Welcome to the Fantasy Island of Little England
The pro-Brexit campaign is fudging numbers, reimagining history, and undermining the Great British tradition of common sense.
At some point during the final weeks before Britain’s June 23 referendum on membership in the European Union, the rhetoric of its debate became disconnected from reality. Appeals to passion have left no space for rational persuasion. A body politic that sees its serving justice secretary claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts” on national television in a formal debate, is an etiolated one, a shadow of itself. It is a country in which mock naval battles on the Thames have somehow come to be considered more effective rhetorical devices than deliberation and discussion.
This surreal, and pathetic, political atmosphere was punctured yesterday by the appalling murder of MP Jo Cox. It was fitting that all campaigning was suspended out of respect; it is fitting that the democratic process will ultimately not be impeded; and it now befits this land for the debate to return to sanity in its final days.
For the stakes could not be higher. Chancellor George Osborne was right to say this is a battle for the soul of this country. At heart, this is a fight between two basic interpretations of my country’s constitutional identity: Is Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” a Little England or a Great Britain?
To my mind, what defines Great Britain is its pragmatism, firmly anchored in the real world. At least that’s what I read into our constitution, which of course, is not codified in any one document, but is a collection of rules and customs that have evolved over centuries of negotiation, compromise, and common sense. Put differently, the British constitution does not do grand vision, and does not feel the need to anchor itself in universal truths that will one day take us to a promised land: It just responds incrementally to the world as it is.
Today’s world is a globalized one, and the EU allows the U.K. to operate more effectively in it. That is the basic, real-world argument, to stay in the EU. There is no need to attach to this pragmatic view any grand vision. The EU is flawed, but the U.K.’s relationship with it has been incrementally negotiated, and tailored, over 43 years to the effect that membership is the best vehicle currently on offer for the U.K. to amplify its economic strength in a globalized world.
The Little Englanders reject this. They obsess about the lack of a positive case to stay in the EU, as if some grand vision were needed beyond the basic economic case for Remain. There is something puritanical about the zeal with which the leaders of the Leave campaign envisage a promised land for the U.K. outside the EU; indeed, they represent not just the populist jingoistic tradition in English politics, but a tradition of radicalism that goes back to Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War. This is a tradition that we have never quite known what to do with. Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey in 1661 and posthumously “executed,” but his statue still stands ominously outside Parliament: The radical tradition can only ever be tamed, never buried.
The Little Englanders crave grand vision because for them, the glass of reality is always half-empty — modern Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world, with a London that vies with New York as the world’s global city, is not good enough for them: They want radical change that will sweep away the messy web of compromises that have been incrementally built up to respond to the complexity of the real world. This vision strips away all impurities, in order to revert to some kind of original state — an imagined golden past, leading to a promised golden future.
Historical reality is not allowed to disturb the perfection of the Leave campaign’s imagined providence. Thus, in one breath, the Leave campaign’s golden place without history is England’s green and pleasant land — albeit an England imagined without the accompanying British Empire, given that that would involve recognition of all immigrants that came along with it. But in a contradiction only tenable when history is recast as fantasy, in the same breath, this golden place is also imperial Britain, ruling the waves; but this Britannia is not located in any historical reality, for that would mean confronting the tricky chronological truth that the empire collapsed before the U.K. joined the EU in 1973, so EU membership cannot possibly have frustrated imperial ambitions that fell apart on their own.
The more prosaic factual reality is that when Britons last voted in an EU referendum in 1975, the country was on its knees. It would have to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund in 1976. Gone was the Empire, its global sterling trading area sunk beneath the waves. Real history requires recalling what happened in 1970s Britain, the last time the U.K. stood outside an imperial trading zone and outside an integrated European market: stagnation and inflation, three-day working weeks, and endless strikes. Yet this painful period, and the years leading up to it — which saw the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Sterling Crisis of 1964-67, the withdrawal East of Suez in 1970 — are conveniently airbrushed out by Brexiteers: That’s the beauty of remembering history without history!
Just as they reject historical context, lest it disturb the fantasy of their project, Brexiteers reject and ignore the problem of context in the policy debate. No complexity from the real world is allowed to compromise their unsullied imagined future.
Take the first piece of context: trade with the EU. The U.K. is currently within the European single market as an EU member state, which means U.K. and foreign companies based in the U.K. trade without tariffs into this market of over 500 million consumers, and get to shape the rules that harmonize standards across this market.
The Brexiteers are routinely confronted with the point, so exceedingly obvious that it is almost banal, that the U.K. will still need access to the single market after a Brexit, or face economic chaos: Without it, all the British and foreign companies that have invested in the U.K. to trade into the EU tariff-free will have to leave the country to continue to do so; the City of London would likely see many firms move their European center of gravity to Frankfurt or Paris; and U.K. companies that want to continue to trade with the EU post-Brexit (half of U.K. trade is currently with the EU) will still need to comply with European law to trade into the single market anyway.
Without access to the single market, the U.K.’s sovereign debt rating will likely be downgraded, which will make it more expensive for the government to borrow money to finance the £74 billion fiscal deficit needed to pay for schools, hospitals, and so on. The hit to the overall tax base as a result of leaving would make any savings from the payments the U.K. sends to pay for the central apparatus of the EU appear negligible by comparison, and likely precipitate deeper fiscal austerity, tax hikes, and cuts to public services. But this real-world context is but irritating trivia for Brexit puritans, who brush it off as “scaremongering.” They feel no need to explain why the vast majority of U.K. economists would advance a view they do not actually believe in, given that they, and their children, have to live in this country too.
Ordinary Brits have kids to feed and mortgages to pay. They have zero desire to embark down a path of economic self-flagellation in order to advance towards the Brexiteers’ promised land. The vast majority of voters who are considering voting to leave the EU do so in good conscience, taking at their word the claim of Vote Leave’s leaders that the U.K. will be economically better off outside the EU. When this claim is exposed as fantasy, and economic confidence sinks post-Brexit as a result of market uncertainty, any political support for leaving the single market will evaporate. In other words, it is safe to say even a post-Brexit Britain will do whatever it can to hold on to access to the single market.
And once that is accepted as cold, hard fact, the Leave campaign arguments shrivel into nonsense. Trading within the single market means subscribing to most of the EU’s rules that govern its operation, regardless of the legal mechanism adopted to maintain access. Both the “Norway model” and the “Swiss model” — the two options most commonly referenced by pro-Brexit camps — require adhering to EU product standards, submission to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over issues of compliance with those standards, and a high degree of freedom of movement (that is, immigration). This makes Brexit not just pointless, but positively foolish, as all it does is shift the U.K. from a position where it can influence and veto EU rules, to one where it has no say in their formulation at all, but must still comply with most of them.
Even if the U.K. really did leave the single market (which it would not, unless self-castration is a more popular pastime in this country than I realized), it’s hard to see how the British versions of EU regulations would be that different anyway. There will be no bonfire of bureaucracy and red tape: Complex international markets require meeting a vast number of standards in order to do business, whether or not those standards are negotiated by the U.K. on its own, or the U.K. as part of the EU.
Contrary to fantasy, Brexit would, in the boring world of fact, create a massive pile of suffocating bureaucratic work for the U.K. civil service to work through, in order to convert EU rules to U.K. rules. And in the end, would a U.K. civil servant really draft rules so different from those of an EU civil servant on the types of plastics allowed in children’s toys, or what pesticides are safe, or the levels of trans-fats in margarine? The bureaucratic nightmare of re-drafting literally millions of pages of rules aside, if at the end of the day the rules were more or less the same, what’s the point? When the economy tanks after Brexit, and a whole generation of British citizens see their working lives, and their children’s life chances, screwed up by fantasists who spend their free-time driving each other into a fervor over obscure regulations, we sure won’t care a jot about our new found freedom to decide on the size of bananas.
The Brexiteers will counter-argue that it’s not just the EU’s regulation of economic minutiae that are at issue, but more social issues like child benefit allowances for EU workers, or whether or not companies can ban the hijab from being worn at work. Fair point; but Brexit is the wrong answer: All non-EU member states that have negotiated tariff-free access to the single market (like Norway and Switzerland) have to comply with much, if not most, EU law on these social issues anyway, given that they tend to come up in areas like EU employment law. But as non-EU members, London post-Brexit will only be cc’d, rather than consulted, on Brussels’s decisions on these laws. Is that undemocratic? Yes, definitely. Such an arrangement for the U.K. would be a massive failure of policy, and would rightly invite criticism from any Britons concerned about their constitutional liberty, which is why I fail to understand why the Leave campaign thinks it is a good idea.
Politically and legally, to stay within the EU and fight harder to shape the rules is a more effective strategy. The Brexiteers say we have been fighting hard and getting nowhere. Not true. The practice of electing members of European Parliament (MEPs) from the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) has reduced our influence because they don’t turn up to work (and don’t think laziness stopped UKIP MEPs from claiming large expenses while protesting the culture of Brussels bureaucrats having their snout in the trough). As a MEP, UKIP’s Nigel Farage turned up to only one out of 42 sessions of the Fisheries Committee he sat on for three years, and had the tenth worst attendance record of 766 MEPs in 2014. It’s pathetic that Farage is supposed to represent fishing communities in deprived coastal towns of southeast England whose interests he has so woefully neglected to protect.
Take now the issue of trade outside the EU. On this front, the Leave campaign leaders perpetuate the fantasy that freed from the EU, the U.K. can negotiate its own trade deals with fast-growing economies. But this argument withers once real-world context is applied: By going through the EU, the U.K. benefits from trade deals negotiated with the leverage of an $18 trillion economy that is roughly the same size as the United States’, not its own $3 trillion economy, and so gets much better terms. And don’t forget that once outside the EU, the U.K. would have to negotiate access back into the single market against the remaining $15 trillion economy versus our $3 trillion economy — but Leave insists we would get good terms. Keep dreaming.
Then there’s the question of just who constitutes these fast-growing economies. The triad used to be China, India, and Brazil. Then Brexiteers stopped talking about Brazil after the reality of economic freefall there risked puncturing the fantasy. Moreover, they are strangely silent on the massive credit bubble developing in China right now, and the difficulties of actually doing business in India given the glacial legal system and the corruption there. Indeed, there is a sharp irony in the fact that the same Brexiteers who wrap themselves in the flag of national values are so quick to sell out on them when it comes to deals with emerging markets which so obviously have much lower standards when it comes to rule of law than one finds inside the EU.
Having been trounced on questions of economics, the Leave campaign has, unsurprisingly, stopped talking about the economy, and instead has relentlessly pushed the immigration argument, and pushed it well beyond the truth (the Leave campaign’s website tells us, for instance, that Turkey will join the EU, which is highly unlikely). But even this supposed trump card is flawed. First, there is the problem already discussed: Being in the single market means accepting high levels of free movement, just as Norway and Switzerland have. End of argument — at least in the real world.
However, let’s just step out of the real world for a moment to consider what would happen with immigration if the U.K. really did choose the absurdity of leaving the single market after any Brexit. Yes, we could deport foreign born criminals more easily. That is a good argument, and one the Leave campaign have amplified as one of their only decent points. However, modern Britain is hardly a country teeming with un-deported foreign criminals: it’s a niche issue. Conversely, U.K. public services like the National Health Service rely on many highly skilled multi-lingual immigrants, both from the EU and the rest of the world. Leaving the EU would simply make it harder to recruit these people, and not change the fact that we would still need immigrants to fill these skills shortages. While it is true that immigration drives up competition with native workers, it also drives down the cost of services that British people use every day. And fourth, recall that all the points above are irrelevant if the U.K. stays in the single market — which it will.
As if it were an afterthought for the Leave campaign, consider the effect of Brexit on the U.K. itself. Scotland will likely ask for a second independence referendum in the event of Brexit: The 2015 referendum was as much a vote to stay in the EU as the U.K., given that an independent Scotland would have had to head to the back of the queue to join the Union. With the U.K. outside of the EU, Scotland might well decide to leave — endgame for Great Britain. But that’s fine, apparently, if all you care about is Little England.
Let us once again recall the key point. Despite the mountains of commentary and data, there is only one key fact in this whole debate: If the U.K. wants to stay in the single market, which it will, Brexit is foolish. Contrary to the Leave campaign’s motto — “Vote Leave, Take Control,” the opposite will be the case: Britain will still have to apply EU rules, but lose control over their content.
Great Britain is a land of ancient sanity, and we will see on June 23 whether our people choose to take the world as they find it, or whether to embark on a Panglossian and profoundly un-British quest to strive for the best of all possible worlds: one which came in the imagined past, will come in the imagined future, but somehow never arrives in the present.
Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.