What would Britain become if it left the EU after the Referendum on 23 June? To most campaigners for Leave this may seem an unfair question: they are not a government in waiting. To them EU membership is inherently bad, and we should sort out what the country is to become one democratic step at a time once we have decided to leave. But to many Remainers it is the lack of a coherent and convincing alternative vision for Britain that is one of the strongest reasons for staying in the EU. So it helps to think it through. One way of doing that is to look at the example of other countries.
One of the early alternative visions put forward by Leave advocates was Singapore. This is especially popular amongst businessmen. Singapore broke free from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 (it was expelled) and has prospered as an independent state. It now counts itself as part of the developed world, unlike the continuing Malaysia, which has advanced not nearly so quickly. Singapore made itself an easy country to do business in, and developed as a trading entrepot through, for example, very efficient port facilities. Meanwhile Malaysia became bogged down with the politics and corruption of a larger state, notably engaging in the politics of ethnicity.
Likewise Leavers say that Britain is bogged down with the politics and inefficient regulation of an entity that is too big and complicated to be efficient. Why can’t we be something nimbler and more entrepreneurial, like Singapore? There are many problems with this idea, of course, which is no doubt we don’t hear so much of it now. First is that in size and complexity Britain looks more like Malaysia itself, rather than Singapore, while the EU looks nothing like the Malaysian Federation, with its autocratic leadership. The second is that Singapore is run very autocratically itself: a firmly-led one-party leadership forces through its pro-business agenda in a way that Britain’s government can only dream about. What stops Britain from being like Singapore is less the restrictions of the EU, and more its own raucous and vibrant democracy. A common complaint of Leave campaigners is that the EU is not democratic; following the example of Singapore suggests that it is in fact too democratic.
Enter a second possible exemplar: Switzerland. Switzerland is prosperous and European; it is also probably the most democratic country in the world. Referendums are a very regular occurrence; Swiss people are constantly consulted. And they rejected joining the EU (and the EEA, a diluted version that includes Norway) exactly because it threatened its democratic standards. But the Swiss example throws up a couple of interesting problems. First, the country has found that the only way to make a proper democracy work is through a level of local devolution that is alien to Britain’s freewheeling ways. The central government is weak; most of the action occurs at cantonal level. This level of local government is actually quite intrusive; woe betide anybody that runs their washing machine late at night. A number of years ago many London firms threatened to migrate to Geneva in reaction to intrusive financial regulation; they did not follow through as their staff found the city a difficult place in which to live.
Well that is more interesting than a decisive argument over Britain’s choices. It may show that many Brexit campaigners have mixed feelings about democracy, but Britain can still choose to runs its affairs differently. The second problem is more difficult: in order to prosper, Switzerland has found it necessary to participate in EU structures to secure its part in the single European market. It must comply with many EU regulations, allow the free movement of EU citizens and even pay into the EU budget. There is a tension between these things and Switzerland’s democracy (especially over allowing EU nationals in to work), but Switzerland has been forced to compromise. The Leave case to the voters is based heavily on stopping the free movement of people and on stopping EU budget contributions; it follows that the country could not follow the Swiss compromise, and would sacrifice much of its prosperity as a result. Indeed the Swiss compromise makes little sense – why not accept the EU structures and participate in their management in a way the Swiss are unable to? it is not as if we have such democratic traditions to protect. Indeed we might find some of the European structures useful to protect our citizens from our own government, elected with very unconvincing democratic mandates.
I think a third exemplar fits much more closely with where Britain would head if it left the EU: Japan. Japan is an island nation positioned just off a continent with which it has difficult political relationships. It values social cohesion beyond economic prosperity, which means that it maintains strict controls against immigration, even though its aging population is creating a crying need for younger workers. It would rather seek solutions in robotics. It is democratic, though not in the free-wheeling way that Britain has become used to. But a post-Brexit Conservative Party could establish the dominance that Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has achieved. The result would not be the business-friendly wonder of Singapore, but an even denser thicket of regulations and bureaucratic meddling than Britain has now, which helps to preserve social cohesion and stability, and protect the interests of established major businesses. In principle I think most of Britain’s voters would settle for this, even as they might moan (the Japanese do that too).
The problem for Britain is that Japan’s economy is based on a strong industrial base. This is a historical oddity that would be very hard for Britain to replicate starting from where it does now (though would perhaps have been feasible starting from where it was in the 1950s). The businesses at the core of Japan’s success are mature ones, like Toyota, which has become the world’s leading motor manufacturer, alongside Germany’s Volkswagen. These businesses are not growing – indeed Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums since the 1990s, but they nevertheless provide Japan with financial security. Japan’s government is not dependent on foreign investors as Britain’s is. To replicate Japan’s success would require a rebalancing of Britain’s economy, led by a substantial devaluation of the pound, and several years of pain as living standards were squeezed.
Are Britons really up for this? The country has already advanced far further down the road of multiculturalism than Japan could conceive of – a legacy of its Imperial history rather than of EU membership. Britons have got used to their holidays in the sun, and the country’s relationship with its continental neighbours has always been more integrated than that of Japan’s with China and (to a lesser degree) Korea.
But if Britain votes for Leave – which is having the better of the referendum campaign so far – they may find themselves following the Japan road, with much less benign results than Japan has been able to achieve. That is a good reason to vote Remain.