Monday, July 11, 2016

Four posts on Brexit; 3. Thinking small

Much of the commentary I have read is about the big things, sovereignty, the single market and the like, but what do they mean to real lives? Sometimes we need to step away from the macro and look at the micro. Let's look at a two examples: economics, and identity.


All the talk has been about trade deals, international agreements, share values, financial services, the value of the pound, and of the big employers and investors, of Nissan in Sunderland and financial services in London. The discussion is about whether these big employers would be better off inside or outside the EU and of the strength and relative independence of the national economy. But if you look small you will see something else. There is a genuine European economy emerging amongst small firms and micro businesses. I will illustrate this with a story.

I wanted to buy Greek olive oil in this country and spotted a small advert for someone who imports it and sells it at farmers' markets. I went and bought some and got chatting to the importer. He runs the import and sales side on his own with a bit of help from his family. He was on holiday, got chatting to the locals and ended up doing a deal with some olive farmers to sell some of their oil in the UK. He goes over to Greece and helps with the olive harvest and, once the oil is pressed, packages it and ships it back to the UK. It's a second income, a very marginal business, but he is doing what he wants and enjoys. It certainly makes a difference for the olive farmers. I know plenty of other people in Greece running tiny firms, often with only two people, sometimes of different European nationalities. There are obvious examples, such as guest houses, sailing and hotels. Then there are others such as pet transport and small scale removals. I know of slightly larger firms that have built networks of European links with partners, creating a pan-European division of labour.

The EU has been criticised as a bureaucratic monster, but for these micro businesses it has removed bureaucracy. It has made a framework of law in which they can operate, opened up an unrestricted market, and, above all, allowed people to live and work where they want. There are plenty of bureaucratic obstacles, but these are mainly the product of national governments, not the EU. We don't know what the terms of Brexit will be, but at worst it could mean that these businesses will have to face the hurdles of visas, residency, tariffs, and the like. Most will muddle through, but the increased costs and administrative work could make some unviable. Businesses could close, people could lose their livelihoods, and, more importantly, their dreams. In terms of national GDP figures, the losses would be invisible, but in terms of some people's lives they may be devastating. And there is a link between this micro network and identity.


The big mistake that Cameron and the remain campaign made was to concentrate on the economy. Some evidence tends to suggest that attitudes and identity underpinned the way people voted and that the economy was irrelevant. There was a clear divide between the socially liberal and the socially conservative. Nothing illustrated that more than the immigration debate.

There is an economic determinist argument that opposition to immigration was down to the way competition for jobs and resources were depressing wages and putting pressure on services. Studies tend to show that at the macro level immigration does not lower wages, but again at the micro level people do report that they are losing out. This may or may not be true, but it is certainly believed. The trouble is, anti-immigration sentiment is widespread in areas where there are no immigrants, and amongst affluent people who are more likely to employ migrants than compete with them.

Then again, I was talking to a Polish friend who has just got a new job. I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'the same as always, anything the English won't do.' And that is true too. People are not queuing up to clean offices at five in the morning, pick crops, or change sheets in hotels. The people who do that are on the margins as well; they are also exploited. What's more, Brexit threatens them. It is aimed at them. It could expel them and take away their income. It may not yet, but that is what it implies and what a few people hope for. And so we have another division between migrant and non-migrant labour. That division is only possible if we abandon class as a form of collective identity in favour of nation or community.

This isn't necessarily racist, though it can be, and racism has been given a new legitimacy to speak its poison. I do know people who are determinedly anti-racist and still worried about immigration. Nor is it really about hating individuals. I have spoken to people who don't like foreigners or complain about there being too many immigrants and they will always excuse the ones they know; 'they're all right, it's the others, there's just too many of them.' At the individual level, human sympathy persists. It's still a nice country in many ways.

So the picture is complex. There isn't a single explanation we can fall back on. But taken together there is a sense of unease that social change is taking something away from people. Immigrants and the EU became the indicators of the sense of loss I talked about in my previous post. Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook spotted this back in 1993. In their prescient short book, The Revolt Against Change. Towards a Conserving Radicalism, they worked up from a micro level to get a sense of how people felt about the world and this was the result:
We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much. … In this context the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project.
It was an impulse disregarded by modernisers and prevalent amongst older people. Simultaneously, something else was happening. The change that threatened one generation was welcomed by another.

I have read some pieces talking about the EU as a failure because it never created a European identity. Instead of saluting the EU flag, describing ourselves as European, and standing for the EU anthem, we cling to our national and local identities. This is a really superficial analysis. There is no reason why we should not have more than one identity. We can be primarily British, but still think of ourselves as European. Again, look below the national level and at the behaviour and attitudes of individuals and you will see a European identity emerging.

If people are granted freedom, they will take it. The great gift of the EU to individuals is the right to live, work and study anywhere in the Union. It began slowly at first, but in the 43 years we have been in the EU, it has grown and each generation takes it further. Around two million Brits live and work abroad full-time, many more are like me, keeping a foot in both camps. I have a home here and in Greece. Everybody who takes the opportunity makes friends, they fall in love, they have children, and in doing so they make a different Europe and become European. Those that don't, still think they might one day and with each successive generation familiarity grows. Everybody knows they have the choice. Some stay away, some return. Everyone who comes back brings a piece of Europe with them. I was amused to be told about the Greek shopkeeper in Volos who has pictures of Hull as his computer screensaver to remind him of the happy times he spent living there. The more this happens, the more we feel European and we like that feeling. It isn't an identity that will have us saluting flags; it's actually more personal and deeper than crude nationalism. It's why the young voted overwhelmingly for remain. It's a liberty that they have grown up with and taken for granted. They want freedom to change, not freedom from it. And now it is being taken away by the votes of an older generation, and even then only narrowly. It is being forced on them against their will.

OK, the people who benefit most in this country are the middle classes, but there's nothing unusual in that. The middle classes do better out of state education and the health service as well, but that isn't an argument for their abolition. It's a reason for creating greater social equality throughout all our institutions. The same goes for the freedom to live where we want and where we can. If it doesn't exist it can't be used, and if it is enjoyed then its use will spread.

This clash is as irreconcilable as it is inter-generational. The timing of the referendum caught a perfect storm, given different timing the result may well have been reversed, albeit just as narrowly. But if we look at small scale enterprise and individuals, we can see how enmeshed Europe is in our lives, just as we can see that the opposition to it is complex. The critical point for me is that at the individual level the EU is not some centralising monstrosity, but the guarantor of crucial liberties. We have just voted to curtail them in the name of national sovereignty, or 'taking back control'. The freedom of the state is not the freedom of the individual, look small and you will see just how much control we really have and how much we are losing.

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