Nigels against the World

Ferdinand Mount on the EU referendum

The Leavers don’t seem to have much clue about what is to happen afterwards. Curious, considering so many of them have spent their adult lives agitating for this moment. Their approach appears to be a version of Napoleon’s battle strategy: ‘On se dégage, et puis on voit.’ What exactly is Out supposed to entail? How do they picture Britain’s relationship with the EU, and with the rest of the world, after they’ve secured a vote for Exit on 23 June? That’s far from clear, not least because of the bad blood between the rival Leave organisations. Leave.eu is financed by the insurance tycoon Arron Banks and blessed by Nigel Farage and Ukip. Vote Leave is led by Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and Boris Johnson, with the support of other longstanding Eurosceptic ministers and former ministers, such as Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Lawson and David Owen. Then there’s Grassroots Out, which was supposed to bring the other two lots together. But the prospectus on offer has been muddied because the spokesmen within each organisation have had different ideas.

Johnson in particular changes his ideas once a fortnight. Last summer, months before joining the Brexit campaign, he floated the two-referendum idea: we vote against membership on the current terms, but instead of leaving, negotiate a better deal, followed by a second referendum to endorse the improved terms. Even after he came out for Out in February, Johnson still appeared to hanker for something along these lines. ‘EU history,’ he said, ‘shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No.’ He wasn’t the only one hankering for ‘Breturn’. Michael Howard declared that Europe would have to think again after an Out vote and could offer a new deal within a month: ‘During that month they would say: let’s talk some more, let’s see if we can reach a different agreement and perhaps you could have a second agreement.’

David Cameron ridiculed this scenario: a refusal to accept the democratic implications of a vote to leave would cause an explosion of justified outrage. He would be honour-bound to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty the next day and set in motion the procedure for the UK to leave the EU. After that there could be no looking back at Sodom. So Johnson and quite a few other Brexiters moved on to another option. The UK could be like Norway or Iceland or, slightly differently, like Switzerland. They are not in the EU but enjoy full access to the Single Market. But then it was forcefully pointed out that Norway and the others have the worst of both worlds: they have to obey all the rules and pay into the European budget without having any say in the making of those rules. For a time, Johnson tried to brush aside this obstacle by repeating a gag of which he has become criminally fond: ‘I am pro having my cake and pro eating it.’ Within days he was forced to switch to the next refuge, the Canadian option. On 11 March, he said: ‘I think we can strike a deal as the Canadians have done, based on trade and getting rid of tariffs. The Canadian model is the way forward for us.’ But the EU-Canada treaty has already taken seven years to negotiate and isn’t yet complete, and even this arrangement may prove too burdensome and restrictive for the more red-blooded Brexiters. Obama suggested that a similar sort of treaty with the US might take ten years to negotiate.

Matt Ridley, a vice-president of Vote Leave and author of The Rational Optimist, argued in the Times that trade treaties are old hat: ‘Forget treaties, almost three-quarters of British trade is already conducted without treaties anyway, under WTO rules.’ This is a ripe example of Ridley’s flamboyant optimism, first seen in action when he was the chairman of Northern Rock. In the same article he concedes that ‘with the stalling of the Doha round of the WTO, we are increasingly back to a world of regional trading treaties, like Nafta, TPP and TTIP (if this ever happens).’ However enchanting the vision of a treaty-free global bazaar, any British government (in or out of the EU) will be enmeshed in the negotiation and administration of such treaties for years to come. Besides, trading successfully depends not only on tariffs or their absence but on such non-tariff barriers as trading standards, health and safety codes, patents, rules on taxation and investment: a whole network of potential impediments that a scorned EU might not hesitate to deploy against Britain, once it had ceased to be a member.

Yet the Leavers are inexorably being dragged towards a vision of Britain without any such formal entanglements. In a speech on 19 April, which was hailed by most of the Brexiters as definitive, Michael Gove finally made it clear that Out means Out. Not tagging along like Norway or Switzerland, not seeking a new and complicated relationship like Canada, not a country member or a candidate member, but OUT. Gove, looking more than ever like a gleeful hamster on steroids, announced that Britain would leave the Single Market, would not seek to be part of EFTA (the organisation that includes Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein), and would remain a member only of ‘the European Free Trade Zone that stretches from Iceland to the Russian border’. Alas, despite this grandiloquent description, the EFTZ exists largely in the imagination. The UK would be as Out as Bosnia, Serbia and Albania (the signal difference being that Bosnia, Serbia and Albania are all trying to get into the EU). We would be launched on a journey to become a Greater Albania. The prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, said in response that he was ‘not convinced it would suit either our or Britain’s needs to create this new BBC: the British-Balkan Confederation. Or that it is right for Britain to look at Albania as a model of a relationship with the EU.’ The EU does eliminate all tariffs on Albanian industrial goods, though not on agriculture, but the average level of tariffs these days is fairly modest. What is more important is that Albania has no EU passport for financial and other services and no access to EU deals with the outside world. As a country aspiring to join the EU, Albania faces the same prospect as Norway: total submission to EU rules but no say in their making. Albania here we come? I rather doubt it.

‘Splendid isolation’. ‘Very well, alone’. ‘Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off’. That is the name of the game, the only game that appeases the dreams and resentments of the Brexiters. It isn’t about economics. Decca Aitkenhead traipsed all the way to Nigel Lawson’s gentilhommière in Gascony to seek enlightenment on the economics. But all she could get out of the long-serving chancellor, by far the most experienced voice in the Leave camp, was that ‘the important issue is democracy and self-government. It is about that principle. Self-government is more important than anything else.’ Lawson or Farage, it comes to the same thing: Nigels against the world.

But the voice is the voice of Enoch. Mr Powell, as he liked to style himself in his later prophetic period, never ceased to argue that joining the EU had been a great betrayal, but that it was a betrayal which could and would, sooner or later, be reversed. In 1994, not long before he died, he declared that ‘Britain is waking from the nightmare of being part of the Continental bloc to rediscover that these offshore islands belong to the outside world and lie open to its oceans.’

Powell had not only a passionate attachment to his own nation-state but a chilly indifference to everyone else’s. He thought the Cold War was a delusion (the only foreign country he had a soft spot for was Russia). He didn’t care a jot if Saddam Hussein swallowed up the whole of the Middle East so long as he didn’t invade Sussex. He was quite unmoved by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the bloodshed that followed. Like Auden, he regarded the United States as ‘tiefste Provinz’, and derided both its culture and its geopolitical pretensions. He insisted that the Republic of Ireland be treated in all respects as a foreign country. Aliens began at Dundalk as well as Calais. He was indifferent to whatever the Continentals got up to, so long as they didn’t impinge on the freedom of the UK to follow its destiny. Other countries, other minds have no meaningful existence. Weapons-grade solipsism.

The same chilly indifference is evident among today’s Brexiters. Lawson contemplates the dissolution of the EU with equanimity: ‘The idea that there is anything to be lost if it breaks up peacefully I find totally unconvincing … it has passed its sell-by date. I see no purpose in the EU at all.’ Gove strikes a not dissimilar note. He positively welcomes the smashing of the EU. Britain’s leaving might trigger ‘the democratic liberation of a whole continent’. But who said they wanted to be ‘liberated’? For all the EU’s many faults, there still are plenty of nations that regard membership as the best guarantee of peace, stability and prosperity and are clamouring to get in. They may be deluded, but who gave the gleeful hamster licence to set about demolishing the shelter they are struggling to reach?

Lawson, Gove and others display a similar indifference to the possibility that a vote to leave the EU would propel the Scots to leave the UK. There is ‘no connection whatsoever’, Lawson asserts. ‘People are quite wrong to worry, because the decision to hold another Scottish referendum is the decision of the British government, it’s not for the Scottish government to decide.’ It is ironic that the Brexiter mentality, in essence so similar to that of the hardline Scottish Nationalists, utterly fails to grasp how the SNP would react. If they bother to think about it at all, the Brexiters comfort themselves with the thought that Nicola Sturgeon fully understands how dire the prospects for an independent Scotland are following the collapse in the oil price. Can’t they see that if the UK voted to leave the EU, while the Scots vote, probably by some margin, to stay in, even moderate Scots would begin to dread a future inside the UK and the resumption of English dominance at its most unbearable? Whatever Sturgeon’s own rational calculations, she would be dragged along by a wave of resentment to demand a second referendum which no UK prime minister could oppose without risking resistance on a scale not seen since 1745.

Rather than put themselves through the hassle of untangling such arguments, Remainers often throw up their hands and say they’re all mad, ‘foam-flecked’, ‘swivel-eyed’, ‘fruitcakes’ – to use some of the epithets applied to Ukip, not least by David Cameron a few years ago, before he realised that half his party were that way inclined. But there is a rough distinction worth making between those Outers, on the one hand, who are merely fed up with the daily frictions of life in the EU (often confused with the frictions of modern life generally and with excessively fussy regulations imposed by our own Parliament rather than by Brussels) and would like to see a looser arrangement with our neighbours, and, on the other hand, those who are gripped by a full-throated longing for untrammelled national independence. There is a difference between those who want to make a dramatic protest and those who have a settled longing to live utterly apart, to be eternally outside – exotikos, as the Greek so nicely puts it. Powell represented the Brexotic temperament in its purest form, but there are still plenty like him on the Tory benches: incurably chilly, sometimes abnormally intelligent, often physically awkward and requiring a good deal of personal space.

I have met one of two of them coming back from Brussels scarred by their first experience as junior ministers of having to argue all day with those devious Continentals, then having to wine and dine with them before the indignity of being outvoted by them. Gove adduces as the ultimate ghastliness his civil servants saying to him: ‘Yes, minister, I understand but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules.’ We hear no such moaning when Sir Humphrey says that what the minister would like to do is against the Law of the Sea or the Geneva Convention or the rules of the UN. Nor does the Brexotic pause to reflect whether there might be a good reason for the rules that the EU has come up with, or at least no worse reason than for the other rules that constrain him.

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What makes it so tempting to regard ‘Brexosis’ as a mental disorder is its persistent streak of paranoia. Brexotics have always regarded the EU as a deep-laid plot to undermine and eventually to extinguish the nation-state in general and Britain in particular; ‘they’ are always ganging up against ‘us’. Brexotics remain deaf to the rather more subtle thesis advanced by that great contrarian Alan Milward in The European Rescue of the Nation-State (1992): that the underlying purpose of the drive for European union was to retrieve the nation-state from its ignominy and demoralisation after two catastrophic world wars, and to anchor it in a network of institutions that would secure peace and prevent beggar-my-neighbour policies of protection and blockade.[*] Yes, Monnet and Schuman used devious means to chivvy the process along, but the end purpose was a worthy one: in return for a modest and ultimately retrievable (how else could we be holding this referendum?) sacrifice of day-to-day sovereignty and a piffling contribution from national revenues (the UK’s net contribution to the EU is well under one per cent of government spending), the nation-state would be able to hold up its head and bask in the sun again. We shouldn’t tamely accept that Britain’s case is different because it never succumbed to fascism or extreme nationalism. We indulged in competitive imperialism and were often standoffish and inert in overseas relations. Britain too joined arms races, and sometimes initiated them. You have only to compare the energy and farsightedness of Wellington, Aberdeen and Palmerston in maintaining the Concert of Europe for forty years after Waterloo with the flabby and self-centred diplomacy of Britain in the Edwardian period to see how far the sense of international responsibility had shrunk.

It won’t really do either to sneer at the EU as undemocratic, still less anti-democratic. Is Germany – with its PR system, its Basic Law and its finely articulated structure of Länder – so much less democratic than the UK? True, the European Parliament doesn’t speak for a fully fledged demos, but it gives democratically elected representatives from the whole EU an opportunity to help frame the rules, which British MPs don’t really have. On the European Council of ministers, itself an elected body, to adapt the language of the Levellers, the smallest he has as big a shout as the greatest he. Those interminable dinners and small-hours wrangles, which Margaret Thatcher so hated, often thrash out a consensus, more in the style of an Indian panchayat than of a modern parliament, but this may be a more appropriate method of seeking a way forward for such a vast and heterogeneous community.

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I am less concerned, though, to defend the ramshackle and blatantly imperfect institutions of the EU than to warn of the dangers inherent in nation-worship – something the Brexotics never confront. Many of those who will be voting to leave, such as Norman Lamont, take General de Gaulle as their model, but it was that cynical-romantic statesman who liked to quote Nietzsche’s scorching maxim that ‘the state is the coldest of all cold monsters’ (from Also Sprach Zarathustra – it’s even more chilling in the German: ‘Staat heisst das kälteste aller kalten Ungeheuer’). Even de Gaulle held back from quoting Nietzsche’s next sentence: ‘The state also lies in a cold fashion, and the lie that crawls out of its mouth is “I, the state, am the people.”’

It is a heresy to identify state-worship with ‘traditional conservatism’, or to imply, as the Brexiters often do, that they are the only true patriots. Patriotism is certainly a conservative virtue, but it is not the only virtue, and it is not enough. Burke insists that the love for the ‘little platoon’ we belong to in society ‘is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’. He also insists that ‘it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society.’ The risks that would follow from a vote to leave on 23 June form a clearly visible chain. A host of worriers have pointed them out over recent weeks: farmers, scientists, university and business leaders, eight former secretaries to the US Treasury and the president of the United States. Some of the risks may be exaggerated – we may get off more lightly than we fear – but others may be underplayed. There is, first of all, a risk of recession, at worst even of slump, as the uncertainty about Britain’s future begins to sink in. Investment plans, both at home and abroad, may be postponed until the outlook becomes clearer. This could take anything from the statutory two years required to negotiate withdrawal from the EU to five years or longer. Obama has made it clear that the US would be in no hurry to negotiate any treaty that the UK might seek, and I can’t imagine that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would be any keener.

What remedies would the government have to revive the economy during that period? Interest rates are already at rock bottom, and any rise in government spending or cut in taxes would send the still untamed budget deficit out of control, with a further loss of confidence which only stern measures could hope to retrieve. In other words, more so-called austerity.

These uncertain conditions could lead to a flight of capital. At first it might be no more than a trickle, as big companies reassessed their priorities and decided whether to invest inside rather than outside the rump EU, or not to invest anywhere in Europe. But such flights have a habit of gathering momentum and are hard (though not impossible) to reverse.

The impact on employment is hard to gauge. A welcome feature of the aftershock of the 2008 crash was the surprising extent to which employers managed to hang on to their workforces, mostly by freezing their pay. Could they repeat the trick? The Brexiters’ best card is the promise to restrict immigration and end the free movement of labour between the EU and Britain. So no more Polish plumbers and painters, no more Ukrainian pea-pickers, no more Portuguese nannies. On the other hand, it isn’t clear that British-born workers would be ready to fill the vacant slots. We could end up with the worst of both worlds: labour shortages in the South, unemployment in the North if there is a falling-off in inward investment. Or the whole thing could balance out. As with all the other calculations, we simply don’t know, which is no reason not to make them, in order to prepare policy accordingly.

What we do know, pretty much for sure, is that there will be a rumpus in Scotland. Even if the Scottish government manages to hold off a second referendum on independence until the dust has settled, which I very much doubt, links between England and Scotland will be violently shaken, the already fragile confidence in the Scottish economy reduced to nothing.

Finally, there would be a knock-on effect on the morale of the rump EU. This is even more imponderable. On the one hand, the European elites may attempt to reinforce their institutions – ‘more Europe’, to use that ghastly Brussels phrase. On the other hand, EU voters may resist any such further integration and call vociferously to be allowed their own referendums. The result might be a sort of fractious stalemate, with hyper-nationalist third and fourth parties gathering hideous strength. At which point, Vladimir Putin will … Let’s not go there. We saw enough in the last century of what happens when major players put down their instruments and leave the concert hall; we saw it when the US Senate refused to ratify the League of Nations, when Germany left the League in 1933, when Yugoslavia broke apart and the EU did nothing very much in that supposed ‘hour of Europe’.

The purpose of sketching out these half-dozen areas of risk is not to claim to know how bad they would turn out to be, but simply to point out how little thought the Brexotics have given to them, or to the suspicions and fears they have roused, not just in their own country but across the whole continent. There remains the last and to me the worst suspicion: that they would be quite happy to put their supposedly beloved country through a period of prolonged turmoil and stagnation simply for the exhilaration of being on their own at last. No one since Greta Garbo has said ‘I want to be alone’ with such feeling. Or perhaps it’s not so much Garbo as the chant sung by the fans of Millwall FC that I should be thinking of: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’ At the time of writing, Millwall are lying fourth in Football League One. For the uninitiated, this is really the Third Division.

[*] The European Rescue of the Nation-State was discussed by Perry Anderson in the LRB of 4 January 1996.