15 April 2016

Brexit would be a reckless bet in an already dangerous world


Bruce Anderson is backing the Prime Minister David Cameron in his efforts to persuade the UK to stay in the EU. He explained why in a recent piece on CapX. Anderson’s friend, Lord Salisbury‎, a former Leader of the House of Lords, and a board member of CapX, disagrees forcefully and published an open letter in reply to Anderson. Anderson responded here, Salisbury replied, and now Anderson continues their correspondence.

Dear Robert,

Although I agree with almost everything you say, I draw a different conclusion on the EU. Starting with an earlier period, we both agree that the Reformation was a good thing. Even if the details can be disputed, Weber and Tawney were right. Protestantism did promote prosperity and freedom. My one source of regret is aesthetic: the bare ruined choirs. But that leads to an important conclusion, easily compatible with Tory wisdom and Tory scepticism, although it was Isaiah Berlin who expressed it most succinctly: ‘the great goods cannot always live together.’

We may have one historical point of difference: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is easy to deride. It was hard to replace. Even without the First World War, it might well not have lasted, but its destruction should be regarded as another casualty of that hideous conflict, that second fall of man. Yes, Hapsburg rule was inefficient, often laughably so, but that might have been a price worth paying. Rather a chaos of paper in Viennese offices than the chaos of nationalism. There have been very few countries so appallingly governed that things could not have been worse. The Twentieth Century provided some obvious examples: Lenin/Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot – but emphatically not the Dual Monarchy in its final years. After all, think of the douceur de vie: cultural life in Vienna, marvellous shoots in the countryside. That latter, of course, might have been a problem waiting to explode. Serfdom had been abolished; had the news been passed on to all the serfs’ descendants? Nor was this a new difficulty. I have always thought that there could be a good three-hour essay title (maybe it was and I have forgotten that I heard it) ‘Enlightened Despotism: an oxymoron too far?’

‘Moron’ leads smoothly on to the EU; or rather, the opposite of moron: the dangerous folly of allowing intellectuals to recast societies. Marxism was a classic intellectuals’ folly, as was apartheid, invented in universities by sociologists (it is always amusing to remind sociologists of that). Now we have the European single currency, from a similar stable. Intellectuals have a number of related defects. First, they are credulous and have a deep emotional need for a faith. Throughout history, the vast majority of them have worked for churches. Second, they are excessively self-confident. If the data does not fit their conclusions, so much worse for the data. Third, they are prone to moral superiority. As they are trying to do good, they must be right and anyone who disagrees with them must be stupid or morally deficient, or both. Either or both ways, dissenting opinions are worthless. If seriously obstructive, they deserve to be repressed. Fourth, because intellectuals tend to talk only to those who share their opinions, there is a danger of group-think: the Americanisation of the Vietnam War is an obvious example.

Apropos of Euro-intellectualism, there was a article a few years ago about Leon Brittan’s cabinet: the group of bright young private secretaries during his time as an EU Commissioner, including Nick Clegg and his future wife. Clearly, they were all clever, likeable and committed. They were helping to build a new Europe: to ensure that there would be a decisive break with the past millennium of strife and horror. It was a noble goal and a glorious vision. Bliss was it in that office to be alive. This was the inspirational mood which helped to create the momentum for the single currency. It was also nonsense on stilts.

When he was a young officer serving on a general’s staff, Field Marshal Lord Inge was given some advice which he always followed. ‘If you ever have a staff of your own, make sure it always includes a prickly pear.’ But there were no prickly pears on the Brittan team; no-one to say: ‘Look, how can we create a single monetary policy without a single fiscal policy, or a single fiscal policy without a single nation? Europe is not ready to become a single nation. A premature attempt to make it so, far from ending old conflicts, might provoke new ones.’

Unfortunately, the young intellectuals had allies. No-one ever accused Helmut Kohl of being an intellectual; he looked as if he had a stuffed pig’s stomach between his ears. But he was obsessed by war-guilt and wanted to lock Germany into a united Europe. Was there also an element of the tail-less fox? The Germans were no longer allowed to be nationalistic. Would they find that more acceptable if no-one else was either? Then there were the French, and here an intellectuals’ illusion was to blame. The French foreign policy elite believed that they had found an antidote to wartime humiliations and the loss of great-power status: Europe, to be run as a French jockey on a German horse.

On that basis, an alliance was constructed. But it was more to do with psychotherapy than geopolitics. The Germans and the French were like two neurotics who had met in the psychiatrist’s waiting-room and began a love-affair on his couch. An uncomfortable location, it was better suited to delusion that to delight. But there was a symmetry. The Germans were trying to forget recent military successes: the French, recent defeats. Together they nourished the grand illusion, and Europe is now suffering. Some Marxists, including the late Eric Hobsbawm, thought that it had been acceptable for the Soviet Union to make enormous sacrifices among those currently alive to build a communist future. Some Euro-fanatics also appear to believe that it is acceptable to exact sacrifices from the current generation in order to build a European future. If you were top accuse such people of inhumanity, of trying to build Europe by crushing the life-chances of millions of Europeans, they would be horrified. But that is what they are doing.

The single currency is not working. It can not work. That is why we should stay in the EU.

If the currency was going to work, to be followed in short order by fiscal and political union, all British nationalists ought to be worried. We would have to establish a modus vivendi with this powerful neighbour, without being subsumed into it. In such successful circumstances, it might have been possible to come to an amicable free-trade arrangement and to mitigate the dangers of being an island off a German-dominated continent. But we are not dealing with the problems of confidence and success. We are coping with resentment, instability and the fear of failure.

If we were to leave, a number of points seem self-evident.

1) We would have to negotiate with 27 other nations, all with their own interests, several with their own grievances. If rationality ruled, it should not be impossible to achieve a free-trade deal. If rationality governed the EU, there would be no single currency. We would also have to renegotiate our trading arrangements with around fifty other countries. How many of them are clamouring for that?

2) Paris and Frankfurt have their eye on the City. It would be naive to assume that after a rancorous Brexit, the Eurozone would be happy for us to continue to do so much of their financial business.

3) No major financial institution has expressed agreement with Brexit. No potential inward investor has welcomed the prospect. No third market has been expressing enthusiasm at the prospect of taking more British exports. You think that free trade would be easier outside the EU. This is a world in which free trade is under threat, which is bad, because such trade makes us all richer. At present, however, from China to Pennsylvania, the protectionists are shouting louder. This is not a good idea to try our luck outside the support we derive from being part of a trading block.

4) Outside the EU, growth would be lower next year as would inward investment. Interest-rates would be higher. The problems of controlling the entry of non-EU nationals would not be alleviated. We could certainly tighten controls on EU nationals, which would invite instant retaliation. Visas to go on holiday to Europe, anyone?

5) We are not weak. We ourselves could no doubt retaliate and inflict further damage on their already dubious prospects. Tit for tat all round, a trade war: what a wonderful prospect. It may be that they would suffer more than us. I do not derive comfort from that. These are our nearest neighbours and our largest market. It is in our interests that they too should thrive.

6) That cannot happen unless they reform, deregulate and confront the currency crisis. But a lot of intelligent Europeans recognise this. We would have allies.

7) We are not under any pressure to act. But most of them do have pressing problems. Although there is no easy solution, we could help them to find a way through. That is not only in their interests. It is in our interests. Brexit would through everything into confusion. In an already dangerous world, it would be a reckless gamble.

To stay in the EU precisely because it is weak: many Brexiters will find that a paradox too far: a defeatist and pessimistic assessment. But Tories should neither be afraid of paradox or of the regular need for pessimism. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made.



Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.