When Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols sang “there is no future in England’s dreaming”, it is difficult to say whether this punk rock star, with his green mohican and bad teeth, meant to cast himself in the grand tradition of British constitutional history. However, regardless of intent, Rotten was commenting on the paradox central to Britain’s relationship with the past. In the UK’s great constitutional documents, stretching back to the Magna Carta in 1215, no new rights were ever conferred. For example, the Bill of Rights justifies itself as the “true, ancient, and indubitable rights of the kingdom”. These “ancient” rights were presented as being Anglo-Saxon in origin, preceding the Norman invasion of 1066. In essence, every constitutional “progression” is a step backwards - towards the pre-feudal, law-abiding constitution that preserved liberty - to a time before the Normans destroyed English freedom by force.
This paradox at the heart of progress - to go forward, we must go backwards - can also be identified in Chinese intellectual and political culture. This could shape East-West relations over the next century. When asked by a disciple how to govern a state, Confucius instructed him to “follow the calendar of the Xia dynasty, ride in the carriage of the Shang, wear the ceremonial cap of the Zhou, and as for music, embrace the music of the Shao and Wu”. In this seemingly arbitrary use of the past as a guide to future conduct, Confucius - whose influence on political thought in modern China needs no introduction - was advocating an appreciation for the singularity of national characteristics, and warning against prostrating before the altar of reason at the expense of native customs. Like the UK, China does not see history as a nightmare from which we must escape, but a dream we must carefully analyse.
This is in stark contrast with the political philosophy underpinning the European Union. Like the French and Russian Revolutions, the EU is a project based on the Enlightenment’s idea of rationalism. They claimed that the past was a terror from which we must awake - and reason was here to rouse us. Irrational concepts like religion or the nation were responsible for the same mistakes having been repeated in history. What was needed was a radical overhaul of society in which traditional values were abandoned in favour of that most rational of concepts - liberty (whatever that means). Once reason was followed, and liberty pursued, what Kant called ‘perpetual peace’ would arise. 250 years later, his ius cosmopoliticum would be followed almost to the book, coming to fruition as the European Union.
Like Marx and his International Socialism, EU federalists insist - no less virulently - that their centrist dogma of economic and political liberalisation will ‘solve the riddle of history’. Indeed, top EU figures have referred to 1945 as ‘year zero’. It is true that a remarkably low level of warfare has occurred on the continent since the Second World War. But it is blind idealism to claim that this is because of political union - greater prosperity is probably more responsible. (In any case, the EU was powerless in Bosnia.) The EU’s umbrella-style approach to policymaking gives no account for the clashes of interest between different groups. This has caused tensions in Hungary, and significantly, Italy - which may yet be the EU’s undoing. These two crises are down to its stance on immigration, which has exposed its refusal to engage with any anxieties that deviate from its hyper-rationalistic, scientifically objective, universal principles. We are far more different than the latter-day Enlightenment thinkers of the EU believe. Conflict is endemic; the complexities of history have touched each of us, shaping our desires and prejudices differently. Do Ireland and Bulgaria really have that much in common? If not, why should the same policies be forced upon its citizens? The EU’s hyper-rationalism is utopian because it is impossible.
In 1963, Hugh Gaitskell explained his opposition to joining what would later be known as the European Union (then just a common market) by warning of the end of ‘1000 years of history’. Speaking as leader of the Labour Party, he was implying that since the UK had never really been a part of what EU federalists ominously call ‘the community of fate’ - that Carolingian, Napoleonic struggle for mastery on the continent - it would be anachronistic to join a union which would later enshrine the objective of ‘ever-closer union’ in its constitution. Indeed, in 2013 the UK came bottom of an EU Commission survey asking to what extent its citizens agreed with the statement “you are a citizen of the EU”. I know people to whom that would be an accusation. The UK shares with Europe neither the ‘community of fate’ upon which the EU was founded - nor the rationalistic tradition.
To explore this idea, let’s compare the two cultures from a legal standpoint. In this regard, the EU is again an experiment in hyper-rationalism: the unyielding ‘four freedoms’ of capital, people, goods, and services are not based on a relativistic assessment of the different needs and cultures of each state, but an abstract, philosophical principle. In addition, the great constitutional documents of France and the US, both of which arose from the Enlightenment tradition, declare abstract principles rather than traditional practices. On the other hand, Lord Chancellors (responsible for the effecting running of the British courts) of the past have pointed out that the law in the UK is utterly, brilliantly, illogical. The miscellaneous body of Common Law, which makes up the British Constitution, is composed of rulings of which none are ‘higher’ or universal. Each case decides only what it decides: precedent is not principle.
In this regard, British and Chinese political culture are like long-lost brothers. Confucius stayed well away from three afflictions, which from the Jacobins to the Soviets have been the source of some of the greatest human tragedies. Firstly, he decried ‘theory-making’, thinking men who were enslaved to harsh and self-imposed principles to be no more imaginative than ‘stones’. One of the most memorable incidents of The Analects is when Confucius reprimands a disciple for trying to determine a formula for the cause and effect of human behaviour. A quick glance at Marx’s Grundrisse can show us how the Enlightenment is nothing if not the reduction of history’s complexities to a simple formula. Secondly, Confucius taught that no rule should be ‘immutable’: ‘a good man is not slavish to a path others have trodden’. This fits with the famously supple nature of the British constitution, which Tocqueville credited for the lack of a French Revolution event in Britain. Thirdly, Confucius claimed that nothing should be ‘beyond doubt’. These three positions remind us of what Chinese and British political culture share in the face of hostile universalism.
The United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China both have a history of ideas that is strikingly similar in their shared aversion to the dogmatic fixation on abstract principles embodied in the European project. For refusing to embrace EU federalism, the UK is smeared for ‘living in the past’. This cannot be denied. Unusually, the referendum gave the opportunity to vote not to join a political project, but leave one. As a result, the constitutional clock was turned back to 1973. Indeed, most of the buzzphrases used by Brexiteers - ‘we want our country back’, ‘loss of sovereignty’, ‘take back control’ - all alluded to this. But what is wrong with the past? It is where our identities - personal, national, or otherwise - are based. And it is our biases, prejudices, and hopes which make up our identity - not some unsympathetic, faceless dictator called Reason. When the breakdown of the EU finally, inevitably comes, you can be sure they will blame anyone, anything - the parochial British, the backward Southern states, even suffering refugees - than notice that their ideology is flawed, and Reason holds them prisoner.
Given China’s similar relationship with history, the PRC should take notice of the UK”s treatment. However, any defence of Britain would currently be inadvisable. Indeed, China is keeping its head down in the best tradition of Deng Xiaoping. Us Brits cannot blame them for this - the EU is a larger market. However, there will come a point when China’s super-heavyweight standing in the world compels it to put short-term pragmatism aside and assert its values in a long-term strategy against those, like the EU, who look to destroy the varied traditions and cultures of the world in favour of a single, global civilisation.
When asked whether he could imagine an outcome in which the UK stays a part of the EU (even after having voted to do the opposite), Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, channelled John Lennon. With that quirky wit for which career bureaucrats are famous, Tusk said that the EU was “built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve, so who knows? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.
With an understanding of the political philosophy underpinning the EU, Tusk’s comments strike us less as an ill-conceived tease, and more like a Freudian slip revealing how he appears to share the sinister agenda (“imagine there’s [sic] no countries… and no religion too”) of the third most talented Beatle. Like Lennon, Tusk wants the world to “live as one” - under one unforgiving morality in what the EU calls ‘ever-closer union’. This undermines cultural integrity and ignores history. Europe should confront and scrutinise its history - but under no circumstances forget it. Thus far, the EU has shown itself to be the centrist heir to the brutal regimes of the last 250 years that aimed to do just that. But perhaps the saddest part of this story is that in addition to that which which the European Union has already taken from the United Kingdom - jobs, freedom, sovereignty, and democracy - we must now add The Beatles.本文系观察者网独家稿件，文章内容纯属作者个人观点，不代表平台观点，未经授权，不得转载，否则将追究法律责任。关注观察者网微信guanchacn，每日阅读趣味文章。