I was surprised this morning that one of the main news headlines on the BBC website declared that John Mann was to vote for Brexit. I looked again and discovered that the headline was not about me, but about a Labour MP with the same name.
These days, it seems like everyone is telling the world what they think of the question of the moment: “Should the UK remain in the EU, or should it leave?”
For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.
A lot of the debate has been about whether leaving the EU would be good or bad for the economy – in other words, jobs and GDP. Personally, I don’t believe that this is a particularly important consideration. Why?
First, because we simply don’t know whether leaving would be good or bad for the economy. Dan Hannan’s entertaining little video “Wrong Then, Wrong Now“, illustrates this perfectly. A few years ago, many respected political and business leaders warned that it would be a big mistake for Britain to stay out of the common European currency. Nobody is saying that now. Why should we believe the warnings of dire economic consequences for Britain if we vote to leave the EU?
Second, it probably doesn’t make much difference. Andrew Lilico, an economist who seems to me to know what he is talking about (though I realise that my opinion on the merits of different economists isn’t worth much) has looked at the arguments and done some calculations, and the conclusion he came to was “by 2030 one should expect the economic consequences from Brexit to be roughly balanced – somewhere between a loss of 1% of GDP and a gain of 2% of GDP “. That’s not a big difference.
Third, whether leaving or remaining is better for the British economy depends mostly on the economic policies followed by British governments and the EU in the future. If Britain leaves and follows wise economic policies, leaving will probably lead to greater prosperity. If Britain leaves and follows foolish economic policies, Britain will probably be poorer as a result of leaving. And that will largely depend on how we vote at general elections.
Open Britain or Fortress Britain
For a lot of people, the referendum is not so much about economic prosperity, but about how they see the rest of the world. Should Britain be open to the rest of the world, or should we be protecting and policing our borders? Is the rest of the world a threat, or is it an opportunity? For many people, this is pretty much a gut instinct. Yes, it is related to the question of economic prosperity – but it is even more basic than that.
What is interesting is that for some people, the problem with the EU is that it makes the UK too open to the rest of the world – while for other people, the EU cuts the UK off from the rest of the world. In other words, some people support leaving because they want Britain to be more protected, and others support leaving because they want Britain to be more open.
An example of someone who supports Brexit because he wants more protection for Britain is John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw. Writing in “The Sun“, he says
“At the heart of our problems, we have at all times now one arm tied behind our back by the European Union and there is nothing we can do about it. Nowhere is that clearer than with the free movement of people, which has, is, and will continue to undermine pay and conditions in working class communities. It is not sustainable to have 300,000 new people added to the population every year. It has created two kinds of people in this country: the people who gain from this and the people who lose out. If you live in London and you want a cheap nanny, and a gardener and a cheaper plumber you can get really nice, really good people cheaper than you could before and you can go to a different restaurant every night and eat a different kind of food. In the North of England, in the Midlands, in South Wales, people do not get those benefits. They get the problems. . . . So the speed of change is worsening inequality in the country. . . . the poorest in society are the ones who have been hit by agency workers and zero hours contracts already. They are the ones who have been hit by labour flexibility with so many workers coming into the country. “
My comment on that is simply that the MP for Bassetlaw says a lot about “inequality in the country” and about “the poorest in society” – but completely ignores the fact that a lot of the workers coming into the country (because of this free movement of people) are poor by British standards, and are seeing their standard of living improving a lot by coming into the UK. The free movement of people may increase “inequality in the country”, but it decreases “inequality in the world”. What hits the poorest in British society may well help the poorest in the world.
Similarly, he speaks about how it is good for Londoners to be able to get a cheap nanny or a cheap gardener or a cheap plumber, and how people from the North of England, the Midlands, and South Wales lose out because they cannot – but he doesn’t mention the fact that the nanny, the gardener and the plumber are all benefiting from being able to move freely.
In short, this other John Mann doesn’t really seem particularly excited about helping the less well off, unless they are British.
But while this Bassetlaw chap wants to leave because he believes the EU is too open, Liberal Leave (a LibDem group who support Brexit) want to leave because they think it is too closed:
“Liberal values are global – and should not be limited just to one continent. The insularity of the European Union has meant that Britain has turned its back on the rest of the world, especially the Commonwealth. This is reflected in our immigration policy, where it is almost impossible for people to move to the UK from outside the EU. We believe the liberal principles of free and open trade are the best way of increasing prosperity in developing countries. But far from promoting trade, the EU imposes punishing tariffs on countries in places like Africa and Central America, seeking to sell their goods in Britain. We believe ‘Fortress Europe’ has failed to respond humanely and effectively to the refugee crisis. “
Will Britain be more open or more closed if it leaves? That will depend on the policies it chooses to follow if it leaves – and also, to some extent, to the policies followed by the EU. And we simply don’t know what policies the British government and the EU are going to follow over the next 20 years. About the only thing that can be said is that if Britain leaves the EU, it will probably be more open to people and goods from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and less open to people and goods from Europe.
Ever closer union
If it is difficult to know what effect leaving would have on the UK’s prosperity and on its openness, is there anything we can know about the consequences of leaving? I think there probably is one thing that we can be pretty sure of.
The trend over the past 40 years has been in the direction of ever closer union. The EEC gave way to the EU in 1993; the European Central Bank appeared in 1998; in 2002 member states that adopted the Euro ceased using their traditional currencies. There is talk of a European Army. Ever closer union seems to be happening, and it seems likely that this trend will continue, with member states slowly but steadily giving up their independence, and the EU becoming a de facto sovereign nation. There is nothing particularly unusual about this; 200 years ago Germany and Italy were collections of several small states, which gradually came together over the course of several decades to form Germany and Italy as we know them today.
Would it be good or bad for the UK to lose (even) more of its independence? Would a united Europe be a good thing?
I think that a lot of people are attracted to the idea of being part of a large union because it feels ‘safer’ – remaining outside feels risky. This way of thinking believes that big is good – or at least that it is good to be part of something big – that a united Europe would be secure and strong in the big wide world out there.
I have to confess that I am uneasy with that view. In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And it seems to me that the second worst option is a world divided into a small handful of powerful blocks. Again, far too much power would be concentrated in only a handful of places. What I would prefer to see is a large number of independent countries – the more the merrier. That would share power out, and provide diversity instead of uniformity.
Interestingly enough, this brings us back to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. And in particular to words of the builders of the tower: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. ” What is interesting is that the Biblical account describes an attempt by the people of the world to form a unity. It doesn’t describe it explicitly as a political unity, but that is what it was.
God clearly did not believe that this unity project was a good idea:
“The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.“
The words “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” suggest that God did not think this huge amount of (political) power concentrated in one place was a good thing. And so he scattered them over the face of all the earth – in other words, into many smaller political units.
And if God thought that was a good idea, who am I to argue?