Not much longer to go. This wretched campaign, which could foul the future of Britain, will soon be over — leaving behind, I hope, the recognition of what a crude, populist device a referendum is: A real threat to parliamentary democracy. After membership of the European Union (EU), why not try a referendum on capital punishment next?
By polling day, what else will Britons be left with at home? Above all, if the ‘remain’ campaign wins, having to cope with the swelling of a sour, xenophobic English nationalism masquerading as the liberation of the nation’s mojo (to use Michael Gove’s language).
In their Trumpish rhetoric, how do Boris Johnson and Gove actually differ from Nigel Farage? Only perhaps in this. Farage has at least always believed in what he is saying; for Johnson, in particular, you need to take principles and policies a week at a time. But there are five points that surely should not be too difficult to grasp.
First, when Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC), back in the early 1970s, it was the “sick man of Europe”, behind France, Germany and Italy. Because Britain was not a member from the beginning, the EEC in the 1970s reflected French interests above all, in its spending programmes and protectionist instincts. In four decades, Britain has helped to transform it, in ways that suit it and the other members very well.
Britain has stayed out of Schengen and the Eurozone, grown faster than most of the other EU members, created more jobs than them and now faces the prospect in the next 20 years of becoming the biggest and most successful economy in the union. All that has happened despite the nonsense about the United Kingdom being held back by Brussels bureaucracy and red tape. It is, in fact, one of the two least regulated economies in Europe. With Britain’s labour market on a par with Australia, Canada and the United States, what more do the Brexiteers want?
Of course, it can scrap more regulations, like those that make the food safer, the environment cleaner and Britain’s workplaces fairer for women. That seems a prospect that sends a shiver of happy anticipation through Iain Duncan Smith, once the self-styled quiet man of British politics (oh, happy days).
So why, second, would Britain want to turn its back on an economic success story and on its biggest market, the product of one of the Margaret Thatcher government’s greatest achievements? There is hardly a reputable economist or economic organisation in Britain or abroad who thinks this is other than crazy. The lack of any intelligent endorsement for this is taken by Brexiteers as a sign of virtue. Never believe experts. Oh really? This is simply not adult behaviour. Yes, experts can get things wrong — just as Gove was wrong to think as late as 2008 that the Iraq war was a terrific idea. But all of them? The denial of any evidence you don’t like is a disorder, not something to boast about.
Moreover, the alternative to Europe’s single market has never been spelt out. The main proposition now is that Europe will give Britain better terms than it has today because it has such a large trade deficit with its partners. This ignores any notion of proportionality: 44% of UK’s exports go to them; 7% of theirs come to the UK. So Britain will face a leap in the dark with a very steep fall at the end.
But third, in return for big economic costs, wouldn’t Britain at least get back control over its lives? Where does it not control things already? Housing, welfare, health, defence and foreign policy are all in its hands. In fact, the biggest problems Britain faces as a country are in areas such as housing and health, where it calls the shots. But aren’t many problems really the result of immigration? Can’t blame be pinned on those foreigners? This is what the “control” argument is really all about: Portuguese nurses, Polish plumbers, Romanian pea-pickers.
The largest numbers of migrants, all of whom come because British economy is booming, are from places other than Europe — yet, apparently Britain is only going to stop the Europeans. And not the ones with skills, just those who come to stack shelves or work in the fields of the east Midlands. How many — 5,000? 10,000? 20,000? More? If they do that, I suppose, as one leading Brexiteer argued, Britain’s own pensioners can pick the potatoes.
Wreck the economy, and you can certainly slow the immigration that has helped Britain boom and give jobs to more men and women born in Britain than ever before.
And fourth, that mojo stuff is about the young. It’s Britain’s hi-tech startups; it’s the research scientists and the universities. In every one of these areas, the big majority wants Britain to stay — not least, in the area I know best as chancellor of Oxford University, because of the importance to Britain’s research community of its EU sponsors and collaborators. Vote to leave and Britain blights the future of its younger citizens. No wonder the Brexiteers are hoping they won’t turn out to vote.
Finally, if Britain leaves the EU — an important if imperfect part of the world order that has made Britain and others more prosperous and safe — how much else will then unravel?
The EU is an extraordinary creation in which, countries that believe in pluralism, democracy, welfare economics and the rule of law gain extra leverage in the pursuit of their national interests by sharing sovereignty. So what is Brexit’s message to the world? Maybe as Ferdinand Mount, the former head of Thatcher’s policy unit, says, we’ll catch the Brexiteers belting out that Millwall chant, ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’. Like the football team, they’ll sing it all the way to the Third Division.
— Guardian News and Media Ltd
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford.