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Brexit - a matter of wishful thinking

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20th June 2016

The three biggest myths about Brexit, and why they are quite untrue (and now, sadly,  a fourth myth) :

  1. By leaving the EU, we will be able to stop immigration.

    We won't – it's as simple as that. Britain needs immigration.
       Michael Gove, who is an English graduate not an economist, says he could cut net immigration to almost zero: maybe he could, but at what cost to the economy, and therefore to everyone's wealth ?
        Unless we are to deprive our economy of a vital resource, all we will be able to do is replace the immigration of people from Europe (which is where the Celtic, British and Anglo-saxon people of Britain originally came from) with immigration from  other continents such as Africa or Asia. If we seriously curtailed immigration, many of our businesses would go out of business, and international businesses would move many operations to Ireland or other parts of the EU where they can get the employees they need.
       Besides, immigration from Europe and beyond has greatly enriched British life... even among the "Leave" campaign .
    Did you know?
    Where would the "leave" campaign be without the grandson of  Ali Kemal Bey, who is none other than the man we know today as Boris Johnson ?  Bey married an Anglo-Swiss girl called Margaret Johnson; his children took their mother's name  Johnson, so Boris, born in the USA, is Boris Johnson, not Boris Bey.
       And he is just one of many Conservative politicians of immigrant origin : among others are Michael Portillo (born to a Spanish father, Luis Portillo), Nigel Howard (born Michael Hecht, the son of an immigrant from Romania)... not to mention Priti Patel. And even Nigel Farage (Farage is a French name) has French and German ancestors... and a German wife.
  2.  We can get rid of European law, and regain our sovereignty

    We can't: only a minority of British laws are actually imposed on us by Brussels; and the vast majority of these are quite uncontroversial, like laws for clean beaches, consumer protection laws and employee rights legislation. Besides, if we want to trade freely as a privileged partner with the EU, we will need to keep lots of EU legislation on the statute books, just like Norway and Switzerland
  3. We can stop paying over 300 million a week into the EU

    We don't pay this amount in the first place. The figure of £350 million is a gross deceipt. It's what we pay, but it does not take into account what we get back. When the plus figures are taken into account, we pay less than half the amount.... and less per head than people in other countries. What we pay is greatly outweighed by the economic benefits of membership in terms of jobs, easy export markets and trade. And if we want to continue trading as a privileged partner with the EU, we'll need to continue paying into the EU like Norway and Switzerland, but we will now longer have any say in how the budget is spent. 

  4. The shooting of Jo Cox had nothing to do with Brexit

    A leading anti-Brexit campaigner, a tireless campaigner for human rights and humanitarian causes, is murdered at the height of the Brexit campaign by a man with links to right wing causes, a man who, according to witnesses, shouted "Britain first" as he attacked the MP; and this has nothing to do with the anti-immigration rhetoric stirred up by Nigel Farage and the leave campaign?
       No, seriously ! Anyone who believes this will probably believe the other three arguments too.
    Brought before magistrates in London, Thomas Mair gave his name as "Death for traitors, freedom for Britain" - which is a fairly clear expression of his motivation.
       Some may say "But he was just a nutter." Yes, he is in need of psychiatric help – but that does not diminish in any way the link between the enmity stirred up by the Brexit campaign, and his fatal act. Behind each "nutter" who actually resorts to major violence there are a thousand more "nutters" who dream of doing so, but are held back by their instinct of self-preservation. And behind each of these latent assassins there are a thousand more who share their motives and support their  actions.... a million people maybe, driven by hatred or just misguided, who believe that those who want Britain to remain in the EU, and give help to refugees, are "traitors".
      And this is not an exaggeration. Here is just one example. In a council election pamphlet in May 2014, UKIP candidate Gordon Ferguson actually wrote "The Lib-Lab-Cons have conspired with a foreign power, the EU, and are all thereby guilty of treason. They have sold Britain, which is the fifth largest economy, illegally into increasing slavery inside the EU dictatorship. Those responsible should be hung by the neck until dead.” (As reported in the Daily Telegraph ( Article) and other media.
       And this was written in the name of the party that has been demanding Brexit for years.
    Then in an article in the Times on 18th June, Matthew Parris writes: "Remainers mustn’t be tempted to blame the Leave campaign. Nobody can account for the actions of disturbed minds."  
        No: Parris is very wrong. Disturbed minds don't coincidentally give their name as "Death for Traitors, Freedom for Britain" during a Brexit campaign. The actions of impressionable disturbed minds are a reflection of the outside environment and influences to which they are subjected, just like those of undisturbed minds – if not more so.
      While it is highly unlikely that anyone in the Leave campaign deliberately or knowingly influenced Thomas Mair,  it is naive in the extreme to suggest that the rhetoric and the perceived aims of the Leave campaign in no way account for his terrible act.

While there are many things about the EU that are far from perfect, many of the claims made by the "leave" campaign are based on isolationist ideology, rather than on reasoned argument.  So why do intelligent people like Michael Gove or Boris Johnson make such claims, and why do so many people believe them?

The second question in part answers the first.  In the worlds of politics, advertising, and religions, people make unsubstantiated, sometimes false and often unsubstantiable claims because they know that some, and maybe a lot of people will not question them.  While there are plenty of very justifiable criticisms that can be levelled at the European Union and the way it runs, it is hard to find solid economic arguments to suggest that the UK could do better outside the EU than in it.  So rosy wishful-thinking and make-believe predictions are used as a substitute for well-researched economic analysis, since however unrealistic the arguments may be, if they are said with enough conviction, some people will believe them.

Saying what people want to hear

   It is a characteristic of the "leave" campaign that people like Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, all very intelligent and clever people use arguments that may not be substantiable, but say what many people want to hear.  Most of us will sometimes applaud people who convince us not because their arguments are the most rational or logical or realistic, but because they reassure us  by giving us the answers we want to hear.  As consumers, people and voters, we are frequently irrational, making our choices on the basis of the story of events that we want to believe in.... not the story of events that stands up to the most rigourous objective scrutiny. We buy things because an advertiser convinces us that they are best; we may vote for the party that tells us what we want to hear. We prioritise things in the way that suits us, not usually in any quantifiable order of priority. Advertisers and populist politicians know this all too well, and this is how they build the popularity of their brands or their cause or even themselves, attracting support either because they have a cause in which they believe (which may or may not be rational), or simply because they have a big personal ego and are hungry for power.

The power of ideology

  But why is this happening in something as crucial as the Brexit debate? Why do intelligent people in the "leave" campaign make some very dubious claims that are not supported by  concrete evidence or precedent ? In short, it is down to ideology, and in particular the far-right ideology that has spearheaded the anti-EU campaign in the UK for the last thirty years or more.
   While ample research data shows that a large majority of better educated voters want Britain to remain in the EU, there are a certain number of very intelligent and clever politicians on the right-wing of the political spectrum, and to a certain extent in other parts of the political spectrum, who are leading the movement to take Britain out of the European Union. Not for economic reasons, not for patriotic reasons, but for ideological reasons.

  Take Michael Gove, British Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice, or Boris Johnson, mayor of London, or Nigel Farage. They are all undoubtedly intelligent people.... very clever people; but their reasons for supporting the "leave" campaign are ideological.  All three are by-and-large on the far right, though not on everything for sure. Gove is a social-conservative on social issues, and Johnson is not right-wing at all on evironmental or social issues. But all are "neo-conservatives" when it comes to the role of the state.
   The principal plank of neo-conservatism (a term originally applied to the right-wing of the American Republican party) is a belief that the state needs to intervene as little as possible in the life of the nation and the economy; the logical next-stop from this is to believe that intervention by a supranational organisation like the European Union is by definition even less desirable. So Brexit, for the right-wing, is a matter of political ideology, not an argument based on logic, let alone on the facts.
  If you are a "neo-con", you believe in principles of non-intervention which go contrary to the whole idea of the European union, and even to such consensual examples of state intervention as the National Health Service. Gove was co-author of a right-wing report that called for the National Health Service to be dismantled or replaced; and UKIP ex-Tory MP Douglas Carswell has called for the National Health Service to be privatised. As for Dan Hannan, Tory MEP and leading campaigner for the "leave" campaign, he openly called on American television for the dismantling of the NHS... for which he was severely rebuked by David Cameron.
   The "leave" campaign do not want to talk about the NHS, because they know that the vast majority of UK voters do not have any ideological objection to state intervention. We are pleased when the goverment says that it will intervene to save the Port Talbot steelworks, a vital part of the British steel industry; we support EU legislation that has brought down the cost of our mobile telephone charges; and we are strongly supportive of the NHS and the type of state intervention that is required to run it.  Boris Johnson has tried to forget that a few years ago he suggested charging for services on the NHS, saying "If NHS services continue to be free in this way, they will continue to be abused like any free service". More recently, he claimed that £350 million a week was being sent to Brussels instead of being spent on the NHS; but later he had to admit that the figure was quite wrong.
   So it is far easier for the "leave" campaign to concentrate on make-believe claims about the wonderful future we will enjoy if we leave the EU, to portray the EU as some kind of failed state or bogeyman, rather than to persuade people with real facts and figures.

Ideology trumps authority

   When it comes to arguing for a cause, authority and experience on the topic are not required. Thus Michael Gove - who has a second-class university degree in English - insists that Britain will not suffer economically by leaving the EU, quite the reverse, even though experts at the IMF, the Bank of England, the government's independent economic advisors, and countless economic research institutes, banks and financial institutions have said that it is likely to have a serious effect on the British economy for years to come. And when the former boss of MI6 Sir John Sawers, an expert in international security,  warns that leaving the EU would make the UK "less safe", Gove's reply is just to say he is "flat wrong".
   Some will believe the predictions of Gove, politician, ideologue, former journalist and English graduate, rather than those of the world's top economists or security experts, because what Gove says is what they want to hear, not because they have made any rational analysis of what both sides in this argument have said.
   Those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU are reluctant or often unable even to start to substantiate their arguments with hard solid fact. Asked on BBC TV by Andrew Neil to "name any reputable study that will show us better off or just the same if we leave", Labour brexiter Kate Hoey embarrasedly had to reply... after a certain amount of prodding, "Well, I can't actually produce a study that says that."
   And when Barack Obama, speaking as President of the United States of America, Britain's special ally, says that the UK will be stronger and a more effective ally to the United States if we remain in Europe, all that Boris Johnson can argue in reply is to say that Obama is a hypocrite...  and that he was talking "nonsense".  But shooting the messenger, in this case Obama, is no substitute for an argument; just an admission that Obama is right. Which is fairly obvious. One can safely believe that the President of the USA knows a little more about America's strategic world view than does the mayor of London.
   Ideology is no substitute for reasoned argument; and when ideology turns to dogma, it sees only what it wants to see, hears only what it wants to hear, even in the face of the most compelling evidence. And the ideology behind the "leave" campaign does not just want the UK to leave the European Union; it wants "contagion", and a collapse or break-up of the whole European Union.... while imagining that a disintegrated European Union could somehow be good for the British economy. This is ideology turning to folly.

Economists for Brexit

   While by far the majority of economists believe that Britain should remain in the EU, there are just a few, who argue that Britain would do better to leave the EU; but that is not very surprising. Indeed it would be very surprising if all economists agreed on anything. Economic prediction is not an exact science, and economic analysts may well let their political persuasions influence their economic forecasts; after all, when "economics" was a new field in the 18th century, it was initially known as "political economy" – a tool to help politicians best enact their political policies.
   But on the subject of Brexit, virtually all leading economists in Britain and worldwide - that's several thousand economists in universities, government and banks worldwide - believe that Britain leaving the EU would have very negative economic consequences for all.
   Just eight leading economists have formed a group called "Economists for Brexit"; but unsurprisingly they are economists of the far right, including UKIP economist Tim Congdon, neo-conservative economist Patrick Minford who strongly supported Margaret Thatcher's disastrous "poll tax" plans which led to riots in British cities,  Gerard Lyons, economic advisor to Boris Johnson, and neoliberal free-marketeer Ryan Bourne.
   The common feature of the very few economists who do want Britain to leave the EU is that they do not believe, or refuse to imagine, that the European Union can succeed... which is very much the point of view of ultra-liberals or neo-conservatives in general. Economists who believe that "market forces" left to their own will produce the best economic results are unlikely to have much sympathy with the European Union.

  As Philip Stephens wrote in the Financial Times on April 21st,  "The Brexiteers’ ammunition is English nationalism — a populist appeal to emotions rather than reason — and a hope that public anger with political and business elites, with stagnant living standards and austerity, with migrant workers and with just about anything you can think of can be channelled into a revolt against Europe."  It is not really much of a serious argument, and even less an argument for jeopardizing Britain's future for generations to come; yet it is an argument that Brexiteers know that a lot of people love to hear.
  Revolt may sometimes help to make things better in the long run; but History shows us that wishful thinking has  often been a potent recipe for disaster.

See also :  Why Britain needs Europe

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 © Andrew Rossiter and About-Britain.com 2016 

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