Are there Australian lessons for Brexit?

I have now just a week to go in my long trip to Australia. I’m not all that surprised that I haven’t managed to update this blog regularly on my travels. It turns out that it is quite hard to fit into my holiday routine. But witnessing the mounting political tension on Brexit in the UK from afar, I will manage one more post. Does an Australian perspective have anything important to say on Brexit? Well, yes and no.

Australia is beloved of Brexiteers, partly because it is part of an “Anglosphere” which they hope can substitute for Britain’s European identity. But there are two more substantive reasons. One is that Australia shows that a medium-sized nation can be economically successful as a fully sovereign state. The second is that a country that attaches itself to the booming Asian, and especially Chinese, economy will prosper.

Let’s start with the first proposition. Australia is undeniably successful without being part of a wider formal economic block like the EU. Indeed most Australians would probably be horrified at the loss of sovereignty that such an arrangement involves. They are fiercely self-reliant and independentlyminded. Most of the Australian6s I have had proper conversations with have been internationally aware and sympathetic to Britain’s membership of the EU. That makes them unrepresentative. It is very hard to get any kind of international news on television or radio out here. The bulletins are consumed by stories on the latest bushfires, weather events, local political spats and sport. Only the Royal Family can intrude. I suspect that most Australians are pretty sympathetic to Brexit. The country has half or less of the population of the UK, and still makes a very good go of things. Indeed it is prosperous. One shouldn’t make too much of this, though. Australia’s dependence on the US for security has meant that it had to send its boys to be killed in Vietnam. And Australians worry about Chinese intrusion into their state currently.

Australia’s success has a lot to do with the second proposition – that its economy is tied to the fast-growing Asian economy, rather than the lacklustre European one. Australia exports substantial amounts of minerals and agricultural produce to China, in particular, and attracts lots of Asian tourists and students. There is a lot of Chinese investment. That keeps its exchange rate high, so that Australians can afford lots of exotic imports. A popular theme of the Brexit case was that Britain should unshackle itself from the European corpse, and trade more with Asia. Although the example usually given is Singapore, Australia seems to make the case even more convincingly.

But, of course, we have to think of the differences between Britain and Australia. The first is Australia’s relative isolation. The country has little choice but to go it alone, as it is not geographically close to any other large nation – if you exclude Indonesia, which is not close to any of Australia’s major economic hubs, quite apart from a cultural gulf that makes the divide between Britain and its European neighbours look trivial. Indeed the internal distances within the Australian continent are often more daunting than those between Britain and even its more distant European neighbours. Australians are self-reliant because they have to be.

But they are still a success. That is surely down to the next big difference: it is a vast continent with huge exportable assets. These include massive mineral wealth and agricultural land. The Australian economy has a highly extractive character. That even applies to its agriculture, where few farmers give serious consideration to the long-term sustainability of their methods. While on our trip we experienced dust storms in New South Wales. Dust of that sort doesn’t come from deserts (where such fine particles would have been blown out long, long ago) nor form vegetated land; it is agricultural top soil being left exposed by exploitative farming methods. Even without leaving vast areas of topsoil exposed, agriculture depends heavily on artificial fertilisers, which can only do so much. All this means high agricultural productivity and competitiveness of exports for the time being. Britain does not have the option of exploiting its natural resources in a similar way, even if it wanted to – which it very clearly doesn’t. Nobody suggests that despoiling hundreds of square miles of British countryside is what the country must to to escape economic dependence on Europe.

So what could Britain do instead to ride the Asian wave? Asia has strong demand for capital goods. But Britain has hollowed out its manufacturing industry (unlike Germany which is riding the Asian wave successfully from within the EU). There is hi-tech expertise and products. Britain could do better here, but China is investing hugely so that it becomes less dependent on foreigners. Tourism? Professional services? Universities and schools? There are possibilities in all of these, though Britain tends to shoot itself in the foot, especially with over enthusiastic anti-immigration policies. But it would be a hard road. Anyway it is far from clear that Britain is better off being outside Europe and free of its regulations and trade restrictions, or within it and so having a wider semi-domestic market in which to scale up its products and services. Britain’s proximity to the rest of Europe is one of its comparative advantages over Australia – it seems silly to get in the way of that.

Another point is worth making. Some Brexit supporters suggest that Australia could be part of a wider international support network, economic and political, rather as the Commonwealth was before Britain joined the European Community. From here that looks naïve. Australia has long outgrown its old links to Britain. We used to be a significant source of agricultural outputs – but now Britain cannot compete with the closer and larger China. On other matters, education or business services, Australia looks more like a competitor than a partner. Distance prevents the intimate supply chain links that are a feature of Britain’s economic relationship with its neighbours.

While the Empire 2.0 and linking up to Asia’s dynamism look like fatuous arguments for Brexit, Australia still shows that smaller countries can plough there own furrow if they want to. Outside the EU Britain would still keep its strong links to the continent, and the laws of comparative advantage suggest that the economy would in due course rebalance to a new reality. The only question is how much poorer (or, for the Brexit optimists, richer) that new reality would be. Lacking Australia’s natural assets, it seems likely that it would be quite a bit poorer.