The British EU In/Out referendum debate is pitting an economic argument against a distaste for immigration and a desire to ‘get our country back’.
The Remain lobby has clearly had the best of the economic argument. The Leave lobby has been unable to show any serious support for the case that Britain would be better off out of the EU, apart from a handful of long-term Eurosceptic economists, most notably the Thatcherite professor of economics at Cardiff University, Patrick Minford, and the Camden Labour councillor and television shopping entrepreneur, John Mills.
The main economic case put by the Out lobby has been, ‘everything will be fine, everyone everywhere will be only too happy to give us tariff-free trade deals and they’ll do it without delay.’
When confronted with the wealth of economists predicting disadvantages to the British economy if we were to leave the EU, the Out lobby dismisses them out of hand. Nigel Farage exclaimed that people were fed up with ‘experts’. All would be fine and everyone better off if only we were to shed the shackles of the EU’s Single Market.
But every so often the mask slips and Farage shows that he accepts that Brexit would slow the economy even stating that slower economic growth would actually be desirable if it meant achieving ‘independence’.
For example, according to the Daily Telegraph, in January 2014 he said that, “Lower economic growth is a price worth paying to radically cut immigration”. It’s a point Farage has made again and again in the last couple of years.
On 7th May this year, questioned on television about the likely hit to the British economy if Britain votes to leave the UK, Farage said that it was, “wrong, wrong, wrong that the average decent families in this country, their living standards have fallen by 10% over the course of the last few years and it’s about time as a society we started thinking about not just about GDP figures, not just about the rich getting richer, but about ordinary decent Britons who had a rotten time.”
There is a rather obvious contradiction here: if we stop thinking about GDP growth, we will find it harder to reverse the fall in living standards of those decent Britons since the crash of 2007/8. But this is not the main point – though it should be a warning to those who are tempted to believe that Farage does really have the interests of poor, decent Britons at heart.
The key issue is that the Brexit lobby, when pressed, acknowledge that prosperity comes second to ‘taking back control of our country.’
This is a clever slogan. It plays on the one hand to the idea that the EU is un-democratic and that we should take back democratic control from unelected Brussels bureaucrats (never mind that the EU Council comprises elected national ministers and the European Parliament is directly elected while the House of Lords is not).
But in popular opinion what most people actually mean is taking back control of our borders; that is, reducing/stopping immigration.
The argument thus combines nationalism and dislike of immigrants to create a powerful ideology – one that its leaders acknowledge that is happy to accept lower economic growth to achieve its nationalistic ends.
An episode in British and Irish history from a little less than 100 years ago is relevant here. During negotiations in the early 1920s between Britain and Ireland about independence, writes one historian, ‘economic prosperity was not a priority for [Irish leader] Éamon de Valera and he never saw it as an essential element in his bid for power.’ (R Fanning, Éamon de Valera)
“If a man makes up his mind to go out into a cottage [vacating the mansion, i.e. the British state and economy, ‘he’ had lived in previously] … he has to make up his mind to put up with frugal fare of that cottage,” said de Valera – the selfsame view as expressed by Nigel Farage and other hardline Eurosceptics.
‘Promises of larger and more comprehensive doles [welfare payments], of protection[ism] and industrialization, coupled with repudiation of British debts, constituted a nice amalgam of nationalism and democracy. They clinched the wide and durable support which Fianna Fáil enjoyed among the poorer classes.’
Though de Valera introduced old-age pensions, the other promises were forgotten and prosperity remained out of reach as Ireland entered a long period of economic stasis. This threatened de Valera’s power base and he had to find other ways of retaining support. ‘Catholic triumphalism and [Gaelic] language revivalism alike were rooted in the necessity to find something to celebrate in an infant state scarred by political disappointment and economic austerity and by the general disenchantment typical of a post-revolutionary age … Religion and language – identifiably different from those that characterised the British national ethos – were the two most obvious hallmarks of independent Ireland.
Even as late as the end of the 1950s, De Valera could say, “The policy of self-reliance is the one policy that will enable our nation to continue to exist. I would rather go short of the things that have to be got by external loan than have an external loan’. Meanwhile, Ireland suffered migration of its people to other countries, most notably to Britain – the same neighbouring Britain that Ireland had struggled for so long to ‘take control back’ from.
The similarity between de Valera’s words and those of Farage and pals is striking. The difference is that, rather than language and nationalism, Farage et al are hawking dislike of immigration and nationalism in a mythical quest to ‘get our country back’.
Another historian, Desmond Williams, writing about independent Ireland’s foreign policy choices, said, “States are never wholly free in relation to the policy they follow … because a state must observe the limits circumscribing its geographic, economic and ideological situations in the world. What states are free to do is always subject to some restrictions and constraint.” The same words are as applicable to the Brexit debate as to Ireland.
The desired end to migration, that is the main driver of the Brexit vote, is either not attainable or only achievable by doing immense damage to the British economy and by withdrawing from the European Single Market (so as not to be subject to its essential freedom of movement commitments).
But this, in a way, does not matter. The choice is about nationalism and dislike of immigrants against nefarious concepts of cooperation and compromise with those with whom we are ineluctably joined in geographic, economic and ideological reality.
‘It’s the economy stupid’ is wrong. For many ‘it’s the immigrants stupid.’
I fear that the Breixt campaigners may win thanks to the same nationalist sentiments as those that diverted Ireland, after its heroic struggle to achieve independence, into half-a-century of economic sluggishness and the slow bleeding of its greatest asset, its young people.