My starting point in the EU referendum debate is that the burden of proof is with those who advocate change. It is for them to convince the rest of us that the change they propose would be beneficial. For me the most important issues are the economy and access to the single market; and democracy and political stability in Europe. I believe both are better served by staying in rather than leaving the EU.
But I’m a believer in small government, less meddling, less red tape and bureaucracy, so why would I support membership of the EU? In one word: globalisation. That’s the elephant in the room in respect of this whole debate. Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan didn’t invent globalisation, but they gave it a hell of a push off the side when they abolished currency controls and controls on the movement of capital. These changes let the genie of globalisation out of the bottle and we cannot now stuff it back in. Money and capital and are now traded in global currency and stock markets 24/7, and the globalisation of business ownership, which was already well under way when these changes happened, has accelerated apace ever since.
When I hear the Leave campaign talk of “taking back control” and “regaining our sovereignty” it seems to me they are in denial of globalisation. Their view of sovereignty is that it’s a zero-sum game; a bit like virginity – either you’ve got it or you haven’t! They’re living in a nineteenth century world when capitalism was nation-state based and the British cabinet was a committee of British businessmen who owned big factories, mills, ship yards and mines; their hands directly on the levers of economic power. And we had an empire on which the sun never set. That world has vanished and capitalism is now global.
Vast quantities of money and capital swirl around the global financial system; recent decisions about our steel industry were taken not in Westminster, or by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, but by businessmen sitting in a room in Mumbai. If we are to have any chance of “taking back control” of the global forces that impact our economy and prosperity we are better able to do so as part of something bigger than ourselves – an EU of 28 nations which pool their sovereignty and act together – rather than as a single country acting on our own. Sitting in a boat in the middle of the Atlantic singing “Rule Britannia” whilst sailing off into the sunset isn’t an exercise in sovereignty, but in futility.
The Leave campaign has moved the goalposts on the economy. At the beginning of the Brexit debate they advanced a ‘cake and eat it’ argument: that it was possible to resign our membership of the EU club, but negotiate retention of the terms of trade benefits conferred by the single market – whilst at the same time not having to pay the club’s annual membership fee or abide by its rules. The notion that we can ditch the costs whilst retaining the benefits has always seemed to me to be a fundamentally improbable proposition.
The Leave campaign has now abandoned that position and stated they want to leave the single market and become part of the European free trade area or revert to WTO trading rules – which would result in our goods being subject to tariffs of up to 10%.
In terms of democracy and political stability, I remember when Spain, Portugal and Greece weren’t in the Common Market because they were ruled by fascist dictators. I remember when a host of former Soviet satellite countries weren’t able to join because they were communist dictatorships. Now they are all functioning democracies and all members of the EU. The EU has held the political centre together.
On the Leave side the one argument that is cutting through is immigration. Again, this is couched in terms of taking back control. And you hear members of the public in some of the televised debates saying things like “we should put up the shut sign.” Have these people been to an international airport recently? Take Heathrow as an example: 75 million passengers arrived or departed that airport in 2015. On its busiest day, 17th August, 257,312 people arrived or left – and 69% of them were international passengers, not domestic ones. You see how this works Boris? How exactly do you “put up the shut sign” or “take back control” in an era of mass travel?
My father visited France for the first time on D-Day – with a Bren-gun strapped to his chest – as did many members of his generation. Now anyone can jump on a plane and visit Paris or another European destination for £50. 200,000 British families now own houses in France; 300,000 Brits have retired to, or work in Spain; there are some 50,000 Brits living in Italy. Immigration isn’t something done to us by foreigners whilst we all stay in dear Old Blighty watering our spider plants. We’ve moved on.
Ultimately the issue of immigration is another state versus the market argument. No matter what the state does it is ultimately our jobs market that will determine the immigration volumes – unless we’re prepared to sacrifice economic growth and trash our economy on the altar of public incomprehension of what it means to live in a globalised world.
I’ll be voting for ‘Remain’!