Two tribes go to work


Following the EU referendum, there are, broadly speaking, four groups of people in the UK:

Group A – Hardcore Remain voters, who are not only unhappy with the result but are unwilling to accept the outcome and insist on either flinging insults at Leave voters or actively trying to overturn the result (or both).

Group B – Moderate Remain voters, who are disappointed with the result but are willing to respect the outcome and now want to ensure that any negative effects on a post-EU UK are minimised.

Group C – Hardcore Leave voters, who see this as an opportunity to gloat at their opponents, who don’t care about reconciliation and want to take this opportunity to impose their will on a post-EU Britain.

Group D – Moderate Leave voters, who are pleased to have won but recognise that they only have a slim majority, that there are a lot of people who disagreed with them, and that those views should still be heard.

Whichever way you voted in the referendum, I hope it’s obvious that the B and D “moderate” groups are the ones acting in the UK’s best interests (and, for that matter, the EU’s). Sensible, intelligent people need to cooperate to make sure that the UK’s relationship with the EU is renegotiated to provide the best possible outcome for all parties.

If you’re a Remain supporter, that’s obviously going to be sub-optimal to staying in, but it’s still possible to make the most of a less than ideal situation. If you voted Leave, then compromising on some of your ideals will be worth it to ensure a smooth transition to a post-EU Britain.

It’s time for the two sensible tribes to work together. Ignore the ranters and ravers, the xenophobes and anti-democrats, and concentrate on the future rather than the past. Our future depends on it.

After the referendum

This time tomorrow morning, we will be voting in the EU referendum. By this time the day after that, we should know the result.

So, what happens next?

Obviously, that depends on what the result is. But this is what I want to see, for both options.

If we vote to Remain

Firstly, it’s essential to bear in mind that voting to stay is not voting for the status quo. Nor is it an endorsement of every aspect of the EU and everything that it does. The EU is horribly broken and dysfunctional in very many ways. If we are staying in it, we need to take the lead both in highlighting the problems and coming up with ways to address them.

Secondly, a choice to remain is not an endorsement of the Remain campaign. Some of the ad hominem attacks on Leave campaigners have been truly appalling. If the Remain campaign is victorious, more than anything it needs to follow this up by being gracious.

A vote to stay is not a rejection of the need to change. It just means change in a different way to leaving.

The long term future of the EU needs to work for everybody, not just those who wholeheartedly buy into its vision. That means taking the criticisms of the EU levelled by the Leave campaign seriously, and seeking to address those from within the structure.

If we vote to Leave

A vote to leave is a step into the unknown. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a leap in the dark. The key priorities of the government over the weeks, months and even years that follow a decision to leave will be about how best to secure the long-term interests of the UK.

There are many possible routes forward if we leave. Some of them are as different as the choice between leaving and remaining. And even if we leave, the opinions of those who voted to stay are still relevant in that debate.

A leave vote means a majority want out of the EU. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority want out of free trade, or free movement of people, or cross-border consumer protection.

Voting to leave isn’t the end of a process. It’s the start of one. The start of a new Europe that better serves the needs of all the countries in Europe, whether in or out of the EU.

Whatever we choose

No matter which vision for our future wins, both sides have to accept the result.

No carping, no complaining about the other side taking liberties with the campaign. No conspiracy theories. No accusations of ballot rigging. No subtle (or unsubtle) undermining of the will of the majority. No grudges.

Whatever happens, we have to move on. This has been a deeply unpleasant campaign, with very little to be proud of on either side. It’s time to put that behind us and make a commitment to making this decision work. For all of us.

Referendum musings

It’s just over a week to go to the EU referendum, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.

To begin with, let me say what this post is not. I will not tell you how to vote, or try to persuade you which way to vote. And I will not tell you which way I will vote.

There are, however, a number of things which need to be said.

Lies, damned lies and the battle for your vote

The first is that, by and large, the conduct of both sides has been utterly appalling. That doesn’t apply to every individual involved in either campaign, and very many of the grassroots activists on both sides – of which I count many, again on both sides, as friends – have been doing their best to argue their cause in a reasonable manner.

But, still, many of the headline claims made by the leaders of both sides are, at best, pure speculation dressed up as fact or, at worst, outright lies.

We’re doomed, I tell you, all doomed

On the Remain side, the increasingly shrill warnings of economic disaster, rise in terrorism and imminent collapse of civilisation simply do not ring true. By all means, consider a worst case scenario. But a description of the most extreme possible outcomes has to go hand in hand with a realistic assessment of the risk.

If it rains hard enough for long enough, my house could be flooded. We are on the edge of the “thousand year” flood zone. But, realistically, that is very, very unlikely to happen, at least in my lifetime or that of anyone I eventually sell the house to.

The same applies to predictions of what might happen if we leave the EU. It could, theoretically, result in economic disaster. But just saying that it could is insufficient information. To be useful, that has to be part of an overall risk assessment with outcomes ranging from best case to worst case, and with informed and expert predictions of how likely all the various possible outcomes are.

It doesn’t add up

On the Leave side, the repeatedly bandied figure of £350m a week paid to the EU is simply false. And arguing that that’s the right figure to use, because it’s what we would pay if it wasn’t for the rebate, is meaningless. That’s like saying that if I buy a shirt from M&S at 30% off, I should still assess the cost on what I would have paid without the discount. My accountant would laugh at me if I did that.

It’s also simply wrong to say that, whatever we pay to the EU, we could instead spend it on the NHS if we left. That disregards all the money that is currently spent by the EU on things within the UK. The absolute most we could spend on the NHS if we left is the total net cost of EU membership – which is a heck of a lot less than £350m a week. But even that disregards the possibility that leaving the EU may incur other costs which also have to be met. Realistically, this is simply an impossible promise.

Little Britain and Big Brother

The Remain argument that the UK would have to adopt something like the “Swiss model” or the “Norwegian model” to get access to the benefits of the single market if we leave is equally specious.

The UK has a population of 64 million, and a GDP of $2,768 billion (measured in USD as that’s the common unit of comparison). Norway has a population of 5 million, and a GDP of $513 billion. Switzerland has a population of 8 million, and a GDP of $685 billion. In other words, the UK has a population nearly five times that of Norway and Switzerland combined, and a GDP more than double their combined total.

If we leave the EU, we will not need either a “Swiss model” or a “Norwegian model” in our relationship with the remaining EU. We will have a “British model”, negotiated to take account of our economic and population strength. We can’t say for certain what this will look like, but we can be sure it won’t look like anything which currently exists.

Our only goal will be the western shore

On the other hand, leaving the EU will not solve our immigration “problem”. Quite apart from the fact that it is far less of a problem than many people believe – there is absolutely zero evidence that immigrants are squeezing local-born people out of the employment market, for example – the reality is that EU migration is still lower than non-EU migration.

Given that many EU migrants would, if we were not part of the EU, fall into the same categories as the non-EU migrants allowed to come here and would therefore continue to be allowed to come in the future, the idea that we could make a sizeable dent in immigration by leaving is laughable. And that’s assuming we won’t negotiate an agreement with the EU which includes free movement of labour anyway. I strongly suspect we would, because overall, it would be beneficial to us to do so.

The face doesn’t fit

If we disregard the guff from both sides (and there’s an awful lot of it to disregard), though, what are we left with? Can we, as some suggest, make our decision based on the identities of those arguing for either option?

The answer to that is “no”. I’ve previously argued that, when it comes to a general election, you can’t just vote for policies – you have to take account of the perceived competence of those who will implement them as well. But a referendum is the complete opposite. No matter what we decide, we will still have the same government the day after the referendum as before, and we will still have the same options at the next general election.

Voting Remain because you dislike Nigel Farage, or Leave in order to snub David Cameron – or vice versa – is the worst possible reason for making your decision. Voting Leave will not put Ukip in power. Or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter. Voting Remain is not an endorsement of the current government. The decision we collectively make on 23rd June 2016 will have an effect long after all of us currently active in politics have retired or died. Casting your vote now on the basis of which set of faces you like the most is one of the most mind-numbingly stupid things you could do. So don’t do it.

Making either choice is a decision based on what you, after giving the matter careful consideration, honestly believe is best for the UK in the long run. At least, I hope it is. And that means cutting through the dodgy headlines and looking beyond the faces to try and find the facts.

I’m not, in the space of this article, going to try and give you the facts, beyond those I’ve obliquely referred to already. But I am going to make a few observations.

Break point

After my comment on the behaviour of the campaigners, the second most important thing which must be said is that the EU is badly broken in a number of areas. That fact is, I think, beyond dispute. A full list would be far too long, but the economic sacrifice of Greece on the altar of the Euro and the mismanagement of the migrant crisis are two obvious examples. The question is not “Is there anything wrong with the EU?”. The question is “Can we fix it?”.

In this context, I disagree with the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for seemingly being lukewarm over the EU, or with Boris Johnson for dithering before coming out for Leave. In both cases, these are the actions you would expect of someone who recognises that there are strong arguments for both options, but that ultimately you have to make a choice between them. I’m not telling you which of Johnson or Corbyn you should vote with, but both of them make a better role model here than those who adopted a knee-jerk position for either Remain or Leave right from the off.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

The reality is that there are some very good arguments on both sides. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that simply hasn’t thought about the issue in any great detail. Equally, there are some very bad arguments on both sides. And the tragedy is that the campaign has seemingly focused on the bad arguments rather than the good ones.

The EU is, as I’ve said, badly broken in many respects, and if it continues down some of those broken pathways it has the potential to do a great deal of harm. But it has also been extremely beneficial in very many ways, and the UK has gained a lot from our membership. Again, I will say that anyone who does not recognise the truth of both these statements has too little understanding to make an informed choice.

Questions, questions

Ultimately, everyone’s decision has to be their own. I’m not telling anyone how to vote, or how I intend to vote. But I will pose a set of questions that will inform my own choice. Hopefully, they will be helpful to others as well. Those questions are:

  1. Are the EU’s structural flaws beyond repair, or can they be fixed?
  2. In the long term – not just the next few years, but for the next generation – which option offers the best prospects for our economic security and freedom?
  3. Is a decision to leave influenced by the “grass is always greener” fallacy?
  4. Conversely, does a decision to stay reflect the sunk costs fallacy?
  5. Which decision will I be most proud of explaining to my children, and why?

I’ll leave it to you to answer those questions for yourselves, or to pose others. I may come back after the vote and explain how I answered them.