Brexit, the UK and returning to a mythical past

In this, the 4,500th post, an article notes the view of those who favour Brexit being based on falsehood and a mythical past, “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?

He argues that “Today’s world is a globalised 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 globalised 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”.

He makes the point that “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”.

He pointedly mentions that “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”.

Importantly he argues “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”.

He then mentions correctly, “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”.

Crucially he posits that “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”.

He concludes “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”.

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