A lot of political discourse these days consists to yelling insults to the other side across an unoccupied no man’s land of the vacated centre. The Ermine is/was a Remainer, largely from the economic point of view, but I thought I would use Kindle Unlimited (KU) to try to get a understanding of what the other side thinks. I’ve already used Brexit Central, but the advantage of KU is that political screeds often end up on Kindle Unlimited, so you can sample a lot fast. 1 I wanted to try and get inside the heads of the majority, to let people develop their arguments, rather than take the soundbites. Plus people are more civilised when they think they are talking to the converted.
There’s a lot of dross on KU, some of the Brexit stuff confirmed the Guardian’s stereotype of the Brexiter as old racist white guys who hated immigrants. I wish I could remember the authors or the books in question, they yattered on about “common sense” but were basically latter day Enoch Powells without his rhetorical gift, and disliked all immigrants including white Eastern European ones. This kind of author made themselves known from the first paragraph.
I wasn’t after that, I was trying to get a handle on the case for Brexit. Two KU authors helped me get an idea, one was Daniel Hannan’s Why Vote Leave, with an honourable mention for supporting cast to his jingoistic book How we invented Freedom. The other was Andrew Mather, who falls definitely into the category of old white guy 😉 One should always be wary of people who cite their membership of MENSA2 in an indirect appeal to authority but one should equally be wary of inferring the general from the particular, people who are wrong in some aspects aren’t therefore wrong in all. Mather’s book was
Brexit: Why We Won: What Remain will never understand about the Leave victory
which seemed to be a good place to start as a Remainer trying to understand the leave result. These aren’t the only decent books from Brexiters, but these were the ones I read rather than skimmed. I came away from the exercise with more respect for the internal consistency of the leave argument for its supporters.
The price I paid for this project is that Amazon now thinks I am on a diet of the Daily Express, Breitbart, and this is the sort of reading they offer up, I guess one has to suffer for one’s art 😉
Amazon is of the view that there is some correlation between Brexiteers and climate change denial, and oddly enough those that rail against speed cameras repressing their inner Mr Toad. It’s a funny old world, and it shows the toxicity of the way filters amplify extremes. In the analogue world you would walk past the billboards for the Tories, then the one for Labour, whereas on the Internet there’s some guy running ahead fo you swapping out the opposition’s ads for ads for cars, lingerie and PPI claims before your sensitive head gets troubled with uncongenial points of view.
Some of the problem of Remain’s argument was that it was bloodless and talked in terms of abstractions, ‘the British economy’. I quite like this description of how dialectic tends to swing between the poles of abstraction and reflection, which puts the issues more poetically than I could.
The [British] economy is an abstraction, and for the last thirty years or so it has gone along with the assumption that neoliberal assumptions of free trade, globalisation and lower taxation are all good, and indeed ‘the economy’ has expanded greatly as a result. The Britain I graduated into, less than a decade after the last EEC referendum, was far poorer in general than the Britain of 2016, but not everyone was poorer than now in every way. As JMG described, the issue with abstraction is
it becomes impossible to miss the fact that the supposed universality of the world-theories of abstraction has been obtained by excluding countless things that don’t fit. Some of those excluded things are bits of data that contradict the grand theories, but some are much vaster: whole realms of human experience are dismissed as irrelevant because they don’t fit the theoretical model or the methods of inquiry that a given age of abstraction happens to prefer.
Let me take one example of human experience – youth unemployment. I graduated into Mrs Thatcher’s first recession, and found my first job a month after unemployment reached its high-water mark, worse for that age group than at any time since. I was unemployed for six months. The experience left enough of a mark that I never took that chance again, finishing work from one company on Friday and starting at the next on Monday, until I went to work for the very last time 30 years later.
And yet the 1980s regime was reasonably compassionate to the unemployed compared to the punitive minefield that it has become now. I recall I had to fill some forms, go for an interview at the start, probably stay in touch every week with a UB40 form. The job I did get I applied for from an ad in the local freesheet paper, rather than the Jobcentre and the DHSS lady pretty much agreed that their job ads weren’t targeted at graduates. Retraining was better supported in the 1980s too – many people have fond memories of the Enterprise Allowance, which gave people a year of basic income to make a business work3. The equivalent of this is now universal credit, demanding a weekly minimum income floor. Cash flow in a business is too volatile for that sort of micromanaging tossery.
So despite the fact that “the economy” is doing so much better now than it was in the 1980s, my experience as a young adult from a working-class background experiencing a period of unemployment was a hell of a lot better than it would have been now4.
The abstraction doesn’t match the experience
Globalisation has made a lot of things cheaper and better, and forty years of technical progress has also done its bit. The internet on your smartphone used to look like this.
Yet there are some common things about the human experience in the UK that are a lot worse now than they were if you are not well off, despite the better economy:
- Going to university – because now they tell you that you owe fifty thousand pounds at the end, without being decent enough to call it a graduate tax, because the word tax is toxic.
- being unemployed, because, well, Iain Duncan-Smith and a vicious system when jobcentre staff have to achieve a certain sanctions target and make people feel shit about being on the dole.
- being unskilled – because unskilled jobs are precarious and rarer.
It’s therefore perhaps reasonable that if you are poor and getting no love from the way the current abstraction of “the Economy” is being managed, that despite the likelihood of the British economy taking a bath as a result of putting more barriers between us and the people we do most business with, you may feel that your end of the boat will go up. It’s in no way irrational to vote against the interests of the economy if that is the case.
It’s not all about the money
Both Daniel Hannan and Andrew Mather make this case strongly. It’s a bigger issue for Brexiters who aren’t poor. Hannan makes a good case that Britain’s Common law legal system is very different from the legal system of most of Continental Europe with its roots in Roman law. I am unfortunately not well enough educated to know if he is generally right, I read his second book about inventing freedom to get more detail. He summarises the difference in principle of common law being what is not forbidden is allowed, whereas Roman law tends to be what is not allowed is forbidden. Brits will therefore bitch about excess regulation they didn’t need in a shared system, where Roman law systems will need the regulations for permission.
Mrs Ermine confirms that in France, where she lived for some years, you need to get your paperwork right before you set up a business even if it is an a self-employed writer. Whereas in Britain you just do it, and only have to fill in the paperwork by October of your second tax year. A British
expat immigrant to Spain says you have to be accredited even to be a tour guide out there. Sounds like a rum way of carrying on to me…
Which brings us to the vexed issue of sovereignty, and the EU does have a problem here – it was established with a tendency to technocratic direction, and there is a democratic deficit. There isn’t that much point to the European Parliament because unlike what you’d normally expect of a parliament it is actually the European Commission that is responsible for proposing laws.
There probably should have been a drains-up on how it was designed when the original Six EU members were enlarged, and there definitely should have been one before Maastricht in the late 1990s. James Goldsmith was perhaps twenty years before his time – and unlike Nigel Farage seemed at least capable of making a rhetorical argument. He made his case in this interview on Breakfast with Frost
and because twenty years ago the process of abstraction had not gone as far as it has gone now, he had to make his case as a logical argument.
He still failed to define the question on the referendum, and there is of course the same distasteful aspect of rich people deciding they can buy a particular piece of political change, though it came to naught in the end. It’s a shame, because if we were going to have this fight on the sovereignty side, the case was stated far better 20 years ago, rather than Nige dog-whistling about Us being swamped by a river of Them,
and Jacob Rees-Mogg babbling about vassal states. What is it about rich barstewards and their born-to-rule progeny – William Rees-Mogg, erstwhile editor of the Times and his spawn Jacob, and James Goldsmith and the fruit of his loins Zac G. Presumably the people who will be digging my grave will have to worry about being ruled by Sixtus Rees-Mogg and one or more of Zac Godsmith’s brood. What the hell is is also with rich toffs pissing out stupendous numbers of kids, too, 6 and 5 and counting, respectively?
It’s tough to make the case for the EU being a democratic organisation even in academic papers rather than polemics5. Once the national veto was lost to qualified majority voting in the Maastricht treaty you do lose some nation-state right to self-determination. That’s corrected somewhat by the introduction of a method to secede from the EU with the Lisbon treaty, although the architect of Article 50 didn’t think it was necessary to clear off:
“In Britain there was, among Euroskeptics, the theory that one was tied to one’s oar with no escape and rowing to the unknown destination of ever-closer union,” he said. “That Euroskeptic theory was always nonsense because you don’t need a secession article to secede. If you stop paying your subscription, stop attending the meetings, people would notice that you’d left.”
Lord Kerr, author of Article 50
He designed it as a way for the EU to eject renegade states by removing their voting rights, effectively making them an offer to leave they couldn’t refuse. Go figure…
Democracy – well how much have we really got?
Before we cast stones all over the place let’s remember that for all the stirring stuff about England being the mother of Parliaments we have a two party state roughly oscillating between the poles, which appear to be getting further apart at the moment. We don’t have any form of proportional representation, which means my vote has counted for aught more times than it did. We seem to have an plutocracy where an awful lot of important democratic things can be bought, possibly including Brexit. In a study of democracies issues in the UK included “majority representation in parliament, which creates distortion between votes and actual seats in parliament, [and] a media that is skewed by private-sector interests” – the study has turned into this project.
It’s a bit rum for Jacob Rees-Mogg to go charging about talking about vassal states when a lot of Brits are vassals of his type of aristocracy, but let’s look the other way for a moment. It’s still fair comment to note the EU could have been designed better in terms of representation of the people’s interests as opposed to technocratic expendiency. Whether there’s enough common cause across the EU to make a workable democratic union is a question that won’t be Britain’s problem in a year’s time. Nobody seems to have a taste for the sort of fight that would be needed to change the treaties of the EU. Not gonna happen, however desirable.
It’s about control and jobs for Brexit protagonists, but not necessarily at the same time
Control, a.k.a. sovereignty, matters for rich people and a smaller number of others who just care about that sort of thing more. It matters to the wing of the Tory party that produced John Major’s bastards, surprising how little has changed in the intervening 23 years – then it was 6
Just think it through […] You are the prime minister, with a majority of 18, a party that is still harking back to a golden age that never was, and is now invented […] I could bring in other people. But where do you think most of this poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. […]We don’t want another three more of the bastards out there. What’s Lyndon Johnson’s maxim?
Plus ca change, eh? Sovereignty is a really big deal for ‘these bastards’, probably because they are the elites and what they say goes, so they feel dispossessed of their right to rule by EU upstarts competing in their power space. Hence all the bitching about human rights and exceptions to the working time directive, a plutocrat has the God-given right to squeeze their wage slaves and sweat the asset. Nevertheless enough others care about sovereignty as a matter of principle, even if they don’t feel their right to rule threatened.
The jobs angle is different. We aren’t talking about British jobs as a whole. Say you are a London plumber – all these damned Poles increasing the supply of plumbers isn’t going to help you. People can go on about the Ricardian advantage as much as they like, but in the end when there was less globalisation there were a lot more unskilled jobs available in Britain7. No doubt there will be readers spitting bricks that correlation does not equal causation, but that plumber doesn’t give a toss about all those highly paid jobs in the City.
Many Brits in Boston, Lincolnshire, don’t give a toss about the economy. They see migrant EU labour in their areas while their kids are on the dole. Some of that is possible because migrant EU labour is only doing it for a while to make a decent wedge so they are prepared to sleep five to a room in their twenties. That’s not so attractive for Brits who remember a time when this was not the case fifteen years ago when they started primary school. Economists will say that’s Schumpeterian creative destruction at work, but in the end we have a myth of continual progress, and it hacks people off when this expectation doesn’t match up to what is happening. The Adam Smith Institute has a panegyric to capitalism telling us that it has brought more people out of poverty than anything else. It’s probably true, but as the Economist says,
China’s middle classes and the world’s rich have gained handsomely in the era of globalisation. It also remains true that the lower middle classes in rich countries have fared less well.
It’s not necessarily irrational, if your end of the boat is sinking, to vote for things that may damage the economy in general if it stops your end going down. Or even if it fails to do that but delivers a punch on the snout to people doing better than you 😉
I’m not in favour of Brexit, but I understand a little bit more
I never really liked the common Remain narrative that just over half my fellow countrymen were racist twits. Britain is a relatively tolerant country IMO. 5% of ’em may be racist twits, 50%, no.
I detest what Brexit has done to my personal interests – it devalued the value of my pension by ~20%, I will have to apply for Schengen visas just to get off this septic isle just as I enter the phase of life where I will be doing more international travel. Some of the things Brexit voters care about I just don’t – I am not after unskilled work and I think that the winds of automation will have a far greater effect on employment than EU immigration.
On the other hand I get the sovereignty issue a little bit more, although to my mind if we are going to throw off the yoke of European diktats then we should just as keen to throwing off the yoke of the domestic oligarchy and vested interests. I understand a little more why EU membership sat less well with British cultural assumptions, the what is not allowed is forbidden versus what is not forbidden is allowed. Hannan made a fair case that we are the exception with this in the EU.
I believe the British economy in general will be damaged, and since I have no human capital left I will take more of a hit from that than many, although I have moved as much of that capital as I can into worldwide assets. On the other hand, there are two significant hazards ahead that Brexit may defend us from.
The first is large scale migration into the EU which Europe is currently lost as how to handle. It is causing internal tensions, and I can’t see how Schengen or freedom of movement will cope with that in the medium term, it’s got to go sooner or later IMO. Schengen was a child of the cosy club of northern European states pre 1995. I was in Malta a couple of weeks ago, and heard how Armed Forces Malta are in charge of defending the EU’s southernmost border. Those migrant boats unfortunate enough to end up there get given fuel and a tow out to Italian waters8, since Malta can’t handle the theory of the EU’s first state of refuge claim. Schengen looks a bit sick under that sort of pressure, even if it isn’t the primary problem.
The second is the problem of the Euro, there is clearly not enough common cause across Europe to sustain a common currency without more political integration. Greece and Germany simply feel too differently about how to live a good life. Things that can’t go on don’t, although they can go on a lot longer than they should. If the Euro blows then in the UK we will get on our knees and thank Brexiters, even if they got the right answer for the wrong reasons. An awful lot of capital and wealth will be destroyed in that whirlwind.
We don’t spend enough time listening to each other. I’m sure I’ve misrepresented a lot of the Brexit case here due to a limited understanding, but it’s clearer to me where it came from, and that in many cases it may have been a rational response to a lived experience. Only some of them, though a vocal and privileged sector, are trying to bring the 1950s back. Some just want jobs, homes, and a future. I’m not sure it was the EU that took that away, but it swims in the same sea as some of the other abstractions like globalisation and neoliberalism that may be good for humanity in general if the Adam Smith Institute is right, but bad for particular sectors of it. The EU was the first one of those abstractions that was fightable. Still beats me what sucess looks like with Brexit, time will show whether the result matches expectations.
On a more general point, I recommend trying to understand a point of view you don’t agree with. It sharpens the mind, even if you don’t succeed well. The world is not clearly divided into people who are right and people who are stupid and wrong.
- I use KU by signing up, and then immediately cancelling, which gives me a month’s worth of access to anything in it for about £8, without having to worry about remembering to cancel. ↩
- That’s probably sour grapes anyway – the ermine is not bright enough for MENSA, I’m with Groucho Marx on this ;) ↩
- You had to produce £1000 capital (about £3600 in today’s money) and a business plan. Some communities have fond memories of those days, where the £1000 was moved from bank account to bank account to help many people benefit from EIS using the same £1k capital base ;) ↩
- Two other positive aspects of the experience were of course that I graduated without any debt, and that only 11% of school leavers entered university, so my degree was worth a lot more than it would be now for work it would be relevant for. ↩
- The Problem of “Democratic Deficit” in the European Union, K Dilek, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 1 No. 5; May 2011 pdf ↩
- About J Edgar Hoover “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” – keep your friends close and your enemies closer. ↩
- roughly half of my grammar school cohort left school at 16, taking what would now be considered unskilled jobs. They were probably richer than I was for a long time – they were earning decent pay for five years before I got out of university, and that’s a lot to catch up on. They were driving cars, living on their own terms and pulling girls earlier in life. And there was less globalisation then. For the equivalent peer group now globalisation has made consumer stuff a lot cheaper and Life a lot harder ↩
- The story was anecdotal, but the principle seems to be supported in principle by this newspaper story. It’s pretty obvious that Malta can’t be the EU’s forward base against migration. ↩