The Truth about Brexit, As seen from New Zealand
It is very hard, at 12,000 miles distance, for Kiwis to get a good handle on the Brexit issue – particularly if their source of information is a newspaper like The Guardian, the self-appointed standard-bearer of the Remainers’ cause.
You would be hard put to find a Guardian front page over recent months that did not carry at least a couple of anti-Brexit stories, predictions of Brexit disaster, and exhortations to Remainers to campaign to reverse or sidestep the referendum decision.
Those unwise enough to be guided by this unbalanced coverage would conclude that Brexiteers were misled by lies and propaganda, were motivated by bigotry and racism, and are already repenting in large numbers their earlier decision.
There is no hint of the many perfectly rational considerations that led Brexiteers to vote as they did, or of the fact that recent polls show that opinion since the referendum has moved to confirm further the Brexit decision. Guardian readers are instead encouraged to believe that the only rational position to take is to stick with “Europe”, come what may.
Sharp-eyed readers will immediately recognise the quotation marks around “Europe”. For the Remainers, “Europe” is equated with the European Union. How, it is asked, can Britain turn its back on “Europe”?
The European Union, though, is not “Europe” but a particular political and economic construct which represents only a fragment of what Europe really means, both to Britain and to every other European country.
The Common Market itself was merely a trade deal, originally struck between France and Germany – admittedly, with the high-minded and worthwhile purpose of binding the two countries together so that they would not plunge Europe into yet another world war.
The deal itself may have been high-minded but it was also hard-headed; it represented a trade-off between the French interest in protecting their inefficient agriculture, and the German interest in tariff-free trade for their relatively efficient manufacturing industry.
The former goal was secured by the hugely expensive Common Agricultural Policy and the latter by the commitment to industrial free trade within a customs union.
The British were allowed to join only once these goals were set in concrete. The Common Market could not have been more inimical to British interests. It required the British to give up significant competitive advantages; first, their access to efficiently produced Commonwealth food which made possible a cheap food policy at home – and therefore lower industrial costs – and, secondly, their preferential markets in Commonwealth countries for relatively expensive British manufactures.
And so it proved in practice. British taxpayers found themselves subsidising inefficient French farmers, British consumers had to pay higher food prices and therefore required higher wages just to stand still, and British manufacturers and their workforces faced lost output and jobs as they were outgunned in their own market and in Europe by the post-war revival of German industry.
By the time the referendum opportunity came, voters were fed up with high food prices, with lost jobs, with a trade deficit that threatened the destruction of British manufacturing, and with the seemingly unstoppable inflow of cheap labour from Eastern Europe.
Most of all, they wanted to regain control over their own affairs – to reclaim the self-government and democracy that their forefathers had fought for, often against the threat posed by European despots.
These were all sensible sentiments, underpinned – as the Guardian and other organs of received wisdom would have it – by the sense ordinary people had that their concerns were simply brushed aside by those who not only “know better” but were “doing better”.
On this view, the Brexiteers were motivated by ignorance and grievance, and had failed to understand the argument. The way to remedy these failings, it is asserted, is to “listen to them more”, but that mysteriously seems to mean that it is the Brexiteers – best described, it seems, as cretins and bigots – who should listen more carefully so that they can be enlightened as to how they got it wrong.
We in New Zealand at least have the chance to make up our own minds. We shouldn’t have much trouble in understanding why our British cousins prefer to run their own affairs and why, having made an important decision, they should want to stick to it.
16 April 2017