Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Four Posts on Brexit; 4. Lost and found

So what have we gained from Brexit and what have we lost? We can't be sure, because we don't know what the alternative to EU membership will be. There were no plans, no thinking about the future, nothing. Incredibly, the majority voted for a void. They voted for a negative - non-membership. Sure there were suggestions about what may happen, but nothing concrete. Promises were rapidly withdrawn once the campaign was over. But then what do you expect? A binary referendum like this was an invitation to dishonesty. So what follows is only guesswork.



We have voluntarily given away the one thing millions of people all over the world crave, something people risk their lives for, a European Union passport. We will cease to be citizens of the EU. My citizenship has been forcibly taken from me. And if you want to see what it is like not to have an EU passport, read this.


See Nina Avramovic Trninic's conclusion from the piece I linked to above:
I cannot feel for the UK in general, given that thousands of Europeans, Asians, and Africans have lived this life for years and decades, and were happy to have the opportunity to live under normal circumstances.
The UK brought itself into this “lose-lose” situation.
And it has two options:
• The UK can proceed with the Brexit and experience the “luxurious” life of the non-EU citizen.
• Or the British can bite their tongues, say we are sorry and not proceed with leaving the EU. They turn from a spoiled, favorite child into a grown-up, responsible country and face the reality.
The reality is, you UK citizens have great lives. Your children are not drowning, fighting for their lives as they try to reach Europe. You are not bombed every day. You have good jobs that make it possible to pay the taxes and your expenses. You are the financial center of the world/Europe.
So stop whining about how hard everything is and deal with it!
Greek friends have said, 'why don't they like us? We like them.' Most think we must be mad.


The three nations central to determining the policy of the EU were Germany, France and us. Yes, we were one of the big players. Now we are not. Yet, whatever the relationship we have with the EU in the future, we will not make the policy.

Being part of EU wide schemes

Driving licences - pet passports? What becomes of them? Do we have to scrap them? Will we have to bring back quarantine?  And this is only what I can think of off the top of my head.

EU Funding

There are so many schemes that underpin much of what we do and build.
European Social Fund
European Regional Development Fund
European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development
(Cornwall must be delighted at voting out – they were due to get €600 million of funding from these)
Agricultural subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy
Education funding through ERASMUS
Research funding, especially in science through Horizon 2020
Environmental protection projects. I could go on and on. If you want to know more look them up for yourself.
Are we really going to see these replaced by savings from our payment to the EU, savings that we may not even get if we still get access to the single market?


We are seeing some high profile noises about businesses continuing to invest or thinking of divesting from Britain after Brexit. Those who favour exit bang on about the former, those who want to remain talk about the latter. What will matter is less visible. It will be the non-decisions; automatically ruling out Britain because we will not be members of the EU.


This is an odd one. Brexiteers see leaving the EU as enhancing democracy. They point to two things. The first is that they insist that the EU is undemocratic and that we have somehow put ourselves under the rule of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The second is that the vote to leave the EU is an expression of the 'will of the people' that must be obeyed. I would argue that both are fictions.

The EU is about shared sovereignty, not its abnegation. It has limited areas of competence and its major policy decisions are made by the member governments and scrutinised by its directly elected parliament. It was set up explicitly to protect and secure democracy in Europe. It's obviously true that the sharing of sovereignty does limit it. You only elect your own government not the government of the other twenty-seven member states who have a say in your future. But this is the nature of all partnerships. Any married person will know that they don't always get their own way. The idea of a wholly independent and autonomous nation state is a chimera. Every state is limited in its actions by treaties, agreements, memberships of transnational organisations, common interests, and, inescapably, reality. The EU is simply one restraint of many.

As for the 'will of the people'; since when has 'the people' consisted of a bare majority of those that voted and less than 40% of those eligible to vote? This is just rhetoric. There is no broad consensus. There are huge generational and regional divisions. The idea that 'the people' can have an incontestable 'will' is an abstraction. The idea that it can be measured with a snapshot of opinion on one day is inconceivable. We need to think a bit more about what democracy is.

Democracy is a principle, but like all political principles it is implemented through systems designed to emphasise some democratic elements over others. Britain is a Parliamentary democracy. The main principles are indirect representation rather than delegation, the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority, and Parliamentary sovereignty. All these have been bulldozed by the referendum and its result. The mainstream economist Kenneth Rogoff, is very eloquent about this democratic failure.

Economic Growth

There is a broad consensus amongst the vast majority of economists on this. At least in the short term, Britain will take an economic hit. Tim Harford sees low growth as our main problem in a typically oblique analysis that will irritate many.


The referendum was poorly thought out and the campaign was short and haphazard. It wasn't a deliberative process, it was a festival of lying. I was appalled.

The UK

Scotland and Northern Ireland?



Ten years (at least) of complex negotiations to ensure that we get only a slightly worse deal than the one we already have. Read this and weep.

New friends

Though I have to say they look a bit dodgy to me.

Control of borders

If we can afford it. Have they thought how much it will cost to police EU immigration? Anyway, this article is good.
This popular vision of migration control is a fantasy, based on decades of false promises by politicians who know they cannot deliver. In democracies, states cannot determine who lives where and what they do: they are constrained by practicalities and other interests. States can obstruct movement of foreigners through visas, permits, border refusals and deportation. But attempts to enforce restrictive rules that ignore realities impose enormous cost to the state – financially, economically and socially. They generate expectations that they then fail to meet.
But we might reduce immigration by other means.
Brexit is likely to trigger a significant decrease in immigration, but it will be due to a severe decline in the UK's economic performance rather than government policy.

A spike in racist incidents and gruesome condescension from middle class remain voters about the working class people who voted to leave.

Wishful thinking

It will be wonderful v it won't be that bad v we're doomed. Tim Harford again.


Some things, like the falling value of sterling can be both bad and good. It's good for exporters, but crap for me with a house in Greece. Guess which one I care about.


Now I am trying to be fair here. It will not have escaped you that I am not wholly unbiased in my selection. So here is the thing Brexiteers care most about. We will be free from the EU. OK we had opt outs for the Euro and Schengen so we won't see that much of a difference, but we will be wholly independent - sort of.

There are three visions of an independent Britain put forward by the various bits of the leave campaign.

1. We can become a free trade paradise. Low taxes, low regulation, and open borders.
2. We can restore our nation to its former self. A strong welfare state, conservative social values, and restricted immigration.
3. We can become an independent democratic socialist nation state freed from continental neoliberalism (dream on).

Sort that lot out if you can. All three are completely contradictory.

That's it. I have had enough now. The Tory hegemony is here unless events rescue us. Theresa May has rebuilt her cabinet, given the worst jobs to Brexiteers, and sent Boris Johnson on a world tour of ritual humiliation. And as for Labour ... no, let's not go there. Fans of dialectical thinking would notice that there appear to be more than a few contradictions knocking around. What possible synthesis can emerge? I honestly haven't a clue.

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.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Four posts on Brexit; 2. Restoration

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those? 
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
(A E Houseman)
We don't share the same political heritage as the European far right. They may be rubbing their hands with glee at the referendum result, but even though xenophobia played a part, it was a very British version, not the rancid race hatred of the neo fascists. Even so, I still do not like the face it is showing now it is triumphant.

So where did the vote come from? It came from a sense of impotence and loss, a very British melancholy. This post is a perceptive survey of the Brexit coalition of voters. It makes a point that the left have won the culture war, but that the right have won the economic war and there is a group of voters that wish it had been the other way round.
But, in the Labour Party, it was the socially liberal left that triumphed and the socialist left that lost. Just as Ed West remarked that the Tories were right-wing about the wrong things, many Labour voters felt their party was left-wing about the wrong things. Working class voters are too often demonised as bigots but it is not homophobic or sexist to wonder why your party is campaigning for gay marriage and more women on boards while your home town is going down the pan. Labour’s Equality Act said very little about economic equality at all. As Peter Mandelson might have said, the Labour government didn’t mind people getting filthy rich provided they had the right equality and diversity policies in place. 
The sentiment isn't radical; rather it is conservative, with a very small c. It wants to preserve what it had. It wants a restoration of the old order. It wants secure jobs, pensions, decent housing, a full pub, and a life of respect. It's not much. It's not a revolution. But the desire is strong and the sense of injustice and betrayal is profound. This is small town Britain, the cities mainly voted remain.

I thought at the time that the attitude of New Labour in 1997 was too hubristic. Carried away by their own rhetoric they assumed that their huge majority was a mandate for modernisation, whereas much of it was for restoration, or at the very least, consolidation. And in power, they lost those who got trapped in declining industries or decrepit towns and estates. Complacently, they assumed that they would continue to vote Labour because they had nowhere else to go. But they had. At first they went home. On June 23rd they turned up again and voted us out of the EU.

This is ironic. The EU had little to do with their plight. Instead it directed regional funds for reconstruction their way as a partial mitigation. No, the reason for the decline of strong communities into the twilight world of the payday loan and food bank is the actions of successive UK governments, the ones they have voted to empower further. The economic shock of Brexit may well hit them harder still. There is another disillusion waiting for them.

We all look back, especially when we reach my age. The past always seems to be a golden age simply because it was when we were young. But we can't ever have it. It's gone. And here is the generation divide again. We cannot restore the past, but we can offer a future, except we are not doing that for working class communities either. As the old look back, their kids look forward and see the same bleak landscape. Their parents despair about them. Elsewhere, the young see opportunity, but not here. It's a vicious circle. This is the challenge for the left, to direct nostalgia away from nihilism, to offer a future, and to be able to deliver it. Political economy is the key, as it always has been. And rather than the faux control the Brexiteers promised, the left has to offer something real. But at the moment trust has been lost, and UKIP hovers. I am not optimistic.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Four posts on Brexit; 1. Defeat

Make no mistake. The referendum was a huge victory for the political right.

There are left nationalist supporters of exit who are concerned about national sovereignty and who hope for their version of democratic socialism in one country, but the bulk of the vote came from the traditional English Tory right. They are affluent, older, spread throughout the suburbs and the countryside, and have been animated for years by a broadly fictitious picture of the EU as a foreign occupier and the conspiracy theory about a European super-state trampling over our liberties, compounded by deliberate lying.

They are not a majority though. But then the often youthful, urban Euro enthusiasts aren't either. The decisive factor was, as is so often the case in Conservative victories, the support of around thirty per cent of working class voters. They had to be won and the strategy to win them was based on the twin slogans of taking back control and anti-immigration. The two combined to unite those who had lost most, and swung the referendum. Labour did nothing like enough to hold on to them, and may have lost their loyalty for years to come.

Calling the referendum so casually was a crass mistake by a complacent political class. It was possible because of the unconstrained power the political system gives to the winner of an election in a system that does not allocate seats in the same proportion of votes cast. This is our 'democratic deficit.' There were no checks and no warnings, just a quick political fix planned at the risk of the entire future of the country. The same nonchalance was given to other issues, such as the construction of the referendum itself, its failure to protect minorities, its status as advisory even though its advice would be hard to ignore, the role of Parliament, and the adoption of a simple majority of votes cast for determining the result, with no other criteria or qualifications. Under the 2016 trade union legislation, if the same result came from a ballot for industrial action, the ballot would be lost as it failed to gain the support of 40% of the eligible voters. Yet it apparently isn't a problem to enforce the most radical change in British political history since the war.

We are now plunged into a major constitutional crisis. There are no rules, huge threats, and plenty of unintended consequences. The UK may break up, Brexit may never happen, who knows now? The one thing I am sure about is that the Conservatives will shape the settlement that emerges. The electoral coalition that won the referendum will endure, and even if there is a snap election and Labour manages to pull together under competent leadership, I am certain it will lose. Nothing in the electoral mathematics looks good.

The right have won. There is a long struggle ahead.