Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Why defeating Brexit is so important

First we were accused of ‘Project Fear’, because we pointed out that making it more difficult to trade with countries next to you would hurt the economy. Now we are accused of acting like scientists working for the Nazis.

The waves of economists, businessmen, scientists, university leaders, doctors, historians and more shouting loud that Brexit would be harmful has been incredibly impressive. It reflects the fact that this is not a debate with decent arguments on both sides, but a pretty open and shut case. But I think it reflects as well the nature of the pro-Brexit campaign.

Not just that Leave have lied openly and repeatedly. Not just that they have used lies to provoke fear (Turkey). It is that they are trying to deflect the blame for failing to adequately fund public services on to migrants who are just looking for a better life. And it is working. More people feel they have personally benefited from migration than otherwise, but most people also ‘know’ that migration has been bad for the NHS. Such incorrect beliefs appear immune to expert opinion because large parts of the media shut that opinion out, and ideologues deride experts. 

Of course these lies play on basic fears about unfamiliar people. But the way our society used to respond to this in the past was by uniting behind truth and humanity, and through patient explanation. If some politicians tried to fan fears of migration by, for example, talking about rivers of blood they were quickly slammed down by the majority, and it has to be said also by the media. And our society was better for it.

Today those politicians talking about a breaking point in front of pictures of refugees are given large amounts of air time by the broadcast media. Those pretending we are about to be swamped by Turkish migrants are cheered on by nearly all of the tabloid press. Populist politicians are about to lead once proud centre right parties on both sides of the Atlantic. And one brave Yorkshire politician that argued against all this was shot dead in the street.

We cannot continue to let this pass. It will not stop with Brexit. When Brexit fails to improve our public services or our economy there will be other scapegoats. Maybe migrants already here, or nasty foreigners who failed to give the beneficial trade deals the Leave campaign pretend we will get. In the US right now it is already happening, and this Brexit campaign shows that the UK has no inbuilt immunity to it. This is how it goes, as it has gone in the past.

We cannot let this pass.      


  1. FWIIW on Brexit I wholeheartedly agree

  2. Anyone trying to change things fundamentally has to make a strong case; in any argument like this the status quo needn't do anything because people understand where we are and there is huge inertia in the population which is resistant to change.

    I agree that there have been lies (on both sides and not just one, by far the most shameful of which to my mind was the dog whistle on the death of Jo Cox) and certain elements of the campaign have been distasteful but you fail to ask yourself a fundamental question: are people so gullible that 50% believe that it is right to take this monumental step, that they have swallowed all the lies?

    After all, you have said that most expert opinion, together with such august bodies as the IMF et al, have come out in favour of Remain so why has the leave case taken such a hold? I'm afraid the "lies" hypothesis is somewhat deficient.

    A large section of the population are angry, disenfranchised, feel they have no control over their lives and fear for the future of their children and I think a large part of this is the way the economy has developed over the last thirty or forty years.

    Now to you the Brexit option is delusion but to many people it represents hope and it is patronising to assume that their views are the result of lies peddled by vested interests.

    I will vote to Leave but I am under no illusions that it is a gamble but I actually believe that Remain is the bigger gamble and that the EU itself will disintegrate with the proximate cause being the Euro.

    1. I'm campaigning for Remain because I do not want to live in a country, or a continent, whose political tone is set by the likes of Farage. But I agree that many people are voting to Leave out of anger and disenfranchisement.

      There's something absurd in Michael Gove denouncing experts but there is no doubt that expert views have been widely discredited. This is partly down to some high profile failures (notably the underestimate of predicted EU migration and that few economists saw the bankers’ crash coming) but it is also a broader rejection (even revenge) of elites and the mess they have made of the lives of too many people over the past 40 years. Arguing that the EU makes life better gets scornful derision from those struggling to get by.

      However the vote goes, there is much to be learnt from this for both academics and politicians.

    2. Robert,

      Regarding your fundamental question, I'm afraid a great many people have swallowed the lies.

      I know this because I've asked friends, family and colleagues how they will vote and why, and I heard many Leavers say they fear an influx of migrants (Turkey came up often) and that we would save money ("maybe not £350m a week, but even the halved net amount is a lot").

      And though not avid followers of politics, these are intelligent people. They have tuned into the odd TV debate to find each side claiming they are right and that the other is lying. Without the media policing this, they are none the wiser who is right and who is wrong. Many were swayed simply by the rhetoric and emotional appeal of Leave.

      Emotion is certainly a big part of this campaign, but too many will have been hoodwinked. SWL is right; we deserve a better media.


  3. Gove’s “Nazi” gibe is thoroughly childish of course. But then Remainers have suggested a hundred times that the pro-Brexit lot are racists and xenophobes. Insult your opponents enough, and they’ll understandably be tempted to sink to your level.

    1. The Brexit campaign has been dominated by xenophobia. Those wanting to leave the EU for other reasons, including some on the left who have a good record of defending migrants, have been marginalised by the media. Describing Farage as a racist is a fact not an insult.

  4. Brexit, assuming it fails tomorrow, is an idea that will never go away. It will flare up whenever something bad or annoying happens in the EU, which it predictably will. We see this in Scotland, where independence is never totally off the agenda.

    It doesn't matter how crazy the plan is, it will never go away. Simple solutions to complicated, boring problems are always popular.

  5. Very well argued. I guess especially the last paragraph is very important. If leaving the EU ends up being the disaster it is supposed to be, the leavers will not acknowledge that it was a mistake but find another scapegoat. Therefore they will further radicalise and with the power they might gain from a win tomorrow, things would probably get even worse than we think now...

  6. We've now got the Queen reigning in. I wonder whether she likes unelected power and advocates the democratisation of the EU?

  7. Simon, do you really believe for one minute that the majority of people leaning towards leave are being swung by nasty right-wing tabloid headlines or the Farage poster? I believe this is still very much a minority and if anything is ultimately helping the remain campaign.

    UKIP got 4 million votes and many of these were protest votes because everyone knew they wouldn't win seats. In fact if anything the extreme Farage camp may have cost them votes and Carswells camp gained votes.

    The way for Remain to win is to target the non-racist working class voters and forget the core UKIPers. The way to do that would have been to talk about investing in hospitals, housing and schools in order to alleviate the pressure induced by immigrants. Of course difficult to do with a Prime Minister fronting the campaign who has presided over a govt hellbent on an austerity program and generational warfare strategy to protect the core Tory vote....

  8. Here is an excerpt taken from ‘Friedrich Hayek, a Biography’ by the monetarist Alan Ebenstein (2001), pp293-4, from a letter Hayek sent to the Times, February 11th 1978, p15; I have left Ebenstein’s square brackets and ellipsis in the quotation. Hayek was writing about Margaret Thatcher’s views on immigration to Britain.

    “Nobody who has lived through the rise of violent anti-Semitism which led to Hitler can refuse Mrs. Thatcher admiration for her courageous and outspoken warning. When I grew up in Vienna the established Jewish families were a generally respected group and all decent people would frown upon the occasional anti-Jewish outbursts of a few popular politicians. It was the sudden influx of large numbers of Galician and Polish Jews [during World War I]…which in a short period changed the attitude. They were too visibly different to be readily absorbed.”

    This too is Gove's revolting locus, when all the economics has fallen away.

    1. I don't think this is correct -- Karl Lueger won huge support in Vienna during the 1890's with populist anti-Semitism, held in check ironically because Kaiser Franz Josef couldn't stand the guy. And as for respect for the elite Jews, you might check with Gustav Mahler (admittedly not from Vienna).

  9. I'm quite curious as to what you imagine is, or is not, an "open and shut case." The EU demands the free movement of labour as the price of free trade. Now a person might think that, i) free trade, the right to travel on your employer's business and the right to travel for the purposes of a holiday, and ii) the right to move countries and set up residence, with equal access to services, are two different things. So is this distinction also an "open and shut case"? If a person said that British (and other European) people were being threatened by gangsters, who were making a link between an action and a choice in a way which is simply coercive, would this be obviously true? The EU tells us that we have to have the free movement of persons to have free trade, but this isn't a "have to break eggs to make omelettes" claim. The mob tells you that if you don't buy "insurance" your building will catch fire, but this is a very different thing from the fire inspector telling you to store the fireworks somewhere other than the gasoline store. So is this claim - that the EU is making a connection between two things in precisely the way that thugs do - an "open and shut case? You say that it is self-evidently true that Enoch Powell was "quickly slammed down by the majority, and it has to be said also by the media. And our society was better for it." What's the "it" to which you refer? Is "it" the fact that Powell was bested in debate, or that he was "slammed down"? Are there limits to liberalism? How will we know them? Will you decide? Might it be good that I'm "slammed down"? Is that a judgment you feel fit to make? The media have decided not to address the issue of whether the UK's phenomenal system of income redistribution can be extended to everyone in Europe who feels that they might benefit. They've "slammed down" any such comment. This is "progressive" but is it liberal? Do we still understand the difference? If we reject liberalism will we know, to the extent that we ever can, the direction we are "progressing" in?

  10. You have a remarkably one-eyed view of the world.
    Equating Brexit with xenophobia is patently false, yet there you go again. Yes, there are some xenophobic Brexiteers, but there are those who do not think much of the EU yet support migration (e.g. me).
    I suppose that is just part of why economics will never be a science.

    1. Whilst not all Brexiteers are racists/ xenophobes, most racists and xenophobes are voting for Brexit rather than remain. Backers of brexit give it away just a little- Trump, Le Pen, Murdoch, Farage...not to mention their mouthpieces- the daily mail, Sun etc, and their penchant for neo- fascist, nazi inspired propaganda as a means of inciting intolerance and hatred towards minority groups, who are cast as the root cause of so many of societies ills. Typical of right wing propaganda is the depiction of a sinister, overbearing elite, whom the masses can only set themselves free from by voting in the right wing. In the past it's been Westminster and the establishment, now likewise to a lesser extent with the EU being the big bad monster. The right wing don't have such a good record of looking after the needy and the average citizen, or anyone they take a dislike to. Yet this is who those who are voting leave are opening the door to. Not liking the EU is nowhere near reason enough to allow this to happen.

  11. This is Counterpunch:

    Brexit or Bremain is a political issue, not economical.

  12. "And one brave Yorkshire politician that argued against all this was shot dead in the street."

    The question that should be asked is why was a white middle-aged man with OCD issues not in supervised work, that he found helpful for his condition?

    "Of course these lies play on basic fears about unfamiliar people."

    The problem is that the left has poisoned the debate by saying *all* opposition to open borders is based on this.

    The statistics from the *actual experts* show 88% of current EU immigrants would fail the tests to obtain a work visa:

    "Overall, therefore, most EU-born workers—like most workers of all origins—are not in jobs that meet the criteria for Tier 2 visas. Because EU workers are underrepresented in high-paying graduate jobs, a lower share of those who are already living in the UK are working in jobs that meet the occupation and salary thresholds described in this report, compared to the average across the UK labour market. In 2015, 19% of people born in EU countries and working as employees in the UK were in a skilled job earning more than £20,000. Many of these people had been living in the UK for several years and thus may have different skills and experience compared to people who are newly arriving. They have also had longer to enter skilled employment. The share of newly arriving EU born workers who had arrived in the UK in 2010 or afterwards and who were in graduate jobs earning £20,000 or more was lower, at 12%."

    Every other advanced civilised nation on earth, *outside the EU*, excludes such people from a work visa. And for good reason — they already have a surplus at home and quite a lot of them are in need of a job.

    The academic studies are false because they do not separate those who would get a work visa with those who would not. They aggregate together the 12% and 88%.

    The people doing the scapegoating don't care about them, but they do talk to them and don't look down their noses at them.

    So they figure if you're going to be disappointed, you may as well be disappointed with people who are nice to you rather than despise you very existence from their Islington Ivory Tower.

    "The waves of economists, businessmen, scientists, university leaders, doctors, historians and more shouting loud that Brexit would be harmful has been incredibly impressive. It reflects the fact that this is not a debate with decent arguments on both sides, but a pretty open and shut case."

    So what? What this article shows is your view that there needs to be rule by 'educated' people. Of course the 'problem' with the EU referendum is everyone gets a vote.

    The appearance of learning and expertise doesn't necessarily mean that people have any as every chiropractor, crystal healer and astrologer demonstrates every week.

    I remind you of JK Galbraith's famous saying - "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable".

    1. This is similar to the educated professionals vs working class split now obvious in the American Democrats. I say this even though I am against leaving the EU. Guardianista arguments are why Leave has now won.

      Pro-EU people, of which there were always dangerously few, were too eager to define themselves as anti-racism-and-zenophobia and pro-peace. This might make such ppl feel better but it does nothing to recruit any supporters. Philistines who think cutting red tape (we have a relatively unregulated economy in the UK) was going to boost profits and thus bolster their savings and investments have made an unholy alliance with working class people worried about unemployment and low pay and who were told 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year by tabloids that immigrants were to blame. Together, they win. They and the rest of us will now suffer a recession at the worst possible time politically. So -- no more Guardianistas.

    2. Interesting comment and take on the consequences of identity Anon.

  13. This has become the establishment vs the people. And the establishment have to take half the blame. It started with specious forecasts about the likely scale of immigration following EU expansion. Hopefully a few people have now learned the proper place for econometric forecasting. It then continued with the glib dismissal over the concerns of large scale immigration once it materialised. For sure a lot of concerns over migration are misplaced, but it was naive and contemptuous of the establishment to think that at this scale it was not going to become a major political issue if not handled sensitively and carefully. The establishment have been just as divisive as the other side with risible typecasting: 'angry white men'; this despite the fact that white men are the country's most disadvantaged group ( This arrogance has fed the anger and the correct or incorrect perception, that the internationalist elite are more interested in what Angus Deaton calls "problems across the ocean rather than across the railway tracks".

    My own view is that Bremain will win comfortably. But the fact they have got the support they have will hopefully send a message and some lessons will be learned. But I won't hold my breath.

  14. It is also important to fight the abandonment of logic, reason, impartiality (the media, or rather, its lack of it). To do otherwise, in an world increasingly dominated by technological and scientific disciplines that drive us forward, the rule of mobs and irrationality is a long term very serious own goal. If this ideology triumphs, the prospects for the future of the British economy are dismal.

  15. Eh, sorry, but "Brexit" is being financed by the Rothschilds. The "centre right" stuff is pure dialectical mumble. You really don't get the real gist. Who is the EU's main runners. Once you get that, you get the bigger picture.

    Truth is, leftists should reject migrants and capitalism asap. That will corner your "centre right" and expose their true agenda. Brexit is dead anyways.


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