‘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:


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.


Britain and the EU

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?

Ireland’s Negotiation Game Strategy for Brexit

Ireland needs to play its hand deftly and aggressively during the EU-wide Brexit negotiations. Irish interests in the Brexit process, post-vote, differ from those of other EU states. For EU enthusiasts in states with limited UK trade, a tempting strategy for preventing a NEXT-IT (Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, etc.) is to punish the UK via a spiteful exit deal. That would be a disaster for Ireland due to spillovers. Ireland needs to fight hard to let the UK be allowed a smooth and minimally-disruptive exit, not face a mini trade war. Ireland would be hit very badly in the crossfire.