Monday, 11 September 2017

It's not just about economics

On Friday, the Western Mail’s leader column pronounced in large bold letters that “Brexit must not hit our country's poor”.  As a statement of what most of us would hope for, it’s hard to argue with that.  But how widely held is that view in reality?
As part of the argument in support of its position, the opinion column went on to say “Regardless of how anyone voted in the referendum, nobody will want Wales to fall off an economic cliff in 2019 when the UK leaves the EU.”  I’m far from certain that that is a true or accurate statement.  I have the impression that a quick and total break is exactly what many want and thought they were voting for.  And it was, I thought, perfectly clear during the referendum itself that many of those arguing for Brexit wanted exactly that outcome, believing, in effect, that the ultimate gain from Brexit was worth the pain involved.  That may not have been – indeed was not - what they actually said, but there was enough information to the contrary available for people to understand the likely outcome.  But – as we all do, in our own ways – people chose to believe the ‘facts’ which supported their own predispositions in a classic real-world illustration of confirmation bias.
And from reports I’ve seen on opinion surveys since the vote, including those where respondents have said that the ‘benefits’ of Brexit are so great that they’d be prepared to see relatives thrown out of work in order to realise them, I’m not sure that opinions have changed very much.  Whether I like it or not, I cannot escape the fact that the majority of those who voted in Wales supported Brexit, nor the conclusion that by doing so they voted in favour (in the short term at least) of damaging the economy of Wales, in favour of ending the regional assistance from which Wales has benefited, and in favour of making themselves and the rest of us poorer.  The reasons for doing that are varied: perhaps a belief that ‘taking back control’, or reducing immigration were valuable ends in themselves, or perhaps in the belief that short term pain would lead to long term gain.  Whatever the reasons, they voted for leaving the EU with all its consequences, and much of what the Western Mail and Wales’ politicians seem to have been saying since amounts to an attempt to remain a member for as long as possible, but call it something different.
The desire for Brexit was never primarily an economic one; those making the case always knew that there would be an economic hit as a result.  It wouldn’t fall on the leading Brexiteers, of course; it was always going to be the poorer families, nations, and regions which would suffer.  In the same way, my own wish to remain was never primarily an economic one either; it was about Wales’ place in the world and how best to get there.  There are economic consequences, of course; there will be winners and losers, but over the long term, the economy will adapt – it’s what economies do.  Whether it will recover to the extent that it makes no difference over the very long term is an open question to which we can never really know the answer, since we only get to live through events once.  It’s a wholly unnecessary and self-inflicted pain in the interim but sadly it’s what people voted for, no matter how much the Western Mail and others may try to argue otherwise.
The real problem that I have with all the arguments about mitigating the effect and seeking a way through the mess which causes as little damage as possible is that they’re not tackling the underlying problem, and may be in danger of confirming rather than challenging the views of those who supported Brexit.  What was lacking at the time of the referendum – and is still lacking from our nation’s ‘leaders’ – was any attempt to make a positive argument for the European integration which brought the trade and economic benefits rather than a simplistic negative argument against losing those benefits.  Those who built the EU’s structures – just like those who argued for Brexit – never did so for primarily economic reasons.  It was always about a vision for the future of Europe.  There are flaws in the way that they have attempted to realise that vision, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they had one.
Underlying the whole debate about Brexit and its consequences is a major gulf between differing views about what sort of Europe we want to see and what our role in it should be, whether as Wales or as the UK.  Treating it as solely an economic issue and concentrating the debate on mitigating the economic effects is ignoring that clash of world views.  It does no more to change the world view of those supporting Brexit than repeatedly telling them that they were duped and misled (even if that happens to be true).  But it is on the underlying conceptions of the world and the role of Wales and the UK in it that the debate needs to be centred if there is to be any chance of a change of attitude.  Changing course for solely economic reasons will only reinforce the belief that we are somehow being ‘dominated and bullied’ by ‘Brussels’ into doing what 'they' want.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another excellent blog post. Sadly, none of the main players on the remain side attempted to make the positive, non-economic case for the EU before the vote took place. Had they done so, perhaps the narrow defeat might have become a barrow victory. We will never know for sure of course but I cannot escape the feeling that it would have made a difference.