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).

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.

Britain in Europe 2

Nigel Farage won yesterday’s debate on Britain in Europe, cleverly and dishonestly, but he cannot win the argument.  His was an appeal to the heart: “I want Britain to get up off its knees, let’s govern ourselves again, stand tall, and trade with the world.”  Just as with last week’s debate, Nick Clegg’s arguments were simply swept aside and failed to carry their full force.  Clegg correctly defined Farage’s vision as “dangerous fantasies” but, in the heated atmosphere, he failed to fully expose his opponent’s deceitfulness.

Farage argued that Britain is capable of running its own affairs and should not be dominated by the EU, which he represented as undemocratic.  He misrepresented the democratic accountability of the EU, its impact on British legislation, its control over our trading relationships, and the practical impact of trying to retain our trading relationships with Europe without being a full EU member.

The EU is as much under democratic control as Britain is, although some reforms are needed (6.6.5.3).  The EU Commission is unelected – but it is a form of civil service.  Britain doesn’t elect its civil servants either; it appoints them on the basis of their expertise.  The EU Commissioners themselves are politically appointed, on a formula of one per country, but the other Commission employees are European civil servants.  All major EU decisions have to be ratified by elected politicians: Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of member countries, or directly-elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

There was an undignified spat over Europe’s impact on British legislation.  Clegg’s figure of 7% was not a lie, as Farage alleged, but it only referred to primary legislation; he was quoting a House of Commons library report:

“In the UK data suggest that from 1997 to 2009 6.8% of primary legislation (Statutes) and 14.1% of secondary legislation (Statutory Instruments) had a role in implementing EU obligations, although the degree of involvement varied from passing reference to explicit implementation.”

The report acknowledged the practical difficulty in coming up with a definitive figure.  Some of the confusion came from a finding that he failed to mention:

“The British Government estimates that around 50% of UK legislation with a significant economic impact originates from EU legislation.”

Since our trade with the EU is so important, the 50% figure is hardly surprising.  These economic regulations would no longer apply to trade within Britain, if it were outside the EU, but they would still apply to trade with EU countries; it was deceitful to imply that they would have no relevance if we left the EU.

Farage cleverly misrepresented Britain’s alleged loss of control over its trading relationships.  He said that the EU negotiator is Dutch and that Britain isn’t even in the room when deals are being done.  This sounded almost sinister, as if Britain were in some way enfeebled by this arrangement, but the reality is quite different.  Europe is negotiating as a whole, with much more economic power than Britain can wield on its own.  We are therefore stronger, not weaker, by contributing our weight to a Europe-wide deal.

He also misrepresented Britain’s trading power outside Europe.  He didn’t make it clear whether he envisaged Britain staying in the European Economic Area or not:

  • He said that our trading relationships with Europe would continue unchanged if we left the EU, but this would only be true if we stayed in the European Economic Area – like Iceland, one of the two examples he cited; Switzerland has a similar, bilateral arrangement.  Clegg quite rightly pointed out that this would mean paying a contribution towards EU costs, and being subject to its regulations (including free movement of labour), yet we could not participate in defining these regulations if we were not full EU members. 
  • Farage simply brushed this argument aside, blustering to the effect that everyone would wish to continue trading with Britain, which has the world’s sixth largest economy.  By identifying New Zealand as a possible trading partner, he was appealing to British sentimentality over the Empire and the Commonwealth – and he was implying that we would be outside the European Economic Area, in which case we would have to renegotiate our trade deals with the EU, from a much less powerful position. 

Farage’s acknowledged admiration for president Putin is revealing.  Putin has demonstrated how to increase his domestic political appeal, even though Russia will suffer from its annexation of Crimea: from diminished cooperation with other countries, from economic sanctions, and from the increased rapidity with which other countries will now develop alternative sources of energy.  Like Putin, Farage is politically adroit in trying to increase his personal power – and he shows a similar disregard for his country’s best interests.

Europe Debate 2014

This is an open letter to Nick Clegg, following his debate with Nigel Farage on Wednesday, 26 March 2014.  Clegg, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was arguing in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU; Farage, on behalf of UKIP, was arguing that Britain should withdraw.  Media comment following the debate suggested that neither man emerged as the decisive winner.

Nick, I feel that you did not make your case as powerfully as you might have done, for the following six reasons:

1. You argued that “3 million jobs are linked to Britain’s membership of the EU”.  This is a weak argument, because it does not decisively imply that these jobs would be lost if Britain left the EU – and Farage pounced on that weakness.  A much stronger argument can be made by inverting the proposition: could anyone seriously suggest that companies would move to Britain specifically because it was not in the EU?  Britain’s membership of the EU undobtedly makes it an attractive place for foreign companies to set up business.

2. Farage made the point that EU employment regulations, at 350 pages, were overcomplicated.  What you could have said, with certainty, is that 26 separate sets of regulations would have amounted to a great deal more bureaucracy.  At least Britain can trade with the whole of Europe on the basis of a single set of rules.

3. You did not decisively win the argument on European Human Rights.  The audience should be asked a rhetorical question: why would British citizens deserve less protection than other Europeans from government oppression?  You could have pointed out that Human Rights legislation protected our ancient right of habeas corpus in December 2004, when the Labour government tried to introduce arrest without trial in the name of protecting us from terrorism.

4. You could have pointed out that Farage’s desire to have ‘Britain run its own affairs’ was just a coded suggestion that we could trust him as an individual with much more power than a British Prime Minister currently has.  Members of the EU have pooled their sovereignty on matters which either require cooperation between countries or, like human rights, should be universally applied whatever national government is in power.  National politicians should only decide matters upon which countries need autonomy (and local politicians should probably be given more power than they have now).  Political power should be dispersed appropriately across the different levels of subsidiarity.

5. You did not clarify your reasons for opposing an immediate referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.  You were right to point out that the Lisbon Treaty would have been an appropriate moment for a referendum, and that any big future future ceding of power to Europe should also require one.  What you did not make clear is that any referendum creates an uncertain climate for investment and so will threaten jobs.  There should be a clear case for having one, not just a wish to put UKIP’s defining policy at the centre of British politics.

6. Finally, I feel that you let yourself down on the question of your personal trustworthiness.  You were challenged about your broken election pledge that you would not increase tuition fees – you did not keep that promise when you came to power as part of the coalition.  This question will not go away.  Instead of trying to avoid it, you would have done better to explain clearly why you changed your position; it is inevitable that politicians should sometimes change their positions when presented with more information or when they are negotiating with another party in a coalition.

I hope that these suggestions will help you to make a stronger case in next Wednesday’s debate.

Hugh Winter