What is a no-brainer? The EU Referendum, of course, and you are probably as sick of it as I already am. However, we have another four months of this prattling distraction, so let’s gird our loins and join the debate. Cards on the table, I will be voting to ‘remain’. Obviously.
And it is obvious, isn’t it? Geopolitically, the world is no place for a medium-sized former Imperial power to be going it alone, smarting from an ill-tempered divorce, economically only-just solvent at best, and distinctly short of friends in Europe, the Middle East, Far East, post-colonial Africa and South America. As for the USA, hands up all those who are willing to predict where that nation’s politics and priorities will go over the next few years. Anyone? No, thought not.
On the other hand, Ian Duncan Smith would tell me that this is quite the wrong way to see things, and IDS is, of course, a great statesman and possibly the greatest leader the Conservative party ever had. He, and other wise Brexiteers such as Gove, Galloway and Boris, argue that the UK will be able to negotiate favourable trade relations with the EU that we have just disrupted and left, and that we will have additional public funding to spend on schools and hospitals when we do not have to make payments to the EU. That is a naïve zero-sum argument. Consider my younger son. Like most 20-somethings he finds it difficult to balance the books each month. He spends money on car insurance and tax, and a lot on fuel. Simple! On Planet IDS, his solution would be to sell the car so he can use the money that is not spent on insurance and fuel to pay for… I don’t know, probably dog food in his case. Small problem: without a vehicle, he could not earn a living. One expenditure cut would disproportionately reduce his income and could increase expenditure on, for example, public transport fares. Similarly, leaving the EU might save a few megaquid on payments, though not so much if we were to retain any significant internal market access. Norway, a non-EU state often cited as an exemplar by Farage and other brilliant men, actually pays the EU more per head of population than does the UK. Even so, the UK might be able to save a bit on payments to the EU. How would that stack up against lost tax receipts as the economy tanks during a period of uncertainty and disruption, or against the need to spend Treasury money in large bundles to prop up the pound sterling? If the UK began divorce proceedings with the EU, there would be a run on the pound that would make the 2008 crash look like a harmless blip. Boris managed to cause a brief dip in sterling just by announcing that he was on the ‘leave’ side. At least he is for now, until it is in his personal interests to change sides. In a post-Brexit world, the UK would be cold, lonely and skint, conditions in which voters are too easily persuaded to turn to the simple solutions offered by far-right demagogues …. No, the Brexitistas wouldn’t be thinking that, would they?
And then there is all the other stuff. Scientists and other academics have been busily telling anyone who will listen that the UK’s strong role in research and education depends heavily on our collaborations across the EU, especially the free movement of people across Europe in search of work, education and experience. That much is self-evident. What is less often mentioned are the positive aspects of having a younger generation who are accustomed to moving between countries and cultures and working with people from other places. Yes, that could also be achieved if the UK were outside the EU, but the EU’s freedom of movement and employment makes such integration much simpler to achieve and therefore more common. Is immigration an issue? The Brexit campaigners sooner or later fall back on Farage’s mantra that “We don’t have control of our own borders”. What this seems to mean is that people from elsewhere in the EU can come to the UK just as easily as UK citizens can travel to their countries. And that is the point: a flexible migration policy works both ways. If the UK were to withdraw from the EU and then imposed immigration restrictions, there would be fewer EU migrants working here, but would that translate into more jobs for UK folk given the likely economic depression? I doubt it, and this is another simplistic argument based on a zero-sum assumption. Over the last few months (2015- early 2016), migration into the UK from other EU countries has risen then plateaued at a high level. And over the same period, UK unemployment has fallen: more immigrants, fewer people out of work. Explain that one, Nigel. There is also the small matter of how the rest of the EU would react if the UK withdrew. About 2.2 million UK citizens live elsewhere in the EU, most of them employed in those countries. What would happen to their freedom of movement and employment? The newly-divorced UK would not have a couple of million new jobs for them, and it is one almighty gamble that Brexit would not compromise their employment in the EU.
One last thing: the Brexiteers are fond of referring to the EU as ‘undemocratic’ or as having ‘a democratic deficit’. This from a nation that has a non-proportional, winner-takes-all electoral system, an unelected second chamber of Parliament, and a Head of State who gets the job by accident of birth. UK elections to the European Parliament are actually the closest this country ever gets to a sensible democratic election. Given that UKIP, those tribunes of the people, gain far better representation through the EU Parliament elections than they do through UK parliamentary elections, their disdain for EU institutions seems a bit ungrateful, verging on downright bonkers.
There are other reasons why I will vote to remain in even a flawed EU. In a household with Irish, Dutch and Russian roots, it is easy to remember the benefits that a positive attitude to migration can bring to the host country. This referendum vote has the feel of something that could have been avoided had David Cameron been an intelligent man with subtle political instincts. He is neither, and has successfully painted himself into a corner. There are far more important issues at stake than his need to placate the grumbly Little Englanders of his backbenches, and the consequent internecine warfare will harm the Conservatives far more than it will any of the other UK parties. Perhaps this is Cameron the wannabee Tory Grandee, tweed-clad and with shotgun under his arm, taking aim at both of his own feet?