Tuesday 11 December 2018

"No-one voted to make themselves poorer"

It’s a statement often made by those opposing Brexit, and it has a nice ring to it, but it simply isn’t true.  Some people certainly did vote, consciously and deliberately, to make us all poorer.  And that is far from being as irrational as it sounds; there’s nothing at all wrong with doing exactly that if one is convinced that there’s a greater good involved.
Much of the debate surrounding Brexit has been based on the economic consequences rather than any perceived non-economic costs and benefits.  That is part of the reason for the huge gulf in understanding of what the EU is about between the two sides in the negotiations – for most of the other EU states, economics has always been only part of the argument.  The EU is, and always has been, at heart more a political project than an economic one, and the failure of the UK side to recognise that, assuming instead that economics would eventually bring the EU round to the UK position, has been a major factor in the time taken to reach any sort of deal.
We all place a value on things which cannot be priced in strictly financial terms, and there is always a trade-off between those things which can be priced and those which cannot.  Democracy and sovereignty, for instance, have a value, and at least some of those who voted for Brexit will have valued those more highly than any anticipated economic disadvantage.  People in that group really did consciously vote to make us all poorer.  (There were also a larger number who unconsciously voted to make us all poorer – this would be those who placed a similarly high value on democracy and sovereignty, but simply didn’t believe those who told them that these things come at a price.  And I can’t blame them when many of those leading the Brexit campaign knew full well that there would be a price but simply lied - and are still lying today).
That underlying trade-off – between sovereignty and democracy on the one hand, and economic benefit on the other – is one we all make; it’s just that we don’t all assess the trade-off in the same way.  I remember one independentista (no longer with us, sadly) telling me that he’d eat grass if that was the cost of independence for Wales.  It’s not a position with which I could ever agree, but it illustrates the point.  And it works in the other direction as well.  Given a choice of being poor in a democracy or rich under a dictatorship, which would we choose?  For some – at either end of the spectrum – it’s a black-and-white issue.  For most though, it’s more nuanced than that; it requires asking a few more questions, such as ‘how poor?’ and ‘what sort of dictatorship / what sort of democracy?’  It’s an oversimplification, but faced with a choice of grinding poverty in a democracy or having adequate food and shelter in a dictatorship, I can see why many of the poorest might prefer the latter, whilst it is those who can afford to lose a little who might be more willing to take the more principled position.  And it is that question of nuance, balance and trade-off between the economic issues and the non-economic issues which is where the debate should have been from the outset, instead of which we’ve had something closer to absolutism on both sides; one demanding that economics takes precedence and the other insisting that sovereignty and democracy are more important.
That helps to explain why it isn’t enough to simply ‘prove’ that the economic consequences are bad.  We also need to talk about the other side of the equation.  And here’s the thing – membership of the EU does, unquestionably, reduce the absolute sovereignty of the member states.  (The democracy question is rather less straightforward: I’m not at all sure that the EU can really be considered less democratic than a state in whose parliament the majority of members are appointees, hereditaries or bishops.  It is, however, true that the electorate of a single member state cannot by themselves dismiss those running the EU, and from a perspective which believes that absolute sovereignty should sit at the level of the member state, that can be, and has been, too easily presented as ‘undemocratic’.)
Part of the reason for the current mess is that proponents of greater European integration have generally been unwilling to even discuss this issue of sharing or pooling sovereignty, and why that isn’t at all the same thing as ceding sovereignty to someone else.  Anglo-British exceptionalism has made them afraid even to attempt to explain the difference.  The result has been that a narrative developed, over decades, that the UK was no longer a sovereign state.  It brings us to a strange situation in which it is those who have given most thought to the question of what constitutes independence and sovereignty, the independentistas of Wales and Scotland, who argue most strongly for a twenty-first century definition which involves nations coming together as equals with a degree of sharing and pooling for the common good, whilst the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all, who have given a lot less thought to the question, are stuck in an eighteenth century mindset in which things were much more absolute – and where they and their ilk were in charge and the rest of the world simply did as they were told.  My fear is that, if it comes to a second referendum – an eventuality which is now looking increasingly like the only way out of the current deadlock – that that argument about the nature and extent of ‘sovereignty’ in a highly-connected twenty-first century world will be lost by default again.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

Excellent post – go to the top of the class.
Any change of system is going to create issues, one of the saddest I have witnessed, is the change of regime in South Africa, where the call for freedom was totally justified against the warning that the ANC would create an economic basket case.
One of the most worrying words issued this week was that from the head of MI6 (the South Bank Boys) along with a retired English General, who warned that since the referendum the EU has moved on and a European Army is now a certainty. They clearly were in no mood to consider this, so if we have another referendum (or perhaps a best of three) what role will those forces play?