The Brexit paradox: its strongest argument is its least attractive

I originally posted this article on Friday 25 March, but there was a problem with either my web host or WordPress or some other technical factor, which mean that although the email was sent out, and it appeared to be published on my browser, the publication never actually happened. This is the second attempt.

I have been relatively quiet about the biggest issue in current British politics: the referendum on membership of the European Union. It’s not that I don’t care – it has defined my politics for well over 40 years. It’s a feeling of inadequacy that I can say much that will heard beyond the babble. When I started this blog in 2011 I posted prolifically on the referendum for electoral reform. All I was doing was cheering along a rather small band of the already committed. No serious debate was actually taking place over the merits of the reform. I don’t want to be just another pro-EU voice that is only heard by other pro-EU voices. Alas, the remains my likely fate.

Still, I do want to engage in serious discussion of the issues, beyond the polemic. That debate will mainly be with myself, no doubt, but it is better than nothing. In this post I will to look at the economic arguments. Life will clearly be harder outside the EU, but might not that actually be a good thing? It is, perhaps, the central paradox of the whole debate.

The most commonly heard economic arguments for leaving the EU are based on three themes: the taxes the country pays to the EU budget; the weight of EU regulations; and the economic problems and slow growth suffered by other EU countries. None of these stands up to close examination. The budget contributions are the price paid for access to the market, and are payable by non-members like Norway and Switzerland for access rights; any savings made post Brexit will be balanced by costs, such as tariffs payable on imports, and loss of exports. This is a hard calculation to make, but the contributions look like small change in the bigger picture for an economy, like the British one, that is so dependent on trade. The argument that a sweetheart trade deal can be secured easily because the country has a substantial trade deficit with the EU is nonsense. That deficit is largely with one country: Germany, and the deal has to be done with 26 others too. And Germany’s support of sanctions against Russia, which were very costly to it, shows that politics trumps economics anyway, in Germany as in all countries.

On regulation it is hard to believe that things wills be much different outside the EU; much regulation will stay in order that the country is able to export goods. Those that don’t will be replaced by home-grown regulations that will be approximately as onerous. Democracy and regulation go hand in hand, and Anglo-Saxon cultures are as prone to this tendency as any other. Just try to set up a hairdressing business in the US. If the Brexit campaigners talked about which regulations they want to throw in the bin (other then fictional ones like those specifying the shape of bananas, etc.) they would quickly provoke a backlash. What they generally mean is employee rights.

And the economic problems of the rest of the EU do not stop Britain from exporting to the rest of the world. After all, one of the most dynamic of the world’s exporting nations, Germany, is at the heart of the EU.

And yet. A while ago I heard an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme with British businessman Peter Hargreaves (co-founder of financial adviser Hargreaves Lansdown, with whom I had many dealings when I worked in financial services). The Telegraph report is here. He spouted a lot of the usual nonsense, waving away concerns about disruption to trade and investment, and suggesting that relations with Commonwealth countries could substitute for those with our European neighbours. It is remarkable about how disciplined and on-message the disparate Leave campaign is, so early. But Mr Hargreaves went onto say something much more interesting. He suggested that life out of the EU would be more “bracing”, and that would stimulate British society to greater efforts that would make it more efficient. He wanted Britain to emulate Singapore after its breakaway from Malaysia.

It would be easy to poke fun at this. Singapore might be a paragon to Mr Hargreaves, but the country is subject to an authoritarian regime that puts British complaints about political correctness (and state paternalism) into the shade. It is also a city-state, without the complexities that a large hinterland brings. But. Think about that persistent trade deficit with the rest of the EU, which contributes an trade deficit. Since joining the EU the country has been living beyond its means. A strong pound, strong inward investment, and drawing down generations’ worth of foreign assets has given the country an illusion of economic success. There are no doubt many reasons for this: North Sea oil, the illusions brought about by global finance, loose fiscal policy after 2001, and so on. But being in the EU has surely contributed. It has anchored the country in a wider international system that makes imbalances easier to sustain; it has been most helpful in drawing in inward investment, a key factor in supplying the country with the foreign currency it needs to keep going. Life outside would surely be more bracing.

An interesting digression from this line of reasoning is how things might have been different if Britain had been part of the Euro, since so much of the economic illusion was sustained by a strong pound. A topic for another time, except that I must point out that the Euro was brought in too late to be of any use – the pound was already too high by then.

And so the best economic argument for Brexit is this: the EU is a comfort blanket that is preventing our political and economic elites from facing up to the country’s true predicament. Leaving the EU would provoke a necessary economic crisis, but this would head off an even deeper crisis down the road. Of course Remainers will hope that the deeper crisis can be headed off by British economic reform within the EU, while Leavers will hope that Brexit will have a delayed economic impact, allowing the crisis to be headed off.

But, of course, the Brexiters cannot sustain this line of argument in public. It is a hair shirt argument, and the wider public would rightly suppose that it would be them that would wear the shirt (the “necessary price”) and the various business elites that would scoop the benefits. In fact the line that life outside the EU would be “more bracing” was distinctly off-message for the Leavers – though the consistent refusal of Brexit campaigners to acknowledge any risk of economic cost or uncertainty is their least convincing line.

Nevertheless, we supporters of Britain’s future in the EU should pause and reflect. Our relationship with the rest of the EU is not quite right. That trade deficit is a worrying sign of weakness. Too much of our country is inward looking. The paradox is that membership of the EU makes that inward focus more sustainable – and yet it is precisely what makes it is easy for so many people to contemplate life outside.