“When facts change, I change my mind.” So wrote JM Keynes. That simple sentence, from far back in the last century is one of the most profound ever made. Its logic separates the doctor from the quack, the scientist from the conspiracy theorist and the honest from the fool. It is why historians of the future will mark the last week of January 2021 as the moment when the nation state proved to be the most efficient possible method of organising groups of humans, and the attempt to create pan- national entities, such as the EU, to have failed.
Before moving on, it is worth recalling why so many in Britain believed the effort was worthwhile. Just as counties like Mercia and Wessex had once merged their sovereignties into a larger entity called England, so it seemed that the moment had come to unite the joint talents of entities such England, Italy and Germany into something even larger. The European model of capitalism in particular seemed a bulwark against extremist forces of right and left. To those on the continent it was above all a peace project.
Yet a comparison of the response of the UK and the EU to the Covid-19 pandemic has made one fact abundantly clear. Smaller, nationally organised entities can better organise to protect their citizens than larger squabbling coalitions of nations. It is not a question of moral evil or stupidity; but by its very nature the EU was unable to react fast when speed above all was needed. All will learn the lessons that this implies for the future. That future is one of nations, not multi-nations.
And so the new world begins. Its advocates may enjoy a well- earned moment of triumph. But it will not be without its problems. For one, the existence of multiple, competing jurisdictions is a paradise for those who wish to hide their private wealth from the public good in tax havens. The problems of inequality will be further from solution than ever. Secondly, as RH Tawney, a neighbour and contemporary of Keynes observed “freedom for the shark is death for the minnow”. Large nations, who now need only consult their own interest, will inevitably dominate smaller ones. Many large international companies are now equal in wealth to all but the largest nation states-what is sovereignty to them? Thirdly, if power is best organised in local, national bodies, then it it makes sense for Scotland to leave the UK in the way that the UK left the EU.
All of these questions are implied in the new order, and must now be tested all around the world. But they are for the future. Today is the triumph of the nationalists, and we must wish the new order well. There is no other choice. Time will answer the questions we have raised.
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