I was staying with friends on the west coast of Scotland a few weekends ago. A good day was followed by a reasonable amount of gin and then a good dinner. Very relaxing. Until our host announced that we were going to have a Brexit debate and that I was going to have to give a talk on why to vote Leave. This wasn’t all bad: once I’d settled in to the idea it gave me a chance to say all the things I had failed to say on Question Time the week before (albeit to a slightly smaller and more forgiving audience). I -convinced a few switherers, but then came the question from the opposition (another slightly discombobulated guest) that every amateur Brexiter slightly dreads.
If the EU is such a dangerous and undemocratic institution and if leaving it will cause us so little damage, why is it that not a single world leader (bar Putin) and not a -single ‘respected organisation’ recommends that we leave? If everyone from the IMF to Friends of the Earth think we should remain, surely we should remain?
I had a cop-out answer to offer (world -leaders hate unnecessary change to the status quo, not everyone is interested in sovereignty and for the rest it’s all about incentives). But next time, thanks to the MEP Daniel Hannan, I’ll be able to come up with something more precise. Chapter two of his book Why Vote Leave explains that the EU showers cash on proxies that make arguments on its behalf. Here’s one example (one of many — Hannan is convincing partly because he is thorough). A letter appeared in the Independent in January signed by the heads of 12 green pressure groups. It claimed that EU laws have a ‘hugely positive effect’ on our environment and so warned against an exit, although it neglected to point out that we could keep those laws. And it certainly didn’t mention that eight of the 12 organisations were part-funded by the EU.
Start to dig and you see this stuff everywhere. The four huge charities David Miliband said were in favour of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 had received over €43 million from the EU in 2006 and, says Hannan, UK universities have had €889,889,754 from Brussels since 2008. None of this is necessarily dishonest and -Hannan has a tendency to take the argument too far: he adds the CBI to his list of paid mouthpieces when only a tiny part of its funding (0.6 per cent) is from the EU. It is possible to be pro-EU without being on its payroll. That said, the fact that so many institutions are EU-intertwined in big and small ways does matter: it is, as Hannan says, part of what -Milton Friedman called ‘the tyranny of the status quo’ — the way a ‘corpus of vested interests grow up around -whatever happens to be the established settlement’.
In the EU that corpus consists of a huge and growing number of people to whom the wealth of taxpayers is redistributed — the think tanks, the charities, the MEPs and officials with their high salaries and super-low taxes, and of course the lobbyists. They’re all in the club already. So why wouldn’t they want us to vote to let them stay in it?
How’s that for adding meat to my incentives argument? Next time I’m forced to my feet on this matter I’m hoping for a good sovereignty question as well — Hannan is at his best on this — or something on the utter hopelessness of David Cameron’s deal. Failing that, living standards would do: Hannan is one of the few who manages to make a convincing case for living standards rising post-Brexit.
He doesn’t offer a full vision of a British future outside the EU — given that this would largely depend on the actions of the government in power over the following decade, it’s pretty pointless. But his final chapters makes it clear that all the things we think we need from the EU (mainly trade) are just as possible out as they are in and, crucially, that being out would be more normal for us as a modern democracy than being in. ‘Japan isn’t applying to join China,’ he writes. ‘But people don’t hector the -Japanese for being nostalgic Sinosceptics who can’t get over the loss of empire.’
Switherers should read Hannan’s polemic to help them make up their minds (it’s quite short). Determined Brexiters at risk of anyone thinking their opinion matters should read it to help them next time their dinner party turns into a debate. And those planning to vote Remain? They should have it so that, if they win, they can take it down from their shelves in about ten years’ time to help them figure out just what went wrong.