Brexit: shooting the messenger

Brexit won, and denial and anger rule.

Some say Cameron should never have called the referendum. But read his speech when he announced it, and then argue against him.

In this speech, Cameron announced the case for staying in. You probably couldn’t put it better. He covered the evidence of the British people’s deep misgivings (true), and attributed this to deep flaws in the EU project (correct). He said what was being done about those problems, and what could be done in future. After hearing that speech, it is clear there was a strong case for continued membership of the EU. But not an unopposed case.

The referendum was a concession to Tory MPs who were worried about votes bleeding to anti-EU campaigners. In other words, it was a democratic response to what voters were saying. Just about everyone concedes that the EU has a “democratic deficit”. You can see why.

Condemning the referendum is wrong. It is only being condemned because Remain lost. I am sure a favourable result would now be called a triumph of democracy.

The UK joined the common market via referendum, where the result was 2/3 in favour. That’s the type of endorsement which gives credibility. We talk about the advantages of incumbency. Britain’s membership of the EU is 43 years old. That is more than enough time to build a track record. Is it not amazing that even 40% percent of voters would oppose continued membership?

Some say that the campaign itself uncorked the demons of xenophobia, that the campaign itself created the dissatisfaction which lead to the result. This is a slightly more sophisticated way of saying that you can’t trust voters, which is exactly the problem with the EU. If you don’t trust the voters, what you are really saying is your don’t trust your ability to make your case. In a dictatorship, that’s a moot point. But in a democracy, that’s kind of how the system works. If a referendum was good enough to join the common market, why is it not good enough to leave? People were really engaged with this referendum. Turnout was high in both Leave and Remain areas. This result was not swung by a fringe.

Condemnation of the referendum is shooting the messenger. Just to show how pathetic the situation is, the Remain camp would have been happy with a 1% win. Meaning that nearly half of all the UK would have looked at the part 43 years and said “no more”. That shows how low expectations were. And not even those expectations were met.

The general EU elite response to referendums is deep fear and mistrust, because it tends to lose referendums where voters are asked to support transfer of power to Brussels. The general EU elite response is therefore to avoid referendums. It is very hard to admire this. Cameron should not be castigated because he chose a better path. The problem was not the referendum, the problem was the result.

We hear that the Leave campaign preyed on fears and was based on lies. From what I saw, the Remain camp preyed on fears and told a few porkies too. This happens at every election, and voters need to see through it. Generally they do. Particularly older voters, who have seen it all before.

People say the old have condemned young Britons to a dismal, Pluto-like future on the cold edge of the solar system… but it is the older voters, the elders, which have the accumulated experience of EU membership. Accumulated experience is called “wisdom”, and often it is praised, except apparently in cases where it is not the right wisdom. In any case, everyone knew who was voting. There are plenty of older people who vote with a view to the future. Perhaps, shock horror, these older people did not believe that continued membership of the EU was in the interests of the grand children. If that’s true, the fact that they were older voters is not important. It just means that Remain lost the argument.

There is something rotten in the EU. It is not delivering jobs, growth, fiscal or border control and appears weak in the face of external threats.

This is partly due to terrible decisions by the EU (who would trust EU promoters after the Euro debacle?), and partly due to broken polities in France, Spain and Greece, which failed to enact the policies need to provide the shock absorbers lost when they joined a fixed currency. These are signs of poor democracies, captured by vested interests. Standing from Dover, it’s failure you see whether you look to Madrid, Paris or Brussels. The EU has condemned itself. There was plenty of warning. The EU also shows little evidence of reform, so calls for patience and working from the inside are not convincing. Possibly the EU is just broken. It was unable to give Cameron the concessions he needed, because it is afraid of setting precedents. As a parent, I appreciate this approach, but it is not really a good sign when you are dealing with member states.

Many in the Remain camp said that Britain will lose influence being outside. What they don’t like to admit is that this is a two way street: Britain also loses interference. It was clear that Britain lead the voice of free trade, and its alliance of smaller northern states was fighting the protectionist bloc (mostly the South). Germany is basically the swing vote. With Britain gone, the EU will lose a heavy-weight champion of free trade, and there will be celebrations in parts of France and disappointment in the Nordic states; the anti-reform forces in the EU are now clearly dominant unless something big changes.

However, Britain gains the ability to throw away EU policies which harm competitiveness. What Britain does with these opportunities will determine how this decision is judged.

We also hear that the single market is the dominant trading partner of Britain. Europe is not new. It was a major trading partner before EU membership, and it still will be in the future. I have no doubt that membership increased Britain’s trade to the Single Market: for a long time, the Single Market sheltered behind tariff walls, and it is obviously true that if you move your business to inside the castle walls, you will do more trade inside the castle. The single market has liberalised a lot, and expanded. But the increased liberalisation means the penalty of being outside is not what it once was. If the EU is serious about growth, it has to be serious about free trade, which means the UK shouldn’t be badly affected, and if it is not serious about growth, then the penalty for staying may be too high. What’s the point of the EU if you’re Spanish, with no apparent ability to take policy measures to get unemployment below 20%? When Spaniards lament Brexit, they are partly lamenting the freedom to work in the UK, which figures prominently in the short list of benefits that EU membership offers young, skilled Spaniards.

We don’t know what compromises Britain will make with the EU. There may be big concessions of sovereignty (like Norway), but in that case, access to the single market will be virtually unimpeded. But in other trade-offs where Britain keeps more sovereignty and suffers more barriers, it will be up to Britain to pursue better policies than it could as an EU member. It already did that to a certain extent: staying out of the Euro is a strong example. In any case, plenty of successful trading nations are not members of a “single market”. Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand aren’t.

It is what it is. The vote was not a phantasm. It was the result of a significant campaign with high voter engagement, a judgement on something which most voters have experienced their entire adult life.

But one really big problem is that while the Leave campaigners agreed that Britain needs to take back sovereignty, they certainly don’t agree what do with it.

By the way, I personally don’t rate the chances of another rapid Scottish independence referendum. The Scots can’t afford it. The oil revenues they were so upset about sharing are not what they once were. Cooler heads will prevail up North.

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