Brexit Myths

The British people have been duped by some very clever rhetoric. A myth can be understood as a believable explanatory narrative that people can identify with – especially if it resonates with their feelings. The British referendum that resulted in the decision to leave the EU, and the resulting maelstrom of controversy, have been driven by myths that need to be exposed as such because they are at best half-truths.

Rule by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Britain is subject to rules that it voluntarily chose: notably the European Charter of Human Rights (to which Russia is also a signatory) and the trading regulations. Britain would have to comply with European regulations for any goods and services it exported to the EU, whether or not it helps to set those rules. People forget that Britain pushed Europe towards the Single Market, resulting in regulations that now apply to all the other EU countries. Britain’s influence on Europe has been stronger than Europe’s influence on Britain.

Britain returning to a glorious uncomplicated past. The world has changed. Leaving the EU is a radical step, the very opposite of a traditional Conservative position. Jacob Rees Mogg is advocating unrestrained free markets in what would amount to a grand experiment – the very opposite of his carefully-crafted traditionalist image.

Northern Ireland’s border problems. The so-called ‘Irish backstop’ issue has been blown out of all proportion. It is true that the peace process required an absence of border controls on the island of Ireland, but it is not true that there would be any problem if Northern Ireland were to be treated differently from the rest of the UK. It already has (or had) a devolved government without threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom, and it could continue to be part of the British economy with sterling as its currency even if its trade with Europe was differently managed. The real reasons that the Irish border has become such an important issue are that the DUP is worried about the symbolism of being in some ways closer to Ireland than to the UK and the hard-line Brexiteers wanted a plausible excuse for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Immigration caused by EU membership. An economy cannot grow without employing people, and many job vacancies have been filled by citizens of other EU countries. More immigrants will have to come from outside Europe, or the economy will have to stop growing, if free movement within Europe is curtailed.

Job losses linked to EU membership. Free trade has undeniably caused some jobs to be lost in Britain, but it has created more jobs than it has destroyed – as can be seen by our low rate of unemployment and a growing economy. The EU, though, is not an advocate of unfettered free trade; it puts up tariff barriers against the outside world, to protect its farmers and to be largely self-sufficient in food; it has also ‘protected’ some other industries by imposing tariffs. The style of Brexit advocated by idealists like Liam Fox would increase the impact of free-trade on jobs.

The EU being at a disadvantage in negotiating with Britain. The somewhat surprising assertion that Europe needs Britain, more than the converse, comes from a misunderstanding of the trade figures. It is true that imports to Britain from Europe exceed exports to Europe in total, but no single European country sends 40% of its exports to Britain. The loss of trade with Britain would be painful to Europe, but Britain would suffer more. David Davies repeatedly asserted that the German car industry would force Angela Merkel to make a good deal with Britain, and it is true that Britain buys more cars from Germany then it sells there, but Germany benefits hugely from its EU membership and the Eurozone – so European unity matters more than its trade with Britain.

Britain’s electoral system provides strong stable government. Theresa May’s disastrous election performance in 2017 revolved around her repeated mantra of ‘strong stable government’. She couldn’t deliver that because her party is deeply divided. The Labour Party is not unified either. The British system of ‘first past the post’ was designed to form strong governments with as little as a third of the popular vote. This system only works if parties are united and if there is one significant issue, such as government spend on public services for example, that separates them. The country is still divided on that issue but it also disagrees about how connected it wants to be to the rest of the world, the extent to which it wants to prioritise the environment, and other issues. Some limited level of proportional representation would benefit the country by offering more than just two choices of who to vote for – and coalitions can be just as stable as political parties that try to represent a ‘broad church’ of opinion, as Germany for example has demonstrated.

Brexit uncertainty would end if Britain were to leave the EU. If the EU Withdrawal Agreement had been signed last night, Britain would have spent the next two years negotiating the details of the future trading relationship – with more endless controversy. It would have meant less uncertainty though, than leaving without a deal. The only way to completely end the uncertainty would be to remain in the EU.

It would be undemocratic to remain in the EU. Many Brexiteers piously assert that democracy would be badly damaged if the country were to change its mind about leaving the EU. That is rubbish. The referendum in 2016 was marred by lies and “Signs of Russian Meddling”, and those who voted to leave did so for a variety of reasons which were mutually incompatible – so some were bound to be disappointed. That should, by now, be more apparent and a second referendum would legitimise a change of mind (although it is still by no means certain which way the vote would go). The terms of such a referendum should explicitly offer the choice between the deal that Theresa May has already agreed with the EU or reversing the decision to leave. It is unrealistic to expect the EU to restart negotiations for some new deal, and it has explicitly ruled out doing so. Whatever the result of a second referendum, it could not fail to be more legitimate than the first because it would be a more informed decision (and even more so if the above myths are widely exposed as such).

Being provoked into intervention

Lord Richards, a former chief of Britain’s defence staff, is reported as opining that “David Cameron lacked the “balls” to take the military action in Syria that could have prevented the rise of Islamic State” (IS or ISIS).   This suggests a breath-taking arrogance, lack of vision and irresponsibility.  Evidently some ex-military men, like some politicians, love to appear strong and regard wisdom as a sign of weakness.

ISIS would also love to see Western ‘boots on the ground’ again in Iraq, knowing that they would eventually have to go home again demoralised; by continuing to provoke outrage in the West, ISIS is successfully mobilising Western public opinion to support just such an intervention.

Saddam Hussein was ‘defeated’ in a few months, but that action led to an enormous subsequent loss of life and an increase in regional instability – including the rise of ISIS.  Doubtless the Syrian government could also have been toppled by military means, but the fallout afterwards could have been even worse.  Both Russia and Iran were supporting the Syrian regime, so there was enormous potential for matters to escalate out of control.

As Simon Jenkins observed, in this week’s Spectator, “the drumbeat for sending troops back to Iraq has begun…  It’s taking pride of place in the American election” and, based on his track-record, Cameron would want to appear equally ‘strong’.

On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are being encouraged to demonstrate their virility by taking the country to war, without the agreement of the United Nations – but is it courageous or merely irresponsible to sacrifice the lives of one’s country’s troops and countless civilians (whilst one’s own life is not at risk)?

Sadly, politicians have often been unable to resist the temptation to look big for a few months so the ISIS strategy is likely to work.  As Simon Jenkins said: “Here we go again”.

The Iran deal is the safest option

Today’s Iran deal, which is designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for a lifting of sanctions, is the safest way forward for the Middle East – and for Israel in particular, despite opposition to it by some American conservatives and by the Israeli government.

Opponents of a peace deal with Iran should be prepared to say what alternative they would prefer.  One article, on the Conservative News and Views website, advises a pre-emptive strike – which would be an act of war.  Previous such strikes, against Iraq and against Libya, have destabilised the Middle East and have fanned the flames of tribal conflict; they have led to the formation of ISIS and have helped it to recruit young people from all over the world to a fight in a jihad against what they see as an existential threat to Sunni Islam.

Right now does not seem to be a good time to attack Iran, while it is helping to fight ISIS.  A strike would constitute an attack on Shia Islam. Peace in this case is a difficult path to pursue, and inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities are clearly very important, but the alternatives are worse.  If either America or Israel chooses to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran it would be very easy for Hezbollah to recruit more support in attacking Israel – which is a closer target than America.  And it doesn’t make sense for America and Israel to be attacking both Sunnis and Shias at the same time.  A peace process, even one as precarious as the Iran deal, is a safer choice.

Greeks Need Relief, not Grexit

What is good for the Greeks would also be good for Europe.  Although some level of austerity was needed across Europe, to reduce fiscal deficits, it has been carried out in a very damaging way: it has depressed economic growth and has been inflicted on the poorest members of society.  The widespread feeling that a country should be punished for past overspending has to be balanced against the need to look forward to the best way of recovering from Greece’s current predicament and Europe’s continued economic slump.  The suggestion that Greece should leave the Eurozone – a ‘Grexit’ – is based on the assumption that Greece is the only country with a problem, yet this is far from the case.

Right-wing commentators have been arguing that austerity is the only way back to fiscal rectitude and that irresponsibility has to be punished.  For example, a recent Spectator article argued that “austerity really is a virtue” and that “Greece is an incorrigible basket-case”; it also suggested that the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB) agreed.  On the contrary, the IMF has acknowledged that “Austerity is much worse for the economy than we thought” and a Wall Street Journal report suggested that the ECB “would like to do more to spur growth” but that Germany is holding it back.  Studies suggest that austerity reduces growth.  Paul Krugman and other prominent economists have argued that a Keynesian approach, of applying an economic stimulus during a depression, is more appropriate.

The application of austerity has been grossly unfair.  In Britain, for example, wealthy individuals and corporations have not shouldered much of the burden of recovery; the government reduced the higher rate of income tax, and wealthy corporations moved their profits to Luxembourg to avoid paying corporation tax.  Instead, the poorest members of society have been targeted with an artificial benefit cap and the ‘bedroom tax’ – which have been popular with the majority of the electorate, who are unaffected and who dislike ‘benefit scroungers’, but which have been a very blunt instrument for cutting the benefit budget.  A large portion of the benefit budget now goes to the working poor, not to the unemployed and those who are unable to work; an adjustment to the minimum wage would have been more effective – simultaneously giving people more money to spend and reducing the government’s benefit payments.  The minimum wage could also be a tool for addressing economic imbalances within the UK and between countries of Europe: its level should be set regionally, or even locally, to attract jobs to areas with a low cost of living.

Robert Skidelsky, in this week’s New Statesman, wrote: “I agree with Syriza: the way back to prosperity insolvency is not debt collection and austerity but debt relief and public investment.  This is Europe’s choice.”  This article, which was mostly available at eiranews.com, also reminded readers that some of Germany’s debt was forgiven after the Second World War and enabled its economy to recover.  It cannot be denied that Greek politicians overspent, but the pain experienced by their population has been sufficient punishment to avert any temptation to repeat the mistake.  Politicians now need to move forward in the best way for both Greece and for Europe as a whole – with some debt lightening and with less austerity.

Separatist Politicians

Voters in the forthcoming Scottish referendum on Thursday should reflect upon the divergence of interests between politicians and the people they serve.  David Cameron might feel that, without Scotland, he would have a substantial democratic majority in the remnants of the UK (RUK); on the basis of current voting patterns, he would no longer have to compromise with Liberals; the Labour Party would have little chance of forming a government; UKIP would be the only remaining threat to his dominance of RUK politics.

This is a depressing picture for anyone in England who believes that government is more likely to act in the interests of the people if there is a chance of replacing it when necessary.  But it should also worry Scots who will continue to be affected by the UK economy and would, if independent, have no influence upon it.

It is easy to see why politicians might want to wield unchallenged power.  That is the impulse which persuades them to argue for separatism.  There are many in the Conservative party who want to be free of any need to defer to the European Court of Human Rights; Nigel Farage would prefer to be completely separate from the EU; Alex Salmond would wield more power in an independent Scotland.

The interests of the people, though, are better served by staying together.  Scottish views currently have to be taken into account in UK Parliamentary arithmetic, so Scots wield real influence over their larger neighbours.  Scots benefit from taxes raised in wealthier parts of the UK and they benefit from the resilience of a larger economy.  Similarly, the British people currently have influence in Europe; if Britain were to leave the EU, it would continue to be much affected by it but would cease to have influence over it.

Politicians like to be independent and unchallenged, and they can make themselves look big by being confrontational.  For the people, though, it is better that politicians are accountable and not too secure.  For businesses it is beneficial to be in cooperative relationships with one’s trading partners.  Life is better if you get on well with your neighbours.