Thursday 23 June 2016


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’!

Friday 3 June 2016


One of the interesting things about the EU referendum is the public clamour for “the facts”. People are bamboozled by claim and counterclaim and long for someone just to explain things to them in a simple, factual manner, without spin or bias. I’m not proposing to discuss the ‘Neverendum’ in this article, but this desire for ‘simple facts’, and for simple solutions to complex problems that will supposedly arise from simple facts, has a much wider resonance. There are three examples of it currently in the news: the Scottish alcohol consumption figures, leading to a renewed call for minimum unit pricing (MUP); the challenge posed by the National Obesity Forum to established science on nutrition; and the banning of so-called legal highs, otherwise known as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

Scotland has for a long time had a greater level of alcohol consumption per head than England and Wales and the news that consumption per head of population has risen in Scotland for the second year running was coupled in the media with the observation that Scots drink 20% more alcohol than their English and Welsh counterparts. This gives the erroneous impression that consumption in Scotland has risen by 20%. It hasn’t. It has risen by 2%. And that 2% rise in consumption is over two years – 2014 and 2015. This needs to be placed in the context of a 9% fall in alcohol consumption between 2007 and 2013, so the simple fact is that alcohol consumption in Scotland is still 7% lower than in 2007.

But this tiny upturn has been blamed by campaigners on the alcohol industry’s desire to arrest the decline in sales. At the same time we have seen a big increase in the amount of alcohol consumed at home – 74% of alcohol is now bought from off-sales retailers - so, blame the dastardly supermarkets? Well how about we look instead at the lowering of the drink-drive limit in Scotland as something that has driven people out of pubs and into home drinking - where we know that people pour themselves bigger measures than when they drink in the supervised environment of the pub.

According to Alcohol Research UK weekly alcohol consumption per head in England and Wales in 2015 was 17.4 units; in Scotland it was 20.8 units. This is moderate drinking by anyone’s standards except the anti-alcohol zealots of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Focus Scotland. And what is the Scottish health community’s solution to this over-hyped, over-inflated problem? Why, minimum unit pricing of course!

And what of the National Obesity Forum’s assertion this week that high fat diets are good for you and that low carb and low sugar diets are the answer? This assertion from a bunch of Atkins Diet cranks is another example of how tiny special interest groups feed into the public’s desire for simple solutions. Identify one ingredient – sugar – and tell people to consume as much bacon and eggs, beef dripping and lard as they want – just cut down on the sugar, and you’re giving people another simple solution to a complex problem. And government bows to this kind of campaigning by introducing a tax on fizzy drinks – something that will have no effect whatsoever on levels of obesity.

My third example – the ban on ‘legal highs’ - kicks in today. Readers are probably aware of substances like Spice, which is a synthetic drug that mimics the effects of cannabis, and M-Cat, which has similar effects to strong amphetamine drugs. These and many other compounds are available on the internet and at so-called ‘head shops’ on the high street. They have been linked to around 400 deaths over the past few years, and Spice in particular is blamed for an upsurge of violence in our prisons. The problem for the government is that every time they banned a new legal high the chemical composition was changed slightly so that it became legal again. The government’s response was to ban everything except those intoxicants that were explicitly legal – essentially alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. I can understand the government’s desire to be seen to do something about this problem, but there are problems with this prohibition-style approach.

Firstly, many of these drugs mimic the effects of existing illegal drugs – cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. Given that successive governments’ have ruled out decriminalising or medicalising their supply, prohibition becomes the only option. So, first criminalise the three main recreational drugs, and then when that leads to the creation of a market for cheaper, ‘legal’ synthetic alternatives, criminalise them too. Sale of these drugs will now move to the dark web and it is unlikely that anyone who wants them won’t be able to get them. There is no simple solution to the drugs problem, but we must surely be able to come up with something more intelligent than repeating a failed strategy of prohibition because the public expects something to be done.

Paul Chase