last several millennia: There is no operational unit larger than the nation state that has been able to demonstrate an even casual competence in carrying out the responsibilities of government. It turns out that we, flesh and blood human beings, have a particular attachment to a larger community, but that community cannot be too large or we lose the attachment. There's a very real sense in which the nation state emerging in the modern era is the largest of those manifestations and without a national identity, a certain proper patriotism, without the nation being able to operate as a political unit, adopting laws with operational courts of justice, government becomes unworkable. Some of the national identities established by language and culture and tradition, some by borders, all of us by history. The reality is that no nation state is exactly what it was, say 200 years ago, but it's also true that unless there is some substantial continuity, the government and the entire society is immeasurably weakened.
When Britain entered the European Union in 1973, it effectively violated a good deal of its own sovereignty and sovereignty is what marks a nation. If a nation doesn't adopt its own laws, if it doesn't establish its own policies, if its courts do not have the last say on matters of justice within its borders, then that nation is not sovereign and that means in a very real sense, it is only tentatively a nation.
We need to recognize that there are many in the United States, especially those on both of the coasts, the more urbane of American intellectuals and creatives in the culture, they are often more internationalist in their outlook than they are American in their outlook. And I'm not putting words in their voices. They say this themselves, they make open arguments. It's a debate on the United States Supreme Court with, for example, just to Steven Breyer writing a book, arguing that America's courts, including the Supreme Court, should take cues from international courts and decisions made by courts elsewhere.
But the biggest issue here for us to recognize is that when a nation surrenders its sovereignty, as in general terms, the United States has been very careful not to do, it is extremely difficult, if not politically almost impossible to regain that sovereignty. That is the quandary of Britain this week and that is the knot they are trying with such difficulty to untie.
Canadian Federal Election Today: What’s at Stake as Citizens Head for the Polls?
Meanwhile, the next story takes us to Canada where across our Northern border Canada is today going to the polls in a federal election. In the United States, we would call it a national election. And much is at stake. The leader of the Labor Party there, Justin Trudeau, had a massive lead, just a matter of months ago, but he has largely lost that lead having gained and then lost his symbolic authority as a liberal internationalist icon. Justin Trudeau, the son of another famously liberal Canadian prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, is himself like his father, the very symbol of that kind of internationalist political leader that so many want in Europe and also in Canada.
The big question is, is that what Canada wants right now? Trudeau has been involved, his government has been involved deeply in scandals, and he himself has been tarnished by the fact that there had been multiple photographs showing him in what has been described as blackface or brownface with some of these incidents well into his adult years during the time that he was a teacher in British Columbia.
But it should be very interesting to Christians thinking through these issues to recognize that the conservative party leader, who is Trudeau's opponent therefore in the federal election, Andrew Scheer, is a conservative in some fiscal ways, but when it comes to the social issues, Scheer has been doing everything he can to demonstrate that he's not going to bring up the abortion issue. He is not going to contest the legalization of same sex marriage. He is basically not going to contest Canada's liberalizing social mores.
This is a very important issue for us to note. It's something we need to recognize not only in Canada but also in Britain and elsewhere. When you have conservative governments that do not stand for a conservative understanding of sexuality and marriage and on other moral issues, if they're not willing to take a stand, then even when they gain power, they just concretize in place the liberal moral status quo. That is what has happened in great Britain where the conservative party isn't really conservative when it comes to social and moral issues and in Canada where the conservative party, even as reported on National Public Radio this morning, is actually fighting off accusations that if elected, they might even move in any way to bring in social conservatism in Canada. "No way. Not going to happen. That's slander," say the conservative leaders in Canada.
This just reminds us that even as the election today will reveal a great deal certainly about the next few years in Canada, the reality is that for decades, Canada has been following a far more European trajectory than the United States and this just tells us that even as we think about these big issues, we're not just talking about issues in worldview that would separate us by something as significant as an ocean. In the case of Canada, it is just a thin, although thankfully, very peaceful Northern border that separates these two massive neighbors in North America.
The Importance of Representative Government: But the Representatives Had Better Represent
But next, following along these lines, I want to look at a story that appeared yesterday in the Dallas Morning News. It's by Abby McCloskey. She's identified as an economist and founder of McCloskey Policy. She's advised multiple Republican campaigns. She wrote the column, we're told, for the Dallas morning news, the title, “Please, All We Want is Straight Talk.”
It's an insightful article. Abby McCloskey basically says that if you're looking at the Democratic presidential nomination debates, just about no one is speaking to real America amongst the Democratic candidates. She also criticizes Republicans. The point she apparently wants to make is that there is a basic middle in America that no one is speaking to. She writes in one sentence, "What most Americans want are common sense reforms, not the extremes.”
Now, by the way, when you see “common sense” in political discourse, let an antenna go up a little bit and think about this. When the word “common sense” is used, it is one of those words that means if you don't agree with this, then you don't have common sense. So whether it's common sense gun control or common sense budgetary restraint or common sense this, or common sense that, just watch what comes after and see if it actually represents common sense.
McCloskey talks about immigration reform, guns, abortion, and she talks about healthcare and taxes and education. But what she points to is what she says is a middle, pragmatic solutions, common sense solutions, and she appears to be frustrated. She voices that frustration that America's political system divided between Democrats and Republicans is unable to deliver on the kind of centrist commonsensical policies that she says the American people want. She points to polling data in which you have Americans saying that a majority say this or that on gun control or abortion or any number of issues.
Why are we talking about this? It's because once again, we do not do government by poll. Now politicians have to get elected so they pay attention to polls. But in reality, you see this constantly in the national media. “X percent of Americans want this.” Well, that's interesting because they elected representatives and senators and a president who say otherwise. The reality is that a great deal of this has to do with how a question is asked on a survey or a poll and furthermore, no one answering the question has to take any responsibility for actually devising the policy. That's the hard work of legislation. That's the hard work of public administration. Somebody has to do it. We need to have elected representatives, elected politicians who do that hard work and we should expect them to do that hard work. But that hard work is actually going to have to come down to laws and words and sentences and definitions that just don't fit a pollster's questions.
Just as if to make that point clear, another article in the Dallas Morning News points to the fact that Texas voters on November the 5th are going to face no less than ten different propositions directly addressed to the voters. What would they concern? State income tax, disaster relief, parks in history, cancer research, public education, precious metals, public safety, animals and municipal judges. Yes, all of those issues, each of those issues on the ballot for Texas voters on November the 5th. Actually, every one of those propositions faced by Texas voters on the 5th of November is a proposed amendment to the Texas State Constitution. And in order to be successfully amended, every one of those proposals would have to be approved by a majority of the voters and then two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate.
But the legislators have already had their say. That's how the proposals got on the ballot and now it is up to Texas voters. But you do really have to wonder how many Texas voters are going to be really well-informed about the issues related to precious metals when they go into the ballot box on November the 5th.
One final observation about so many headlines in the news. It seems that the media are attracted to protest after protest, or demonstration after demonstration. That's after all, why protest, whether it's the people protesting in London over the weekend or at your local city park, they are trying to get attention, but how they get attention and the kind of attention they get, well that's sometimes very revealing. Consider a story that appeared by the Associated Press, Dateline from Washington over the weekend. The headline is this, “Fonda,” meaning Jane Fonda, “Again Courts Arrest For a Cause.” The subhead, “Inspired by Swedish teen, 81-year-old goes to bat for Earth.” That would mean planet Earth.
The reporter Ellen Knickmeyer tells us, "Inspired by the climate activism of a Swedish teenager, Jane Fonda says she's returning to civil disobedience nearly a half century after she was last arrested at a protest. Known for her opposition to the Vietnam War,” I will simply inject here infamously known for that protest, she was, "one of 17 climate protesters arrested Friday at the U.S. Capitol on charges of unlawful demonstration," by what she called “extremely nice and professional police.”
Fellow actor Sam Waterston was also at the group, which included many older demonstrators. "Now aged 81," according to the Associated Press, "Jane Fonda says she plans to get arrested every Friday to advocate for urgent reduction in the use of fossil fuels. She hopes to encourage other older people to protest as well."
But my favorite section of this news report is where the reporter tells us, "Fonda cannot remember precisely which cause led to her last arrest in the 1970s.” The right to assemble peaceably, the right to redress of grievances, the right to free speech, all of these are precious constitutional rights in the United States of America. The right of protest is actually one of those rights, but that doesn't make every protest right, nor every protester. And it just seems to me that if you can't remember what you were protesting the last time you were arrested, then you're actually maybe telling us just how significant most of these protests turn out to be.
That's all for today. Tomorrow, we're going to look at huge changes on the American spiritual landscape.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Fort Worth, Texas, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.