We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.
– Margaret Thatcher.
Politics can be strange. You can find yourself agreeing or half-agreeing with people that, normally, you totally disagree with – and apologies for quoting Margaret Thatcher. And you can find yourself in bad company, such as Boris Johnson and his cabinet, by supporting the same concept – that of leaving the EU – as they do. Bad company indeed. But the point must be made that the 'Remain' camp includes people like Tony Blair and John Major – very
bad company indeed.
Much of the confusion over the possible effects of Brexit has come about because the Tory Etonian elite who continue to run this country (perhaps 'ran' by the time you read this) were mainly of the persuasion, back in 2016, that leaving the EU would never happen and, accordingly, had prepared no plans for it, far less for leaving with or without a commercial deal in place. Thus, those who considered the best option was to remain in the union were handed ammunition to fire at leavers.
There are, in fact, four main arguments, or sub-arguments, for leaving the EU and all are contentious and inter-connected:
This can be termed the 'flag-waving' argument and it is one that probably motivated most of the Conservative party members when they selected Boris Johnson as prime minister. This argument borders on the xenophobic, but it does feed into the others. On the surface it is very patriotic and consists of saying that such a great country as Britain can stand on its own feet and make its own decisions without any 'foreigners' being involved.
The first 'reason' very much underscores the second raised in support of Brexit, and that is the 'we are being swamped by immigrants' contention. There is an underlying truth to this point (but much distorted by some) in that Great Britain has to import over 50% of its food and much of its energy requirements due to its over-population. At some point during the Victorian period, Britain slipped from being a country self-sufficient in food to one dependent on imports, and thus also dependent on exports to pay for those imports. Not a problem when Britain was the 'Workshop of the World'. Now a problem because of the increasing number of mouths in this country and the fact that the upsurge in intensified farming has not matched that population growth. Thus, in part, the contention, raised by some Leavers, that we do not need to bring in more people.
In truth, we have gained considerably in a number of ways through the immigrants who have already entered this country – and not only economically. We have profited culturally, in the deeper understanding of diverse peoples and of different ways, and that is important. However, the recent wave of immigration from the EU has brought mixed economic benefits.
The SNP claimed (back in 2016) that calculations showed that EU immigration brought some £55 per second into the Scottish public purse. This figure has been much challenged and is highly deceptive; it is, however, based on the amount immigrants contribute in taxes less the amount some of them receive in benefits. It does not allow for the monies that many of them send back to their old country (thus reducing this nation's assets) nor does it allow for anything paid in benefits to those native born who have either lost their jobs or are suffering from reduced hours as a result of that immigration. (Scots in the same jobs may even produce more in taxation because EU immigrants generally work for the minimum wage – and it is worth noting that one in four Glasgow households have no adults in employment.)
But immigration – controlled immigration – is good for the country on the whole and we can still have and welcome immigrants when free of the European Union. But we are now treading on economic matters, so let us consider the main battleground over EU membership.
Leavers maintain that, whatever short-term problems, longer-term the British economy can only benefit from the greater freedom to negotiate our own deals. No one denies that, short-term, there are going to be a lot of losers as well as winners and that a form of economic chaos will ensue. This will certainly impinge negatively on the large businesses, corporations and financial institutions within our country (some will gain though). How it will affect the common person is more problematic.
The common person has been losing out for some time now. The biggest economic shift (outwith the pound ceasing to be the world's currency in the 1950s) was, in fact, caused by Madam Thatcher herself when she opened up Britain to foreign investment and, at the same time, allowed money to leave Britain to be invested abroad. Although this did initially boost the economy, as money poured in to Britain, the long-term effect was to place control of British assets into foreign hands (some good paws and some dubious). Think who owns the 'Scottish' whisky industry today, who owns our salmon farms, who owns our energy producing and distribution companies and even who owns our coffee shops? Thatcher's move also allowed the development of foreign resources as British money went into them. Labour was not far behind in this as it is little known but true that more jobs were privatised under Tony Blair than Margaret herself.
The other aspect of this was the loosening of controls of our banking system – again both Conservative and Labour governments were responsible. Uncontrolled, the bankers made hay and the banking system came close to collapse. We are still paying for those gross (and criminal) errors today. Nevertheless, Brexit will immediately adversely influence big business and that could, and likely will, knock-on down the way. Much of what happens after that though will be in our
hands and, given past performance, that might indicate the worst. There would be a lot of work to do to negotiate new trade deals with the likes of Canada and New Zealand, and it all will take time; but it is
However the first three arguments in favour of leaving the EU are hardly telling; but the fourth one is all critical. It concerns democracy and it needs a lot more words – so, more next time.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Caithness