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).