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Gordon Campbell on the delusions driving the “Leave” option

Gordon Campbell on the delusions driving the “Leave” option

First published on

On the brink of the Brexit vote, the irrationality of the “Leave” option is now apparent. Voting for “Leave” requires (a) a fantastically unbalanced view of the impact of immigration on modern Britain (b) a demonizing of the EU “regulations” that are commonplace within a modern economy and (c) a simple-minded optimism that Britain would not suffer any major damage to its economy, or to the status of the City of London.

Immigration. Ironically, the murder of Jo Cox by an anti-immigrant fanatic may well have tipped the balance back in favour of “Remain”. In practical terms, the notion that by leaving the EU, Britain could raise the drawbridge and deny entry to the migrant hordes has always been fanciful. In reality, Polish plumbers and Ukrainian construction workers did not cause the unemployment and poor wages that plague the British precariat. And as for Europe’s refugee crisis, the main effect of a “Leave” victory would be to shift the refugee border much closer to home - from Calais to Dover, or to the porous border between Ireland and northern Ireland. The solution to the global refugee crisis have to be international. Britain cannot imagine it can simply opt out, and resort to some pastoral state of denial about the humanitarian crisis on its doorstep.

EU Regulation. The demonizing of EU ‘regulations’ creates a useful scapegoat : the Brussels bureaucrat tying up honest, hard working Britons in reams of red tape. In fact, almost all of those dreaded regulations - on safety standards, climate change, renewable energy, working hours, parenting leave etc etc – are simply part and parcel of a modern economy. When Britons woke up after their “Leave” triumph and try to re-negotiate new trade deals they would– in all likelihood – face the same regulatory environment, yet with far less power ( as an outsider) to re-write those rules. The Brexiteers’ assumption that Britain would be able to win new trade deals easily and without making concessions, from the EU – who would mysteriously feel motivated to set aside all of the regulations that Brexiteers currently find objectionable – is delusional.

Currently, New Zealand is seeking a free trade pact with the EU, presumably with all of those current EU regulations in train. Would New Zealand firms really prefer to deal with a shrunken Britain that was ‘free’ to down drive wages, work conditions and environmental standards? That situation underlines the darker reality behind the “Leave” option. Britain would only be able to “ escape” EU regulations by fostering a neo-liberal paradise of deregulation situated offshore from Europe, in which British workers would then be worse off than those in the weakest economies of the European Union.

British economy. In the short term, the uncertainty surrounding a “Leave” victory would drive down the pound and fuel a capital flight that already seems to be under way.

During the two year divorce proceedings from Europe, more lasting damage would be done. The City of London would decline as a banking hub. The City’s role has been dependent on it being a convenient financial services gateway to the 28 nations of Europe, without the need to get regulatory approval in each of those countries. According to the Wall St Journal, about half of UK’s 6.9 trillion pounds of banking assets are currently held by non-British institutions. Dublin would probably pick up much of that business, with all of the attendant job losses in London that this would entail.

One can argue as to whether Britain’s reliance on the City of London as its economic powerhouse is healthy – in 2013, Lib Dems’ leader Nick Clegg argued that it wasn’t - yet it seems even more unhealthy for the “Leave” supporters to try and live in denial about the pain that would be involved in the transition.

Finally, a “Leave” victory would mean the British Prime Minister – by then almost certainly Boris Johnson – would invoke Article 50 of the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, which allows for a two year process of dis-entanglement.

The Vote Leave campaign says the Government would have “informal talks” with EU leaders before invoking Article 50, to help bring about a new free trade relationship with the EU quickly and smoothly before exit. The Government says Article 50 would be invoked straightaway.

In a document published earlier this year, the Cabinet Office suggests that a new agreement with the EU is very unlikely to be done in two years and Britain could face a decade of economic uncertainty because of the absence of trade deals.

Up to Britain though, to choose its destiny. Or to England, actually. If the “Leave” option ultimately prevails, it will only be because the wishes of English voters will have prevailed over those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – most of whom are polling in favour of “Remain.” Such an outcome would see Britain less unified, not more so. Add in the looming succession of Prince Charles as the British monarch, and the cumulative effects would ripple on through the “United” Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The effect would be one of further disintegration, not unity. Arguably, that may be the one real advantage : almost certainly, a “ Leave” victory would lend impetus to this country eventually becoming a republic.

Turning Turtles

If – on the other hand – sanity and the ‘Remain’ option do prevail this week, we’ll be back to the usual spin and snake oil from David Cameron and George Osbourne. (Boris Johnson will be finished though. Ukip will have sustained a body blow. Both good things.) As they say, there will be a need for healing. So….maybe Cameron, Osbourne, Benedict Cumberbatch. David Beckham and Angela Merkel can release a new “We Are The World” celebrity version of this song:

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