This article is published by the excellent UnHerd.com, https://unherd.com/2019/10/alexander-hamilton-rap-star-nation-builder/
The fracturing of the world order by events such as Brexit, and the growing consensus that we ‘live in interesting times’ mean that today is a busy and stimulating time for those who enjoy drawing historical comparisons with the present.
One particular strand is the manner in which some have drawn upon America’s Revolution as philosophical support for Britain taking back control from Europe. Others have gone further. The former Tory minister and now Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdicombe, in her maiden European Parliament speech cast Brexit as ‘oppressed people rising against oppressors, colonies rising against empires‘.
The idea that Britain is emasculated by Brussels in the way a colonial vassal state might be is scarcely believable, especially so when heard from Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and likely much of the Commonwealth. Breaking free from Brussels will not solve the many issues facing Britain, but it may eventually crystalize a serious debate on the future.
When this happens, the example of the Founding Fathers, and especially one of their leading lights Alexander Hamilton, will be worth delving into. From this point, Britons can choose between the purgatory of Brexit or alternatively they can agree that a long period of rebuilding is called for. If this is the case, Alexander Hamilton is very much the man to listen to.
Hamilton was a man of many achievements – a talented military officer and aide to George Washington, a driver and interpreter (through the Federalist Papers) of the US Constitution and the first Secretary of the Treasury, to list just a few accomplishments.
Today, interest in Hamilton has undergone a revival, thanks in part to the musical bearing his name, even if it does not reflect all of his achievements. Hamilton stands out as someone who planned, established, and built many of the important institutions of the United States.
He had a hand in the creation of its currency framework; in the foundation of the Treasury, a prototype central bank (the Bank of the United States), the Coast Guard, and West Point; and in the structuring of the army. He was also a mastermind of American foreign policy and its trade relationship with Britain.
He was also 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. Brexit would be easy if its proponents had the foresight to create their own ‘Federalist Papers’, or ‘Brexit Papers’.
In my view, the many achievements of Hamilton make him shorthand for the establishment of the institutions, laws, and skill sets needed for countries and regions 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 today and need to be revived.
In the last chapter of ‘The Levelling’ called ‘The Hamilton Project’ I ask a notional Hamilton what advice he would give to the EU, the US and China in order that each prospers in the 21st century. For instance, he would advise the US to take the lead in crafting the laws and frameworks needed to marshal new technologies like gene editing and cyberwarfare.
In that context, there are a number of things that Britain can learn from Hamilton, notably the way he conducted politics and the way he thought about nation-states and government.
To start with the conduct of public life, and mindful of the consequences of the Johnson government’s approach to politics, the nascent democracy within which Hamilton acted was a noisy, nasty and chaotic as the Brexit climate is today. Hamilton’s enemies used the press ruthlessly against him. For his part he was careful that the will of the people be channeled by institutions and laws, and that ‘fake’ views of his policies be rebutted.
He was diligent in seeking out political opponents and seeking to convince them of his views. The conciliatory and relatively open way Hamilton and others built a consensus over the Constitutional Convention is a model for 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 this particular political generation. Hamilton and the Founding Fathers are the benchmark for political classes worldwide in terms of their vision, comportment and the durability of their policies.
In time, it may be that Brexit catalyses a new generation of politicians and potentially parties and that this ‘next generation’ is the one to 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 showing, a globalized world is ceding to 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.
Trend economic growth in the UK as proxied by productivity has slowed dramatically and has become too financialized in the sense that 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 so far has focused on redistributive measures, a difficult policy to execute ahead of a likely 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’ (e.g. 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 could not neglect Scotland and Northern Ireland. He would recommend a Marshall style fund to help reshape Northern Ireland’s economy and society, with the implementation of this to be carried out by countries like Sweden and Switzerland who excel in public policy. For Scotland Hamilton’s work on currencies and state banks will come in handy as independence becomes a reality.
Much if not all of the media is obsessed with the very short-term drama, and to an extent 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 would urge Britons to look beyond usual historical references like Churchill to Alexander Hamilton. He embodies the idea of nation building.
His view would be that Brexit is simply a manifestation of decline and that this can be reversed by honestly locating Britain’s place in the emerging multipolar order of the 21st century, by developing a new ‘contract’ with immigrants and most importantly by rediscovering the sources of organic economic growth.