Letter to an old, old friend who is voting to Leave the EU

My IN shirt — image by Wolfgang Tillmans

Dear ******,

It was wonderful meeting up with you on Wednesday, and you’re quite right: I am appallingly bad at staying in touch and I must try harder. In my defence: though I will happily perform in front of a crowd or dance all night long at a party, I have finally had to acknowledge that I am in the end a weapons-grade introvert, better suited perhaps to shacks on the beach than to these bustling Victorian Gothic streets.

It’s odd, then, that I’m about to beg you to change your mind about Europe. You’d think the idea of a solitary nation would appeal to me. It’s true that I don’t really feel the Churchillian evangelism about a United States of Europe that I sometimes invoke when some other loudmouth at the bar is dispensing the Spitfire Summer as a reason we should send all the filthy Belgians back to their own country (no, all right, no one has so far complained to me that we’re overrun with Belgians). I’m sure Churchill imagined us the captain of the European ship, ultimately determining the course of the continent for those emotional foreigners. I’m more inclined to see us being carried along with Scandinavian enlightenment and Italian flair to a better way of life. To be honest, I’d hope to have our fellow Europeans restraining our more stupid and self-destructive impulses. When I look at the choices we make as a polity, I do sometimes feel we shouldn’t be allowed out unaccompanied.

But that’s not it either. What I feel is a bone deep commonality with France, Germany, Italy and the rest. I feel they are our people and we are theirs. We have been allies, we have fought and hated one another, we have come to terms. There’s no one untouched by our shared history, and we should accept our scars and let go our pain and step forward together. Does that sound dreamy and romanticised? I suppose it does.

So, then, let’s talk brass tacks. The economic position is relatively clear: our exit from the EU will cause Britain considerable short term pain. The EU is a net benefit to us financially. The pain is not in doubt — and it looks pretty severe, especially for poorer families. The precise duration is unclear because the proponents of Leave say it will be brief and lead to glory and those of Remain say otherwise. The German finance minister recently said outright that we would not get access to the European single market on the same basis as, say, Norway. Out is Out, he said. Well, he may just be turning up the heat. But certainly there’ll be a period of at least two years’ confusion while we get out, and it’s unclear that we’ll be able to negotiate new treaties in time to keep our place in the web of imports and exports. It could be as much as a decade before we’re back to a solid footing, and investment will be hard to come by during that time. That’s fine for traders and so on, of course, because they make money on volatility. To some extent it’s fine for me and you because we’re international enough to ride it out. It’s not okay for the majority of the British public, though, who will find the government has even less money to spend on services than it does now, and for whom jobs will be harder to come by.

Then there’s the question of what deals we’d actually get. You mentioned the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — a wretched document, I think — as part of your reasoning. You were concerned about what it would do to the NHS. Can you imagine what sort of deal the US would demand from us if we were negotiating a trade deal with them from a position of relative weakness? Aside from us going to the back of the line, of course. US GDP is in the same region as the EU’s — somewhere around $17tn, fluctuating year to year. Britain’s is under $3tn. It seems possible that just to restore the trade position we now have, we’d be required to compromise in ways that would be vastly more unpleasant than what’s in TTIP. Incidentally, David Cameron had to be dragged by Conservative rebels to exempt the NHS from the TTIP deal — which means, presumably, that he’s comfortable that all our other vital systems should be covered by it. If TTIP is bad for health, no doubt it’s also bad for education and food. France and Germany have both said they want no part of TTIP’s most obnoxious section, the one on Investor State Dispute Settlement. The EU combined has the chops to negotiate a deal that doesn’t allow overseas corporations to sue their way to commercial advantage in our country at the expense of our population. Britain alone? No, I think not.

I know you don’t put much faith in economists, but it has to be significant that 90% British economists say that leaving the EU will damage UK growth and only 5% think it will actually lead to growth; that 61% say it will increase unemployment and 82% say it will lower household incomes. Eight former US Treasury Secretaries got together to warn us that a Leave vote would make us poorer and weaker. Thirteen of their State and Defense Department colleagues did the same, along with five former heads of NATO, Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau…

We could talk about sovereignty, but I know — you said as much — that you already recognise that it’s a movable feast. The UK is a signatory to thousands of international treaties, each of which binds it in some way or another in exchange for a similar binding upon another nation or group. Absolute control of our own choices is something we give up in order to achieve reciprocal concessions from others. That’s the natural flow of international relations. I think when people talk about sovereignty they really mean the supposed flood of EU rules that bind our hands: things like the Working Time Directive and the TUPE. There’s a great deal written in our press — and has been for years — that suggests the EU bombards us with mad rules. In fact, there’s so much that the EU now maintains a directory of EU myths in the UK. My favourite is the one about ambulances having to be yellow. It would be hilarious, except that it isn’t because it’s a steady drip of misinformation about something that matters. It’s as if we were all going to vote on the basis of a running joke on a bad comedy show.

Screencap from the myths list. Note that this is just Ab-Av.

When you look at actual EU labour regulations in a list, they’re rather obvious and human. So perhaps it’s the European Convention on Human Rights, which actually is a separate treaty largely authored by us in the 1950s. That’s been the focus of a lot of ire recently, but again, when you consider the rights it guarantees, they seem self-evident and necessary. I’ve noticed that politicians are prone to shouting about “activist judges” when the judgment goes against them and they are constrained to do something they don’t want to, or told they’re not allowed to do something they do want to. I think we need activist judges of that sort because we have politicians who will otherwise — perhaps almost by accident — hollow out our democracy. I know you agree about that, too, because we talked about that remarkable moment in 2005 when the Law Lords had to decide whether it was legal to use evidence obtained by torture in a British court. It’s not surprising that they said no, but it’s horrible that someone thought it was worth asking. The ECHR is our spare parachute on that front, and it looks as if we need it.

You don’t have to tell me that the EU is capable of issuing painful regulations — good Lord, there’s VATMOSS to contend with now — but the OECD says we have the second least regulated product markets among industrial countries. The way to deal with the bad regulations is to force our government to push back on them (something HMRC signally failed to do on the new VAT rules because they don’t really understand micro-businesses.)

This is my problem: whenever I try to work out what the underlying, real case for a Leave vote is, it fades away. The more I examine the issues that might take us out of the EU, the more they elude me. I read Paul Mason’s discussion of reasons for the left to choose to quit the EU, and I understood, at least, where he was coming from — but in the end he makes the point that anyone voting on that basis now would have to be loopy, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson likely to have the helm, never mind Farage. And to be honest, I’m not sure, even if everything else he argues is spot on, that the EU is so fixed that it would be better leaving it than changing it. Perhaps I’m a gradualist — well, no, there’s no perhaps, I am: revolution, real revolution, is the last worst salvation. It’s what happens to a society when even death is preferable to agony, and anyone looking for a short term or even a medium term victory from that mode of change is deluding themselves, at least from a historical perspective. A person who throws that word around when they don’t mean burning streets and firing squads deserves a clip across the ear.

Leave just seems utterly nebulous to me, a vapour of misplaced anger made superficially coherent by a very competent demagoguic effort backed by very, very rich men. Rupert Murdoch wants us to Leave — by itself a reason not to — and he’s throwing plenty of weight behind the effort.

From Anthony Hilton’s Evening Standard piece via The Independent

We didn’t talk about immigration on Wednesday because by then we were sensing the edges of the conversation and just wanted to leave the EU vote behind lest it spoil the evening. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that your perspective there will be in line with mine. To put it simply: it seems pretty clear that various parts of the UK’s infrastructure depend on workers from outside the country — most notably the NHS again (2) — and that nationwide the economic benefit of immigration is clear enough. Immigration simply has no negative effect overall on jobs, wages or public services. It’s in the local context that it may be problematic, where for example rapid growth in number requiring medical care is not matched by an increase in funding. That’s not a reason to reject the EU, of course, but to handle migration more intelligently and to distribute resources more efficiently. That’s the other thing I don’t understand: what makes people think that leaving the EU will help to control immigration? Norway — one of the poster-children for those who want to Leave — actually has higher per capita immigration than we do, and it seems likely that especially at the moment the price of (re)admission to the European marketplace would be our acceptance of immigration and refugees. The majority of immigration into this country is still non-EU anyway, though the graphs are converging at the moment (play around with the graph tool — it’s revealing).

Do you see what I mean? I struggle to get a clear idea of why anyone would think a Leave vote was a wise choice. The LSE’s Nicholas Barr wrote about all this, with footnotes and sources, so you can fact check me if you will. Or there’s this incredible data science piece with its exemplary footnoting. I know people are talking about Britain somehow being kickstarted by a Leave vote and becoming a nimble tiger economy, but it seems to me the subtext is almost “rising from the ashes, we will conquer the world”. That’s fine for those who don’t get burned up, less good for everyone else. And proponents almost always couch it as a maybe, as if it was okay to set national policy affecting everyone as something where you just sort of have a stab and if it goes wrong, well, never mind, eh? David Owen said that a Leave vote “could be” the spark we need to re-energise our economy. Smashing. And if it turns out it isn’t? Moreover: what prevents us from becoming that economy now? Is it the EU, or the Austerity doctrine which the IMF recently declared DOA? I don’t understand how we’re supposed to become a tiger when no one wants to play with our ball of string.

If what one wanted for Britain was a deregulated labour market with fewer rights for employees and fewer regulations upon banks and corporations, fewer environmental protections, a health service inexorably privatised to create a full-on healthcare market in the UK and other public services following suit, with the resultant influx of brigand capital and soaring inequality, then Leave could work really well. I’ve written post-Apocalypse stories and I’m uncomfortably familiar with that thought — the creation of a perfect oligarch island haven with great fashion and night life and tax breaks just two hours from Paris. But that doesn’t strike me either as a happy, prosperous nation or as the outcome you or most people will want from their Leave vote. It strikes me as a nightmare.

You’re laughing, and I hope I am as ridiculous as I sound when I read that out loud.

From where I stand, it seems that we put a tiny fraction of our annual national spend (and get back more) towards membership of a vital trading bloc which is also a landmark project in the effort to prevent neighbouring countries with a history of violence from warring on one another — and that bloc, that project, is not an exogenous given. That is to say that it’s not guaranteed to continue to exist if we Leave. Our departure could bring it down. I think that would be a tragedy — the end of something that was begun in fear and hope, that is supposed to be about making a better world, its demise coming in response to a sustained campaign of aggressive hectoring whose positive side I cannot find.

So here’s what I want to tell you: that my head and my heart are perfectly aligned. I feel European and everything I’ve seen persuades me that staying in the EU is the wise vote. More urgently, nothing I’ve seen has made me think there are upsides to a Leave decision. The harder I look for one, the more they fade away in front of me. If your conviction that Leave is the way forward comes from your heart — if it’s irreducible and desperate and a part of who you are — then I can’t argue with it. But we’ve known each other a long, long time and I don’t get the sense that it does. So if your choice comes from issues and arguments — if any of what I’ve set out here is new to you, or makes you think “he can’t possibly be right about that, can he? I’m sure he’s not -” then please stop and consider the possibility that you might have taken the wrong fork in this road. You can chase answers through the tubes of the Internet as well as I can — we learned the art of search in the same days, back when it was a strange staged process of keywords and intuition, precision, revision and teasing memory. Follow the breadcrumbs and find out what you can. Show me I’m wrong. I think the same exacting intelligence you bring to bear on everything else in your life will require you to change your mind.

But if it doesn’t, I’ll buy you a drink, either in the wretched hive bars of the Franco-German Superstate or the tumbleweed rust belt of post-Brexit economic collapse.

Take care, old friend — and please think again.