The EU referendum – are you feeling lucky?

Introduction (18th October 2016)

I wrote this a few weeks before the EU referendum. As political analysis it is rubbish. I was right that a leave vote would produce a mess and the UK government would have little idea what to do. What I had assumed was that it would try to react responsibly and rationally. I took it for granted that the government would make every effort to keep us in the Single Market. I was hopelessly wrong.

I could have just deleted the article, but I’m leaving it here as an illustration of how the electorate collectively did not have a clue what a leave vote would entail. I think I was paying more attention than most people but I didn’t grasp that the government would be so stupid and reckless as to go for a hard Brexit, tearing us out of the Single Market, as its Plan A.

The article assumes that access to the Single Market means membership. That was a widespread shared assumption before the referendum, and if that was a mistake it was one that the Leave campaigns were happy to exploit and did not wish to clear up. Now, they claim that access means selling to the Single Market from outside, just the same as any other country like China or Chile. That is a meaningless piece of quibbling. What they are describing is simply selling to the EU. No-one ever talks about other countries having access to the UK’s single market; we all just talk about exporting to the UK. The Leave campaigns were happy to create the impression that access and membership were synonymous. Only now they have their dishonest victory do they wish to explain what they meant.

By early October it is looking increasingly likely that we will get a hard Brexit. The Brexiteers who swamped us with lies, evasions and inconsistencies during the campaign are determined to present the result as a mandate for a hard Brexit that cannot even be debated. It’s a pity they didn’t introduce that to the debate before the referendum when they assured us, utterly implausibly, we could have everything.

The article (written on 12th June 2016)

Increasingly, as the weeks roll by in Britian’s EU referendum debate, I am bemused by the brazen tone of the Brexit campaigns. They are repeatedly trounced in the detailed arguments. They claim we can guzzle every last crumb of cake and simultaneously save it all for tomorrow. When the Remainers point out that this is nonsense the Brexiteers respond with breezy assertions that everything will be alright on the night, that everyone will be happy to cut us a great deal, and that, anyway, documenting the workings of the real world is no more than scare-mongering. The Brexiteers have nothing to offer but vague assertions, blatant distortions, and crazed optimism, yet when they inevitably lose the arguments they simply claim they have won and utter more tripe, or worse they repeat proven lies like “£350 million a week goes to Brussels”.

A specific, huge problem with the Brexit case is the claim we can simultaneously retain access to the EU’s Single Market and “take control of our borders”. Access to the Single Market requires free movement of people to work anywhere in the Single Market. Nobody, not Norway or Switzerland, is able to trade in the Single Market and stop EU citizens moving to their countries. Norway is in the Schengen area and has proportionately higher immigration than the UK. Switerland is also in Schengen. A few years ago I was cycling in Austria with my wife, Mary. We were uncertain of our whereabouts one day and asked two women we passed. We were in Switzerland. We had crossed an EU frontier without even noticing. Free movement is one of the founding principles of the EU’s Single Market, yet we are expected to believe that the EU will happily abandon that principle if we walk out the door. They won’t. There’s nothing to suggest they will.

If there’s a vote to leave the EU then Brexit campaigners will claim a mandate to cut immigration. They will almost certainly force David Cameron out of office so that the exit negotiations are led by people who believe in their cause. What will the UK do when the EU insists on a hefty price for any compromise on free movement? The UK negotiators will be desperate to secure access to the Single Market, but even more desperate to cut immigration. These are fundamentally inconsistent aims. They will have to throw some some very big and costly concessions onto the bargaining table to get any sort of deal.

Immigration is perhaps the most important factor in the referendum debate in England, especially in the south and east. These are largely Tory areas. Will a Conservative government tell their supporters that they will have to pay the price for cutting immigration? Will the concessions to the EU be spread equally across the UK? Or will the Tory government sacrifice the parts of the UK where there will be no electoral retaliation? The Conservatives have little to lose in Scotland.

Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Association, might be considered a natural, enthusiastic supporter of Brexit, but he has similar concerns. On the BBC’s
Countryfile on 5th June 2016 he said.

It seems self-evident that recovery of sovereignty and jurisdiction of some of the best fishing grounds in the world would be a good thing so it looks like a no-brainer. However, what would the UK do with that sovereignty and jurisdiction? We don’t have much economic muscle when it comes to arguments about resetting everything with our relationships with Europe, and we would be fearful that in a reset fishing would be used as a bargaining tool.

Scottish fisheries were sacrificed when we joined the EU. It was seen as a price worth paying for entry to the Common Market. In those days the Conservatives had 23 seats in Scotland. Now they have only one. Can we really expect them to take a more altruistic attitude now they have only David Mundell to lose?

It won’t just be fisheries. Giving the EU its current access to UK waters won’t buy much in the negotiations. There will be more, and painful concessions required. As a self-employed consultant I value my ability to move freely around Europe. I don’t take that for granted. All the noises from experts suggest that the UK will be more likely to gain access for goods than services in the Single Market. People like me could be cut off without a moment’s hesitation.

The Economist and Financial Times have disssected the Brexit case repeatedly, in detail, and at length. These are not reactionary, capitalist papers attempting to trash an idealistic, dangerous, socialist insurgency. They are the expert commentators on the free market game that the Brexiteers want to play, and their verdict is damning; the leave case is deluded nonsense. The Brexiteers have not won the arguments. They are brazenly ignoring them, fingers in ears.

The Brexiteers tell us not to worry. We can have it all. We can walk out of the club and still have all the benefits of membership with none of the costs. Why should we believe them? Ultimately it’s a matter of trust. The Brexiteers are asking us to believe Nigel Farage, a motor mouthed fantasist, and Boris Johnson, who has been sacked twice in his career, both times for lying. So, do you trust them? Are you feeling lucky? Any deal we reach with our erstwhile partners is likely to prove a bitter disappointment to those who voted for Brexit. What will happen when people realise they’ve voted for a damaged economy, without any significant change in immigration? It won’t be pretty. When the pain comes following Brexit are you hoping it will fall on someone else? Are you still feeling really lucky?