My latest Critical Quarterly column, on Ireland’s not-so-unusual economic history, is available here.
The main point of my 1999 book with Jeff Williamson was that globalisation produces both winners and losers, and that this can lead to an anti-globalisation backlash. We argued this based on late 19th century evidence, but opinion poll evidence (citations here) suggested that something similar was at work in the late 20th century as well, a hunch confirmed in the early 21st century by the 2005 and 2008 French and Irish referenda.
What was missing from all this was an analysis of what, if anything, governments can do about this. Which is where Dani Rodrik’s finding that more open states had bigger governments in the late 20th century comes in. Dani’s interpretation is that markets expose workers to risk, and that government expenditure of various sorts can help protect them from those risks. In a series of articles, and an important book, Michael Huberman showed that this correlation between states and markets was present before 1914 as well: countries with more liberal trade policies tended to have more advanced social protections of various sorts, and this helped maintain political support for openness.
Anti-immigration sentiment was clearly crucial in delivering an anti-EU vote in England. And if you talk to ordinary people, it seems clear that competition for scarce public housing and other public services was one important factor behind this. If the Tories had really wanted to maintain support for the EU, investment in public services and public housing would have been the way to do it: if these had been elastically supplied, that would have muted the impression that there was a zero-sum competition between natives and immigrants. It wouldn’t have satisfied the xenophobes, but not all anti-immigrant voters are xenophobes. But of course the Tories were never going to do that, at least not with Osborne at the helm.
If the English want continued Single Market access, they will have to swallow continued labor mobility. There are complementary domestic policies that could help in making that politically feasible. We will have to wait and see what the English decide. But there are also lessons for the 27 remaining EU states. Too much market and too little state invites a backlash. Take the politics into account, and it becomes clear (as Dani has often argued) that markets and states are complements, not substitutes.
Britain has voted to leave the European Union (EU), or more accurately, England has voted to leave. The majority in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted to remain. The opinion polls, the bookies and the markets did not predict this outcome. The mood of the nation, it would seem, is becoming increasingly difficult to measure. Or is it?
There is a lot of data suggesting that ‘immigration’ was the dominant concern for those who voted to leave the EU. This should not be too surprising. In the latest Eurobarometer data, immigration was cited as the main concern of UK citizens, alongside Germany and Denmark.
According to YouGov data, which is more revealing, income was the best predictor as to whether someone intended to vote to leave or remain. Basically, the lower your income, the more inclined you were to vote leave. Some have referred to this category as ‘those with lower education’. But let’s be honest, it’s called social class.
Another predictor as to whether someone was more inclined to vote leave was age. Younger, more liberal voters, were much more supportive of remaining in the EU. The only problem with this category of voter, is that they failed to turn out en masse to vote at all. According to the data, electoral turnout among 18-25 year olds was pitiful. Older workers were much more inclined to vote.
The precise data on how particular communities and constituencies across England voted is perhaps most revealing. The poorest twenty districts in England overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Or to get at it another way, according to this report, those areas with the most stagnant wages are the same communities with the most anti-EU attitudes.
What can we infer from all of this? What should EU policymakers infer from all of this?
The core inference is that England is a deeply class divided society, and that the poorest in England are increasingly venting their anger at immigrants and the EU. Further, and what is not captured in the above data, is that right-wing political parties are now mobilising working class England.
Those same electoral constituencies most likely to vote leave, and with the most stagnant wages, are the same constituencies most likely to vote for the far-right populist UKIP party. In addition, they are the same people most likely to be discursively conscripted into the anti-immigrant lies of the red-top tabloid press.
Class politics in England increasingly overlaps with enthno-nationalism, whereby identity and immigration, rather than economic self-interest takes precedence in shaping electoral behaviour.
In political science, there is a large literature on economic voting. One of the core findings of this literature is that in times of crisis and economic austerity, voters punish incumbent governments. This is partially what happened in the UK. Disenfranchised working class voters punished the Tories, liberal elites, the EU and the city of London.
However, the economic voting literature, whilst useful in describing why voters punish government, tells us very little about who these voters turn to, when expressing their social grievances.
In theory, those voters most affected by austerity, unemployment, underemployment and precarious work, would turn to parties on the left and those parties committed to reducing economic inequality. Most research, particularly within Europe, however, suggests, working class voters are turning to the ethno-nationalist far-right.
To put it simply, those affected by austerity and right-wing economic policies don’t necessarily vote in their class interest, they increasingly vote in their ethno-nationalist interest. UKIP’s economic policies are aggressively libertarian, not social democratic.
Economic liberalisation, rising inequality, and the complete free movement of peoples has social and electoral consequences. Societies will react to this disruption in different ways. Nationalism provides a sense of meaning, community and belonging, to those most affected by liberalisation. Far-right parties, such as UKIP, know this.
This realisation, however, does not seem to have seeped through to policymakers in the EU or Germany, who, despite a near complete destabilisation of the parliamentary party system in Southern, Eastern and Central Europe, remain committed to their failed neoliberal economic adjustment of austerity induced cost competitiveness.
Most political science research in the aftermath of the great recession increasingly suggests that not only are electorates losing trust in the EU, but that the support for national democracy, in general, is in decline. When the politicians change, and the policy remains the same, voters lose faith in the institutions of liberal democracy.
The question for national leaders in the European Council, and policymakers in the European Commission, is whether they need to wait for the election of Trump in the US, Le Penn in France, or the Five Star Movement in Italy, to realise that their economic policy response to the crisis has failed, and must fundamentally change?
Polities disintegrate when they begin to loose control of their external boundaries and their internal legitimacy. Or, as W.B Yeats poignantly wrote in 1919, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“. The UK and the EU are now faced with the potential for disorderly disintegration. Political scientists are accustomed to thinking that ‘more EU integration’ is inevitable. This is wrong.
Yeats wrote this after WW1, which coincided with the end of the first wave of free-market globalisation, when economic inequality peaked, much like today. In many ways Brexit can be interpreted as Europe’s Polanyi moment. It was a counter-reaction to a political economic system that is perceived to be designed in the interest of the comfortable elite.
It would be naive to assume that the popular reaction to rising inequality, precarious work, economic uncertainty, liberal elites and fear of immigration will lead to something politically progressive. The wave of anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment, sweeping England, clearly shows that it won’t. France could be next. The EU should not wait to find out.
Though Ireland and the UK joined at the same time, the UK always remained semi-detached from the EU. Brussels affairs received barely a mention in the Blair-era diaries of British government ministers and advisors. That this was not even noticed by British reviewers is telling. London regarded itself as more significant on the world stage than Brussels. And, strange as this might sound to Irish ears, until German reunification it had perhaps good reason to do so.
The “supra-national” nature of the EU was designed by France to limit German post-war independence. As Ernest Bevin, Britain’s post-war Labour Foreign Secretary, commented: “when you open that Pandora’s box you’ll find it full of Trojan horses”. Britain felt neither the need nor the desire to have its independence limited in this way. For centuries it had stood secure in its island fortress, holding the balance of power between competing continental states. In the immediate post-war period it looked as much to the US and the Commonwealth as to Europe. The US was of much greater military importance. And as the world’s first industrial nation Britain had long pursued a ‘cheap food’ policy: the agricultural protectionism of the Common Market held little appeal.
Britain’s interest in Europe is as a free trade area. It viewed the creation of the single currency as a federalist step “far too far”, a position with which very many economists agreed.
Post-referendum Britain is not the only polity in existential crisis. The EU itself is clearly in the same position. The eurozone crisis side-lined the European Commission as member states looked to their own interests first. As a leading academic wrote recently, “supranational agents’ ability to take autonomous decisions can only be sustained in matters where the extent of disagreement among national governments over policy outcomes is relatively low”. The European elite thinks that the only way forward is through further integration: “more Europe”. But there is almost zero support across the European electorate for this.
The reaction to the referendum outcome has thrown a sharp light on clashing cultures. British political culture has always been suspicious of grandiose schemes and popular culture has always been irritated by layers upon layers of bureaucracy. (Ireland bears some responsibility for the latter, in that “a Commissioner from every member state” was given to us as a concession after one of our ‘no’ votes. Every commissioner views as their legacy the amount of legislation that they leave behind on the statute books.) The other side of the culture clash is reflected in the furious reaction of the European elite to the British vote, and the apparent desire to get the British out the door as quickly as possible. Twice the Irish voted no, and twice we were asked to vote again. Why did Europe react so differently to us, when there was so much less at stake?
The British vote is also clearly an inchoate reaction to globalisation, or perhaps more accurately to its “collateral damage”. In this it seems as one with the political support for the Trump campaign in the US.
Surely European leaders would be better advised to take a long hard look at how such widespread concerns might be addressed rather than rush to accept a British withdrawal? The latter may well lead to the break-up not just of the UK but to the withdrawal of other EU member states over time. It will entail years of negotiation on future relationships – at the bare minimum between the UK and Europe, and between the UK and Ireland. More worrying perhaps – given the class, age and geographic fault lines reflected in the referendum vote – is the legacy of bitterness and, quite possibly, civil strife that it will bequeath to Britain.
There is no need to rush Britain to withdraw, other than as a threat to other potential waverers. But this is hardly what the European project was supposed to be about. A year or two of uncertainty, particularly given the fragility of the global economy, is clearly undesirable. But the next general election in Britain is likely to offer the electorate an opportunity to visit the issue anew. Europe can use the hiatus to consider how the concerns of so many of its electorates can be addressed. A substantial electorate has spoken. Is Europe prepared to listen?
I see that everyone is now arguing that globalisation has distributional consequences, and that losers may eventually decide they have had enough. Which is something that I and others have been writing about since at least the 1990s.
I don’t expect anyone to take much notice of a bunch of academics, but how can we be surprised at the Brexit vote when we have had practical, political experience of the class divides surrounding European integration (viewed and experienced as a regional manifestation of globalisation) since at least 2005, when the French rejected the so-called Constitutional Treaty? And here is my very first ever Vox.Eu column, on the Irish Lisbon 1 vote.
And so my question is: when this has been so obvious for so long, how come nobody has done anything about it? Where are the enhanced safety nets, or the more elastic provision of public housing and other services that would surely have made a difference in the English debate? It really is quite extraordinary.
With the support of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), the History of Economic Thought Website has been re-launched.
It is an excellent resource and provides an Alphabetical Index of Economists, Schools of Thought and a collection of Essays and Surveys.
The Essays and Surveys section includes an “Edgeworthian Exchange” link dedicated to Edgeworth’s Tales and The Edgeworthian Revival. Aside from the obvious Irish connections, this link is a fascinating read and might be of particular interest to some.