Britain needs to have the humility to admit that it’s better off being part of something great than trying to be great itself
(Originally posted on my blog just before the EU referendum.)
Here are my thoughts on the UK’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Union. Why should you care? Well, I’ve read and thought about it quite a lot, I guess. Judge the argument on its own merits, not mine.
I’m not going to heap statistics upon you, for three reasons. First, you won’t read them. Second, others have already handled that task better than I could. Third, there are so many variables involved that no one can hope to make predictions to any useful degree of accuracy. I just want to look briefly at some big-picture stuff.
(By the way, if you can’t abide geopolitics or statistics — sure, they’re the only real clues we have as to the likely outcome of an exit from the EU, but who the hell bothers with informed decisions these days? — just hit control + F, then type “pop music”. Return.)
The regularity with which history repeats itself borders on the tiresome. One of the most frequently retold stories might be titled “The Country That Went It Alone”. From time immemorial, the most isolationist and protectionist nations have been the poorest. Look at Albania in the mid-20th century, or Cuba or North Korea today. And America’s flirtation with protectionism in 1920s and 1930s was a major aggravating factor in the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, the most prosperous and longest-lived civilisations have all had one thing in common: size. The Egyptian dynasties, the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the Pax Mongolica, the (first) Islamic caliphate, the Spanish empire and its British successor all derived their wealth and influence from their geographical reach and head count.
Most of these utopias, of course, were achieved through conquest. Suffice to say that route is frowned upon these days (and not a hugely viable option forthe nation with the ninth strongest army in the world, after Italy and marginally ahead of Turkey).
Fortunately, killing and enslaving people and robbing other countries of their riches is not the only way to boost your stature. The wealthiest country in the modern era, the only success story comparable with the behemoths of yore, is the United States of America. While it clearly has no problem with war, it has largely attained its status by different means. The United States got big by trading, by welcoming migrants from all over the world, and by — the clue’s in the name — uniting.
The Divided States of America would be a pale shadow of the force the US is today. The Divided States of America wouldn’t sweep the medals at the Olympics or lead the world in technology or produce one-third of all the maize on the planet. The Divided States of America would never have intervened decisively in Europe in the second world war (California and New York might have had a pop, but there’s no way Kentucky or North Dakota or Wisconsin would have sacrificed a generation in someone else’s fight).
But since most people seem to prefer whimsical analogies to actual historical precedent, let’s talk about pop music. (Welcome back, history-haters!)
Think back to the moment when all the great bands — the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Spice Girls — split up. Not once did any of their individual members ever go on to enjoy anything like the success of the collective. The list is endless: Oasis, Blur, Pulp, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, Eurythmics, Take That (Robbie came close, I’ll grant you).
It usually goes something like this: one of the lineup thinks, “I’m sick of you losers holding me back — I’m the real star of this group. I deserve more glory and more money, so fuck you and your input and your constructive criticisms,” and then they leave, only to discover on the release of their first solo album that, lo and behold, their God-given genius wasn’t what was carrying the band after all. The band was more than the sum of its parts, even if some members may have been more talented than others.
The same goes for all collaborative enterprises. Nothing the members of Monty Python achieved alone has touched the heights of Life of Brian or Holy Grail. The cast of Friends were a riot together, but can barely raise a giggle as individuals. And we all know what happens in horror films the second one of the characters says, “Hey! We should split up!”
The lesson should be clear to even the densest of the dense: bigger is better. Collaboration is a good thing. Cooperation trumps competition.
There are, it’s true, a handful of exceptions: Wham’s George Michael. Rod Stewart. Michael Jackson. Beyoncé. (Although it is worth remembering that none of these people truly struck out on their own; they took with them talented and loyal teams of songwriters, producers and managers.)
But — and this is the absolutely crucial point — the UK is not Beyoncé, whose career in Destiny’s Child was just a springboard to global domination. It is not even Kelly Rowland. No, the UK is more like Bez, with delusions of Beyoncé: a likeable enough chap who was a fun addition to the Happy Mondays lineup, but whose greatest achievement after they disbanded in 1993 was winning Celebrity Big Brother.
The UK sort of was Beyoncé once, for a bit. It had an empire, it had naval superiority, it had global influence and power. It led the world in science, in engineering, in literature and the arts.
But Britain’s era of dominance (which in any case it did not attain in the most honourable fashion) is a distant memory. The coal and the oil and the steel and the fish are all gone. The two institutions of which we can still be slightly proud, the NHS and the BBC, are in the process of being torn apart by the Tories. The last rites are being administered to the UK press. Just about the only industry in which we still lead the world, banking, will crumble once Britain ceases to offer investors easy access to the largest market in the world. And the supremacy of the English language — which, by the by, has a lot more to do with the achievements of America than anything “Great Britain” ever did — is also threatened by the act of Brexit itself. How long is English going to remain the lingua franca of an economic union that contains just one English-speaking member [Ireland]?
Germany is richer than us. Denmark, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg are happier than us. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain and even Greece all work harder than we do. And Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg are all less corrupt than we are. The UK is fast becoming a nation of feckless narcissists who consider jobs like cleaning, plumbing, construction, bar work and nursing beneath them (thank God for those pride-free immigrants!), and dream only of becoming writers, rock stars or footballers.
The Brexiters, with their rallying brays of “Take back control!” and “Make Britain great again!”, would have us believe that in 10 years’ time, the UK is going to be “running the world”, posting pictures of its Hamptons summer home on Instagram and raking in millions from perfumes it had no hand in designing. Whereas, as anyone with a speck of humility or realism knows, it’s far, far more likely to be losing its teeth in a bare-knuckle brawl and passing out with its pants round its ankles in a pool of its own puke.
To finish, a few bullet points that I’m sure someone else has already made somewhere, but I haven’t personally seen or heard yet.
- If anyone’s thinking of using this referendum as a protest vote, as a means of giving Cameron a bloody nose, remember: this is not a local election, or a European election, or even a general election, the damage inflicted by which can be reversed in five years. This referendum is, for the purposes of all those voting in it, permanent. If we vote out, and decide we don’t like it, we can’t just tap Angela Merkel on the shoulder and say: “Terrible boo-boo, Ang, we’d like to rejoin now, please.” The EU doesn’t want to lose any more members, so it’s not going to make leaving and rejoining easy. We will have to live with the consequences of this decision for at least 50 years. (Even if they do let us back in one day, they’ll hardly be falling over themselves to restore all our preferential terms. No special rebate, no opt-out from the Schengen travel agreement, or the euro, or the charter of fundamental human rights. We’ll rejoin, if we rejoin at all, on their terms.)
- Leavers do like to bang on about “unelected bureaucrats”. “We want our sovereignty back,” they wail. “No one is accountable!” In a word, bullshit. Most of the EU is elected, in the European elections. This is what MEPs are. It’s true that the members of the European Commission are unelected, but a) they are instead appointed by governments, which we did vote for, and b) the EC is basically the European civil service. When was the last time anyone voted in a civil servant?
We don’t elect the House of Lords, we don’t elect the judiciary, we don’t elect the head of the military, or the police. There has, to my knowledge, never been an election to determine our representative at the United Nations. These people are appointed by bodies that we did vote for. It’s too time-consuming and expensive to have elections for everything — we have to trust the government (however loath we are to do so) to do some things.
- I keep hearing, from those who remember, how “Britain coped just fine” before it joined the EU. (Whether the three-day week, universal drink driving, houses made out of 90% asbestos, corporal punishment, widespread child abuse and rampant homophobia, sexism and racism count as “coping just fine” is a question for another day.) But times were rather different. For one thing, we still had the vestiges of an empire, and the advantages that conferred: cheap imported labour, access to resources, control of trade routes. For another, there was no internet. There was little international travel. There were no highly organised and sophisticated terrorist groups that wanted us all dead. There was no economic competition from China, or India, or Japan. There were no huge global corporations with GDPs bigger than small countries who were accountable to no one.
We may no longer have any immediate worries about an attack from Russia, or China, but in this era of globalisation, it’s not countries we have to worry about so much as corporations. Banks are already “too big to fail”. The UK can’t hope to stand up to the likes of Google or Facebook by itself. We need strength in numbers. Allies. Not to sequester ourselves on our little island and daydream of a halcyon, foreigner-free age that never really existed.
- The four horsemen of the apocalypse (Johnson, Gove, Duncan Smith and Farage) have repeatedly laughed off warnings of a new recession if the UK votes to leave, but it’s the closest thing to a certainty we have, purely because of the uncertainty. Investors don’t invest in risky conditions. Banks don’t lend in risky conditions, and employers don’t employ. Whatever you think are the long-term consequences for Britain (and personally, I think they’re dire), for the next few years, it’s a copper-bottomed certainty that we are looking at higher unemployment, static pay, more tax rises, and more austerity. For no good reason. And all on the watch, more than likely, of a self-aggrandising Etonian clown.
- Virtually every piece of evidence the Remain camp has produced has been met with a swivel-eyed jeer of “Scaremongering!”. In fact, it’s been pretty much the Leave camp’s only rebuttal. The value of our pensions might fall. “Scaremongering!” Trouble might resume in Ireland. “Scaremongering!” Our higher education system might suffer because of lost revenue from foreign students. “You giant mongers of scare!”
A few points here. One, describing the manner of someone’s argument does nothing to invalidate the content of their argument. If I warned you that walking naked into an Arsenal pub with your balls painted in Tottenham colours would get you castrated, I’d be scaremongering, but I’d have a fucking point. Two, this is a binary debate: stay or leave? The only choice campaigners on both sides have is to depict the positive consequences of voting their way and the negative consequences of voting the other. Remain are rooting for the status quo, so there’s no point in their spelling out the advantages of remaining: they’re staring us in the face. All they can realistically do is draw attention to the potential pitfalls of leaving, thus opening themselves to the charge of scaremongering. What the Leave camp should be doing is not describing how Remain are shouting, but explaining why what they’re shouting is wrong. Three, I’d rather be a scaremonger than a hatemonger any day.
And four, scaremongering is, as far as I’m concerned, an entirely legitimate tactic, because I am genuinely fucking terrified of yet another recession, of a sterling crash, of a government in the buttery grip of Boris fucking Johnson, of chronic labour shortages alongside mass unemployment, and generally of the prospect of living in a country that stands as a joke candidate in general elections, throttles its ex-girlfriend, and is declared bankrupt not once, but twice.