#22. The pros and cons of Brexit

If nothing else, the televised encounters between deputy PM Nick Clegg and UKIP leader Nigel Farage underline quite how conflicted most of Britain is over membership of the European Union. The second instalment of ‘The Nick and Nigel Show’ was remarkable in terms of quite how many misconceptions could be squeezed into a single hour of viewing.

The bottom line is that neither membership of the EU nor exit from it is a panacea for some deeply-rooted problems, problems of which the British public seems sublimely ignorant. In its wide-eyed optimism, Nick Clegg’s vision of Europe seemed at times to be scripted from the lyrics of a syrupy Eurovision entry – Cliff Richard’s Power To All Our Friends comes to mind. The views of Nigel Farage, on the other hand, often seem rooted in the same sort of ‘Hovis nostalgia’ which characterises much of the Eurosceptic cause.

To his credit, Farage comes across as fundamentally decent, an affable, genuine person who relates quite sincerely to the concerns of the ordinary man. Credit must be given to Clegg, too, for having the guts to engage in debate instead of hiding behind the somewhat ludicrous dignity in which most members of the political establishment habitually seek to clothe themselves.

But the bottom line is this. Of itself, leaving the EU won’t solve Britain’s fundamental problems, and neither will remaining inside the Union.

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If you wanted an illustration of the sheer fatuity of much political debate in Britain, you could hardly do better than the Farage-Clegg dingdong over European legislation. The theme, from the UKIP perspective, was that the EU makes most of Britain’s laws, so we would be a freer and more prosperous country outside the Union. The Clegg case, more or less, was the opposite.

The debate over the percentage of British laws made in Europe is the height of irrelevance. You cannot weigh quantities of laws like quantities of potatoes, because some laws (like the prohibition of murder) are vastly more important than others (like statutes on dog-fouling), so the percentage attributable to Europe is a meaningless issue.

This argument misses two further, vitally important points. First, regulations flowing from Europe are enforced nationally and, if you transgress against one, it will be a British official, not a German or a Dane, who will bring you to book. So the nuisance which these regulations create results from British officiousness, not continental zeal, and that officiousness would continue unaffected if Britain did leave.

Second, the argument that we would be freer out of the EU assumes that European legislation would not be recreated, almost immediately, by the Westminster and Whitehall legislative sausage-machine. In reality, almost the only EU law that might not be replaced domestically is the Human Rights Act and I, for one, regard with deep suspicion any politician who has a problem with the protection of human rights.

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The first fundamental problem with the ‘in-or-out’ debate, though, is that neither side looks at the issue realistically. Europe is not the power for good that its proponents contend – rather, it is a bureaucratic gravy train capable of mistakes as horrendous as the single currency. On the other hand, accusing Brussels of excessive bureaucracy is a bit rich from a country which invented “red tape”, “the men from the ministry” and “in triplicate”. Moreover, leaving the EU would not waft Britain back to the 1950s. It would require Britain either to stand on its own two feet or to join another trading bloc. Neither looks a realistic proposition.

Where Farage scored over Clegg was in his identification of EU membership with the British governing elite. Britain’s commitment to a single market is highly selective – we may have free trade where it suits big business, but any citizen who tries to exercise his theoretical right to purchase petrol, alcohol or cigarettes from a continental supplier will soon realise free market logic goes only so far, and that the ordinary individual is not the intended beneficiary of the single market.

Likewise, the British elite has always sought to make the EU wider, for fear that it might otherwise become deeper. Britain has done more than any other member to ensure that countries like Romania and Bulgaria are admitted to the EU.

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Britain outside the EU is difficult to contemplate (though this does not justify the outrageous proposition that the electorate should be denied the right to decide for themselves through a referendum).

If Brexit occurred, many might think that we would become closer to the United States. In reality, this is highly unlikely, not least because American esteem for Britain has dwindled. Indeed, the “special relationship” is a dead letter – if defence cuts, the mishandling of the Syria issue and the role of London as a haven for rich Russians hadn’t already soured American opinion, the recent revelation that Britain will not close London to Russian money has been the clincher. Any American president, and not just Barack Obama, would now call Paris, Berlin and even Warsaw before phoning London.

This means that, outside the EU, we would be on our own, which in turn means that our massive debts, our economic dependency on borrowing and our chronic current account imbalance would remain intact.

With or without interference from Brussels, then, our fate is in our own hands. If I have a clear preference for Nigel over Nick, it is because Farage is capable of offering a potent challenge to the governing elite, which improves the odds on change.