Out funder Peter Hargreaves thinks leaving the European Union would be “like Dunkirk” and would turn us “into Singapore”.
That he mentions two of the most catastrophic disasters in our history is surely Freudian. Dunkirk saw the British Army booted off the continent of Europe, forced to sabotage every bit of its equipment heavier than a Bren gun, let down by a serious failure to prepare adequately. But at least they made good their escape. You couldn’t say that about the Singapore campaign, during which the total means of national power were all comprehensively thrashed, jointly and severally. In this case, there was a strategy, laid down years before, and a huge investment in infrastructure, but it was profoundly unrealistic and poorly thought through. This time, there was no escape.
Does that remind you of anything? It should. People keep saying how much the referendum campaign reminds them of the Scottish referendum campaign. In the Scottish campaign, it became painfully obvious that despite having had 40 years to think about it, the SNP hadn’t managed to answer a question as basic as what currency would circulate in an independent Scotland. In the referendum campaign, it is painfully obvious that despite having had even longer to think about it – right back to the 1950s – the Outs haven’t come up with anything like an alternative. As @Scientists4EU says, with 40 days to go, the SNP had published a 670-page white paper on independence detailing how they planned to unpick Scotland from the UK, and do you see anything like that from the Outs?
No. Instead you either get this sort of swivel-eyed loon newsletter stuff, or vacuous rah-rah like the Vote Leave activist who told me on Saturday that “I’m a democracy guy”. He also spent fifteen minutes telling some poor woman that the EU “is a beast”. And it wasn’t even his leaflet.
Ideas there are. Part of the problem is that they are entertaining quite so many options. Perhaps we could be like Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Singapore, or Albania? Each one comes with a little national flag, a sort of enamel lapel pin, for the sake of easy reference. But they have next to nothing to do with the countries named.
Take Norway. Being like Norway sounds pretty sweet! Anyone for some prosperous, egalitarian Nordic social democracy? It goes without saying that none of the Outs have any intention of, say, legislating that all public companies should have 50% women on their board of directors, or worse, that their boards should include worker representatives. It also goes without saying that there’s no way Brexit would cause more oil to appear in the North Sea.
What “Norway” means here is that we’d leave the EU but stay in the European Economic Area, thus keeping (mostly) tariff-free access to EU markets so long as we respected EU regulations. I say “mostly” tariff-free, because in fact there are nontrivial tariff barriers between the EU and Norway on agricultural products. Actually, one of the main selling-points here is that we could be more protectionist towards farmers and fishermen. On the other hand, we’d still have to pay into the EU budget, respect the rules, and accept freedom of movement for labour. Also, financial firms in the UK would have to get regulatory approval for each EU country where they wanted to do business.
To put it another way, we wouldn’t be much like Norway at all. In fact we’d be so little like Norway we might as well be Switzerland, which has basically the same set-up. Perhaps ski-ing makes you into an Out? Is all the falling over affecting their brains?
What about Singapore? This is the one that really gets on my nerves. A lot of right-wing people imagine that Singapore is a libertarian utopia because the public sector share of GDP is quite low. But this is silly. Singapore doesn’t have big spending ministries, but it does have a huge sovereign-wealth fund that owns major industrial and infrastructure projects in the country as well as financial investments worldwide. Rather than pay welfare benefits out of tax money, Singapore made it compulsory to pay into private insurance, through the so-called central provident fund, a little like a much more comprehensive version of Obamacare. Oh, and basically everyone lives in a council flat.
After independence (from Malaysia, and Britain) the Singaporean political and business class took a joint decision to develop the port as the major regional transport hub, and to take advantage of that to build up industry around it, notably chemicals and computer/semiconductor manufacturing. Their thinking was that economic development in Asia would create a huge opportunity for this role. This worked really well, but it’s worth noting that it was very much a succession of joint decisions by government technocrats, political leaders, and investors rather than some sort of idealised libertarian hands-off process. That is supposedly more true of Hong Kong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a myth too. You’ll note they didn’t start off by creating a new tariff barrier between their massive port facility and the market it serves.
Also, Outers tend to imagine that the Singaporean financial centre is completely unregulated. Financial people find this intensely funny. Anyway, it’s much more accurate to think of Singapore as one of the so-called “coordinated market economies”, like Germany or the Netherlands. Now, does anyone think the Outers have any plan to be more like Germany? Thought not. They want to get Out precisely in order to avoid being more like Germany.
In the end, this shows us two things about Out. One thing is that they have failed – haven’t even tried – to put forward a coherent strategy to avoid their Dunkirk moment turning all Singapore. The second is that, as with the SNP, there are reasons for that.
Sticking with their original plan to join the Euro would have shown up that an independent Scotland might be a lot less nice than they made out, and certainly no haven of protection against recession. Using sterling would mean admitting that independent Scotland wouldn’t be all that independent. Inventing a new currency would mean admitting that the social basis of independence would be a huge bet on the oil price. They didn’t answer the question, because the question threw light on all kinds of other questions they didn’t want asked.
Similarly, the Outers don’t want anyone to ask about their post-Brexit plans because the content of their plans, such as it is, is invariably vastly unpopular. How many people want to turn the country over to Mosseck Fonseca as a libertarian tax-haven? Well, Peter Hargreaves probably does, and he has a billion reasons for that. What is it that first attracted billionaire financier Peter Hargreaves to Brexit? It looks like we found the missing link between Out and ski-ing – money! But let’s not pretend he is normal. Similarly, does anyone want the common agricultural policy but with more farm subsidy? Only people who stand to collect, and they’re a tiny minority.
The answer, then, is strategic incompetence. You can avoid having to answer the difficult questions about your post-Brexit policy by simply failing to have one. That this strategy appeals to Boris Johnson ought to be obvious.