One of the more depressing features of the Brexit debate, especially since the referendum, is the near absence of eﬀort to find arguments which might persuade opponents that they should reconsider their position. Much Remain rhetoric paints Leavers as xenophobes and either idiots or shameless manipulators of idiots; the other way round, Remainers are presented as arrogant elites or even traitors. Polls suggest that few have changed their minds since the vote. But preaching to the choir and insulting one’s opponents are poor substitutes for trying to understand and to persuade.
Motivations on both sides were undoubtedly mixed: carefully thought-through reasoning about Europe, projection of an identity or perception of personal interest. Just as some Leavers wanted to show their distaste for “London elites” (or just to give David Cameron a bloody nose), so some Remainers saw their vote as a way of rejecting (large or small “c”) conservative forces. Some Leavers were convinced that less EU migration would mean their pay would go up; some Remainers will have calculated staying in the EU would be better for their investments or bonuses.
As a Leaver who has spent his career as a diplomat and later in international business, I have little doubt that I am in a minority among friends and (former) colleagues. So I equally have little excuse for not understanding why so many intelligent and educated people voted Remain and still wish to stay in the EU. We must accept that many have sincerely-held beliefs based on their experience, including that alignment with the EU brings economic benefits, that the EU has helped preserve peace and that participation is the best way to facilitate regional cooperation on issues such as climate change.
But motivations on each side are often more complicated than they seem to the other. Since the referendum, we have often heard that “no one voted to become poorer”. This sounds like a no-brainer, though of course no one knows for sure whether we will be richer or poorer in or out of the EU in the longer term.
But actually, no. Many of us in any case do “vote to be poorer” if by that we mean that we privilege considerations other than maximizing our income. I spent over twenty years working for the Foreign Oﬃce, while many of my school and university contemporaries were earning multiples of my salary in the City or elsewhere. I’m not claiming this as a virtue, just a career choice, just as I’m not saying investment bankers or City lawyers are motivated exclusively by financial reward.
But many people, from clergy to nurses, will have “voted to be poorer” because something other than money was more important to them. And “voting to be poorer” isn’t, as it’s sometimes alleged, confined to those who are in fact pretty well oﬀ to start with. The same principle can work for countries. India’s economic performance is often compared unfavourably with that of China, but there are few Indians who would substitute Indian democracy for Chinese one-party rule as the price of an increase in GDP. We can, quite rationally, “vote to be poorer” if that means that we gain something which we regard as more valuable.
So what is it that might be more valuable? Many Leavers called it “sovereignty”. I’d prefer to call it “political accountability”. And it’s why I think liberally-inclined Remainers should think hard about the argument for Leave. I prefer “accountability” to “sovereignty” because I don’t want to see the argument as about “our people” against “the foreigners”. The problem with supranational governance is not that foreigners are involved, but that our own politicians escape the constraints of proper accountability. It’s human nature – in fact it’s tautology – to want to achieve our objectives. But it’s also human nature to want to do so with the fewest possible constraints, including the constraint of accountability. It can seem attractive to push decisions up to a level where the populists can’t influence them. That was in part the understandable driver for European supranationalism after the Second World War. But there’s a trap. Once politicians are free from eﬀective accountability (just look at the European Parliament), they aren’t freer to do only good and wise things, but bad and unwise things too.
As an example, one has to look no further than Eurozone governance, and the huge opportunity cost of pursuing a project which is subject to accountability only by those who have a vested interest in it.
But the problem is even deeper. Both for countries wishing to join the EU (like the Western Balkans) and for those who have got into trouble once members (like Greece), EU approval becomes the overwhelming argument for reform. And, although it is often a sincerely used argument – I know many genuine reformers who believe that it is the only way to achieve their goals – once it becomes the main argument it also becomes the main driver.
This is a big mistake, as substantive drivers (rule of law, prosperity, security) are replaced with a transactional driver. It is all the more transactional because, however technocratic the published criteria, in practice decisions (remember Greek accession to the EEC) are taken for political reasons.
This matters first because the domestic political narrative, instead of focusing on the real benefits of reform, becomes about how to game the exam. Secondly, since the EU always needs a “success story” for the next Summit declaration, the criteria are sooner or later fudged. In such transactions, both sides lose credibility by pretending that the criteria have been met when they haven’t. The politicians at both ends of the transaction gain “a result”, while the citizens who don’t get to enjoy the benefits of real reform are the losers. Thirdly, although not all misguided policies have something to do with the EU (the US/UK military action against Iraq, for example), supranationalism increases the opportunities for bad policymaking. Finally, the less domestic politicians have to be accountable for, the less responsible their behaviour is likely to be. Bosnia is often cited as an example where international control has led to a chronic lack of responsibility among the domestic political class.
Why is all this relevant to Brexit? We know that we are destined to experience far more disruptive eﬀects of globalisation and automation in the coming years. We have had industrial revolutions before and always come out stronger. But this time the politics may prove harder in the face of real-time communications, social media and resource scarcity. We can’t and shouldn’t resist change, but we need to find user-centric policy responses which command popular support because they are built on people’s wants and needs.
It has become tempting to argue that, as globalisation and automation are inevitable, governments should simply bulldoze “populist” resistance out of the way. Some would say that we couldn’t achieve radical change if you asked people first but looks either defeatist or from those who stand to benefit most, self-serving. It requires less eﬀort ifyou don’t have to justify your policies, for example a more open approach to migration (which might well be justified).
On this analysis, “populism” is the consequence of policymaking which fails to bring people along with it. Technocratic overreach is not confined to supranational bodies like the EU, but they certainly make it easier to sustain. A Brexit in which domestic politicians have to take responsibility for diﬃcult policies will not be easy but should make the reform which we will need in coming years more sustainable. And it should be welcomed by reform-minded liberals.