I have listened to many of the reasons that people wish to vote leave. They are heartfelt, genuine and I do not believe driven by racism as some might suggest. I do think however that many are driven by three factors which are unrelated as to whether we should in the EU or not, none of which have been addressed by either of the “official” sides in the debate:
- The impacts of globalisation;
- Many years of our domestic politicians rather conveniently blaming the EU for unpopular matters when the reality was rather closer to home; and
- The impact of multiculturalism on communities.
The world has become difficult and less certain for many people over the last 50 years, especially those in “blue collar” and clerical jobs. The post-WW2 economic consensus that started to unravel with Nixon taking the US dollar off the quasi-gold standard established at Bretton Woods (albeit in itself more a symptom rather than the underlying economic cause) in 1971 (the year of my birth – I am a child of globalisation!), saw the breaking down of traditional industries, not just in the UK, but across the traditional industrial economies of North America and Western Europe. First with the rapid growth of Japan from 1955 to 1990, then the “Tiger” economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, and finally with the re-emergence of China and India as great economic powers (I use the term re-emergence, as they are merely regaining there relative position in the world economy that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution) has seen a massive pivot to Asia in terms of industrial production, especially of goods that many people in Britain would have seen as “there’s”:
- Chemicals; and
- Electrical goods.
Britain’s membership of the EU (and its predecessor, the EEC) may have coincided with these changes, but they were not caused by the EU. Look at the current US Presidential Campaign and the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; the very same issues are at the fore, while the USA has taken the type of approach to international trade and engagement that the “Leave” campaign is advocating. Those traditional, well-paid, manual jobs will not return whatever route we take, although the production might return; this time it will just be done by robots, thus removing the labour cost advantages of Asian producers.
Globalisation has been accompanied by rising levels of inequality, reversing a trend that had lasted from the First World War to the mid to late-1970s across North America and Western Europe. Increasing rewards have gone to those with higher educational levels and capital, and less to those without. Ironically, the EU has long been seen as fighting a losing war against the tide of globalisation, while in this campaign it is seen as a creature of the same. A non-EU Britain (well at least a non-Single Market Britain – a move to the Norway model EFTA/EEA membership would make little difference) will more likely find itself on an accelerated path of globalisation; the “Leave” campaign’s model for trading (http://www.economistsforbrexit.co.uk/publications/) is not without economic merit, but it clearly involves the UK economy being at the cold, hard edge of globalisation. This will not be a comfortable place for those who have found the last 50 years the most difficult.
Blame it on the EU
Domestic politicians of both major parties have, for as long as I can remember, used the EU as a convenient scapegoat for ducking difficult policy decisions, or for bringing in those that may not find favour. The now widely argued about “workers’ rights” have frequently been posted in the EU box, so Labour politicians can avoid being seen as anti-business and their Conservative equivalents can avoid blame for introducing “red tape” by the right of their party. This is a situation that has been exacerbated by a number of newspapers, where “blame the EU” stories have become stock in trade alongside philandering footballers and badly behaved celebrities. Considering the quality of coverage and debate, the position of many people is hardly surprising. Let us take some examples:
- “The EU makes us pay benefits to anybody” – EU rules just state you cannot discriminate between your own nationals and those of other EU members. There is nothing to stop the UK having a welfare system where you have to contribute before you can take out, and in fact this was how the UK system worked until the mid-70s. For example a system requiring 5 years of National Insurance contributions before tax credits, child benefit or unemployment benefits could be taken out is perfectly legal, and is in fact how most European systems work.
- “EU migrants take our houses/school places/hospital beds/etc.” – Any increase in population means you need more houses/school places/hospital beds/etc.. In the 1950s and 1960s we had a significant increase in population, and Britain built 300,000 houses a year and many schools and hospitals. The people who are moving to the UK from other EU countries are coming to work, unemployment is low and workforce participation is high. There is no reason why we should not build and we would get many benefits from doing so. With interest rates at very low levels, such construction could be undertaken with low cost of finance.
- “The EU is failing to deal with the migrant crisis” – The world is seeing an unparalleled level of displaced people and refugees, estimated at 65m, primarily occurring in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. They are seeking to come to the EU (in particular the wealthier northern countries) as they see a much more pleasant place to live. The EU hasn’t caused these crises and nor can it stop them. There are no easy answers, and our vote will not change in the slightest how many people cross the Mediterranean, or how many seek to move to the UK rather than Germany or Sweden.
Last but not least, we have the issue of multiculturalism, and the feeling held by many that the country has become “less British”, or is “not the country I remember”; this is not a matter of race but a factor of difference. The EU is identified with this process because these changes have occurred while we have been a member and its protections for minorities. However, if we examine this closer, it is rarely to do with people who have come from the EU. The cultures of other EU countries are fundamentally not that different from the UK, compared with say those of South Asia and West Africa, from where other large immigrant populations have arrived. Again, this is not something that will change with an exit vote, but only through assimilation. Those immigrants from within the EU tend to assimilate rather more quickly due to the cultural similarities; those from outside the EU rather longer.