The fracturing of the world order by events such as Brexit make this a busy time for those who enjoy drawing lessons from history. America’s War of Independence is a favourite touchstone, being for one thing a philosophical support for Britain “taking back control” from Europe.
Breaking free from the EU will not solve all the issues facing Britain, but it should catalyse a serious debate in the future. And if Britons have the courage to reject a purgatory of endless Brexit recriminations and embrace a long period of rebuilding, they could do far worse than turning to the example of the Founding Fathers. Especially one of their leading lights: Alexander Hamilton.
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Interest in Hamilton has already undergone a revival, thanks in part to the musical bearing his name. But even in his own right he stands out as someone who planned, set up and nurtured many of the important institutions of the United States.
Alexander Hamilton had a hand in the creation of its currency (his portrait graces the $10 bill), in the foundation of the Treasury, a prototype central bank, as well as the Coast Guard and West Point military academy, on top of the US Army. He was also a mastermind of American foreign policy and its trade relationship with Britain.
He was one of the lead authors of the Federalist Papers, the collection of essays that sought to clarify, strengthen and promote the US Constitution. Few men or women have had as enduring an impact on their nation.
His name serves as shorthand for the establishment of the institutions, laws and skills needed for countries to be able to thrive, in the sense of enjoying durable economic growth, high human development and a stable public life. All of these factors are on the wane in Britain — and the wider world – and need to be revived.
The nascent democracy within which Hamilton acted was as noisy, nasty and chaotic as the Brexit climate is today. His enemies used the press ruthlessly against him, but he was careful that the will of the people be channelled by institutions and laws, and that distorted accounts of his policies be rebutted.
He was diligent in seeking out political opponents and trying to convince them of his views, and Hamilton and the Founding Fathers generally are the benchmark for political classes in terms of their vision, comportment and the durability of their policies.
The conciliatory and relatively open way he and others built a consensus over the Constitutional Convention, when the United States Constitution was drafted, is a model for how relations across the British political spectrum, as well as relations between London and Brussels, should be handled.
That they are not is in part a question of leadership, and the quality of the current political cohort. In time, it may be that Brexit catalyses a new generation of politicians and parties, and that these shape what “Global Britain” becomes.
Here, Hamilton would also be a useful guide. He might set the scene by counselling that, as the trade war between the US and China is proving, a globalised world is becoming a multipolar one where Britain will simply be a mid-sized power like South Korea and Australia.
The notion of Global Britain will need to be conceived in the context of this reality, with implications for corporate governance, tax laws, the legal system and the City. It may also mean that Global Britain is founded on a meaningful security and defence agreement between the UK and the EU.
Hamilton would then focus on at least two other areas – both at the centre of the Brexit vote. One is low, poorly distributed economic growth and the other is immigration.
Economic growth in Britain has slowed dramatically and has become too financialised: it has increasingly relied on the accumulation of debt and priming by central banks to keep it going. The distraction of Brexit has meant that there has been too little attention paid to the rattling engine-room of the economy. It has been hollowed out by austerity and the labour market has changed radically for the worse in terms of the way workers have exchanged flexibility for security.
What debate there has been has focused on redistributive measures, a difficult policy to execute ahead of an impending world recession. What is much more important is to rediscover the source of high, organic economic growth.
The secret sauce of “growth” lies in many of the things Hamilton developed and that equally Britain is well known for — education, good institutions and laws. If he were with us today, Hamilton would lay out a plan to boost human development (education, longevity, mental health and equality), and to harness the parts of ‘intangible infrastructure’ (eg education, socially friendly use of technology, rule of law) that Britain is good at.
Then given the uncertainty, animosity and opportunity afforded by Brexit, Hamilton might propose a very clear contract on immigration. The aim of this would be to lay out the conditions that immigrants are welcomed into Britain, the help given to them to settle, assimilate and find work, their rights in the UK and a framework that would ensure they are respected and integrated into British society.
Given his aptitude for the infrastructure of state, Hamilton would not neglect the neglected parts of Britain. He would recommend a Marshall-style fund to help reshape their economy and society.
Much of the media is obsessed with the short-term drama — and who could blame them, such is the entertainment value. However, attention needs to be drawn to the deeper issues facing Britain and the potential solutions to them if Britain is to truly prosper and be at peace with itself after Brexit.
Sometimes, history and historical figures can anchor and steer these debates. I urge Britons to look beyond usual historical references such as Churchill towards someone who embodies the idea of nation building — Alexander Hamilton.
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