Independent Ireland in Comparative Perspective

I gave the economics lecture at the recent national conference at NUIG commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. I had three main messages. First, the economic history of post-independence Ireland was not particularly unusual. Very often, things that were happening in Ireland were happening elsewhere as well. Second, for a long time we were hampered by an excessive dependence on a poorly performing UK economy. And third, EC membership in 1973, and the Single Market programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s, were absolutely crucial for us. Irish independence and EU membership have complemented each other, rather than being in conflict: each was required to give full effect to the other. Irish independence would not have worked as well for us as it did without the EU; and the EU would not have worked as well for us as it did without political independence.

There is a podcast available here. Since only audio is available, here is a link to my slides. I’m working on a paper version of the talk and will post a link to this as soon as possible.

‘Taking back control’? Britain after Brexit

A fortnight after the British referendum on EU membership, Britain is still in turmoil. Some of the negative lessons are all too clear: don’t try to solve party political problems by invoking existential issues; referendums are volatile and uncertain; if you must have one, get a crack team together first. But, as weary politicians are fond of saying, we are where we are.
So what is likely to happen now?
There are different views about what course of action the referendum requires; but there are also very different views about what it might mean to ‘take back control’, which was the core theme of the campaign.

Continue reading “‘Taking back control’? Britain after Brexit”

Cameron’s Referendum Gamble

This is Colm McCarthy’s latest column for the Farmer’s Journal. They’ve very kindly let us repost it here:

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The decision last Thursday to detach the United Kingdom from the European Union was taken by referendum, a procedure familiar in this country but a constitutional novelty in the UK. Ireland has a written constitution and one of its provisions is that it can be modified only by popular vote. If the Irish government wished to scrap EU membership it would have to seek deletion, by referendum, of the article inserted on entry in 1972. There are other countries with written constitutions which can be modified without a popular vote, usually by some kind of parliamentary supermajority.

Britain is completely different. There is no written constitution at all and parliament is completely sovereign. The UK joined the European Economic Community without a popular vote, could leave without a popular vote, could abolish the monarchy, invade France, expel Scotland or opt for a decimal calendar. Constitutionally a referendum in the UK is always a war of choice, never a war of necessity. The referendum last week was only the third such national poll in British history and the first to go against the incumbent prime minister.

Britain’s first-ever national plebiscite was called by Harold Wilson, the Labour premier, in 1975, not to approve British entry to the EEC but to confirm the entry decision already taken and implemented by simple majority of the sovereign parliament. Wilson called a referendum to heal a rift on Europe in his party, as did David Cameron this time round. Wilson won a comfortable 2 to 1 majority with all main political leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, campaigning in favour. He was widely criticised for this unprecedented constitutional adventure but it was low-risk – there was little likelihood that the electorate would vote for exit. The cost of the ‘wrong’ result was also low – Britain had been in the EEC only a few years, it was a much more limited organisation than the EU has since become and exit would have been a major nuisance rather than a major crisis.

The second also produced a vote against change. When the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 they promised their partners a referendum on the voting system. It was opposed by both Conservatives and Labour and duly defeated 2 to 1. The ‘wrong’ result would again have been no big deal, a limited move towards proportional representation.  Britain’s first two national referenda thus shared some key features. The Prime Minister who initiated each had good reasons to expect a win, and the stakes were not too high. Defeat would hardly have ended their political careers.

The third referendum shared none of these features. David Cameron’s decision was announced in January 2013 at a time when his party trailed Labour in the polls and faced vote leakage to the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage. Both his Liberal Democrat partners and the Labour party favoured continuing in the EU and opposed the holding of a referendum. At the time a YouGov opinion poll showed that 40% would vote to stay in the EU with 34% voting to quit and 26% undecided. Cameron promised to hold the referendum should he win a Conservative majority at the election in 2015 which he duly did. It was never likely to be anything but close.

Moreover the European Union had become far more than a free trade zone, with extensive and detailed common policies covering energy, transport, environment, worker protection and a single market in financial services. The international economy had not recovered from the worst downturn since the Second World War. The consequences of withdrawal from the EU by a key member were unlikely to be minor, never mind predictable or easily managed. Cameron’s decision in January 2013 has been described, accurately, as a roll-of-the-dice, a high-stakes gamble driven by concerns about internal party management. His decision to resign was the correct one: he has landed Britain, Europe and indeed the world economy in an unholy mess at the worst possible time.

He is not the first of Europe’s leaders to place domestic political concerns ahead of economic prudence. The faulty design and subsequent mismanagement of the Eurozone owes much to short-sightedness in Germany. The next domino to drop could be in Italy, for long the least successful of the major Eurozone economies. The government plans a referendum in October on constitutional reforms supported by mainstream opinion. But it may be lost. It provides an opportunity to disgruntled voters to give the establishment another kicking in an over-indebted country with a dodgy banking system and could end the political career of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. More importantly for Ireland, it could spark a terminal crisis for the common currency. The anger of European leaders with the United Kingdom’s referendum gamble is entirely understandable.

Markets and states are complements

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.