So we're about to make a huge decision about the future of the country. Why are we making it? Not because it's democratic to ask the British people. We get asked every few years at a General Election where we balance our attitudes on Europe with our concern for health, education, economic and foreign policy, etc. That's how our democracy works and generally it works okay. We don't cherry pick our policies because that is the route to complete confusion - we know that if we had referendums on taxation and on welfare, we'd get votes for American tax rates and Swedish welfare, but you can't have both. That's why we have the party system and general elections.
No, we're in this horrible campaign because David Cameron faced the twin attack of a UKIP threat at the polls and grumbling discontent from his Eurosceptic backbenchers. So he kicked the can down the road by promising a referendum in the next parliament, probably assuming he'd be in coalition with the Lib Dems again and wouldn't have to do it. But here we are.
You may be thinking of voting Leave. Please don't. Here's some - I hope - reasoned, evidence-based argument why you should vote Remain. I've picked three areas that seem to be flashpoints; there are other important issues where I think the argument for remain is also strong (the environment, security, peace, worker rights), but this blogpost is long enough as it is. I'm talking about immigration, the economy, and sovereignty - with then a comment on the people in charge of the campaign.
It’s certainly true that immigration from EU countries has increased substantially over the last decade. There have been around two million EU migrants to Britain since 2004. But then quite a few UK citizens migrate to other EU countries: in 2015, while 270,000 EU migrants entered the UK, 85,000 UK citizens moved away.
But anyway, what’s wrong with migration? Migrants help the economy. A study by the UCL Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration shows that the net contribution of EU migrants to public finances is over £20bn, that they contribute more in taxes that they claim in benefits (migrants from the ‘original’ 15 countries contribute 64% more in taxes than they claim in benefits and migrants from the new accession countries, who are typically younger, contribute 12% more). In fact EU migrants are less dependent on benefits and tax credits that native UK citizens – 43% less so.
But, you might say, that’s because they have pushed UK natives into unemployment by undercutting wages. In fact, The Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE found no evidence to say that migration created unemployment, drove down wages, or pushed up the benefits bill. In fact they found that EU migrants were on average significantly better educated than UK natives – 43% for EU immigrants against 23% for UK natives. And notice: they were educated abroad, thus saving the UK significant amounts of money (UCL calculated that saving as £6.8bn).
There are probably three causes of the misconception:
- The Lump of Labour Fallacy: this is a common-sense but false idea that there is a finite pool of jobs, therefore if more people come in and compete, they must drive down wages or drive up unemployment. In fact immigrants earn money and then spend money, creating new jobs elsewhere in the job chain and thus enlarging GDP and the pool of jobs.
- The global financial crisis. The bulk of EU immigration has happened over the last 10 years and at the same time unemployment has risen and wages for a long time stagnated or went down. It may seem obvious that there's a connection but no, there isn't. Employment and wages collapsed because we went in to recession. And if A&E or class sizes have been hit, it's because of government cuts, not because of migration. There are undoubtedly some very specific industries in a few very specific areas where migrants have undercut UK workers. But the answer to this is to unionise and raise the minimum wage, not to keep migrants out. On the whole, migrants (a) do jobs that UK natives don’t want to do (b) do jobs that British people can’t do (they are better – and differently – educated).
- Press hostility. The press has been unremittingly hostile to migrants and tell us constantly things that, as we’ve seen, are untrue. Of course, we’re not so gullible are we? But look at these maps.
On the left it shows where immigrants are most populous in England and Wales. On the right is shows where people are planning to vote UKIP (and UKIP voters are the group that put immigration highest on their list of political priorities). You’ll notice that generally where migration is high, UKIP voters are low, and vice versa. In North Norfolk, where there are very few immigrants, if any, they’re mad for UKIP. In London and the South East where the vast majority of immigrants live, UKIP are nowhere. What this tells us, surely, is that people who have no direct experience of immigration believe that it’s a problem because they have heard it’s a problem – and those lurid headlines are the most prominent source of this misinformation.
The last thing to say is that if we do leave the EU, what do you think is going to happen? First, unless we literally become a fascist state, we’re not going to deport those EU citizens (unless you fancy seeing the reciprocal uprooting of pensioners from their Spanish and French retirement homes). Second, if we Brexit and then try to get access to the European Economic Area (EEA), that will certainly come with strings attached – and one of those will be free movement for EU citizens. Third, we want immigration anyway; it sustains some of our key industries (the NHS and so on). To block immigration would be an act of terrible self-harm.
It;s not disputed by the Brexit camp that we do a lot of business with Europe. In fact according to the Government's Pink Book, we do about 45% of our trade with the EU. The question is what would happen if we leave?
We currently have no tariff barriers on trade with Europe on goods or services and we benefit from the free movement of people across the continent. If we left, would we be able to negotiate the same deal?
No - and here's why.
- About 44% of our exports go the EU. About 3% of the EU's exports go to us. That puts us as a huge disadvantage in any negotiation. We need them much more than they need us.
- We would just have pissed off the EU. Not a good starting point to try to get mates' rates.
- Even if we managed to charm them, it's not in the EU's interests to give us a great deal. If we can get just the same access to the EEA outside the EU, won't every other country ask for the same deal? Right-wingers like Marine Le Pen of France's far-right Front National hope Brexit will lead to a cascade of countries trying to break up the EU.
- There are precedents - but they're not much good for us. Canada has a trade deal with the EU, but, as the BBC Reality Check points out, it mainly covers goods, not services - and 80% of Britain's business is in services. Norway is outside the EU and negotiated access to the single market but, as the former Norwegian foreign minister says, they have to contribute to the EU, accept all its regulations, and freedom of movement (they are, in other words, within the Schengen agreement, which currently, Britain is not) - and yet they don't have a seat at the table, no vote on any of these matters.
We would face tariff barriers to our biggest trading partner - who are on our doorstep. That would put the cost of business up by, who knows, 3%? 5%? On the Today Programme this morning a Brexit economist suggested that this would be fine because the pound would probably drop a bit on Brexit. Um, yes, that would be fine for exporters if the pound dropped exactly the same as the new tariff barriers. But it would be doubly terrible for importers and people who go on European holidays and anyone caught up in the recession that pretty much every single reputable economic body says would be the result.
If you are concerned for the vitality of the British economy, vote Remain.
It is true that the EU is a fairly cumbersome organisation, although this is easy to overstate. There is a lot of talk about unelected bureaucrats, running the EU. We have 393,000 civil servants in the UK. To run the whole of the EU, there are 55,000 (less than 1/7th the number).
But probably the Brexiteers are talking about the European Commission, which is the body that proposes legislation. The EU Commissioners are not elected, it's true. But they are proposed by elected governments of all member states. Every EU Commissioner is there because an elected government proposed her or him.
And then the European Commission only proposes legislation. That legislation is then voted on by the European Parliament whose 751 members are elected by the populations of member states (and 73 of those MEPs are British). Elections to the European Parliament are proportional - so actually much more democratically representative than the UK parliament. This is why there is only 1 UKIP MP in Britain (i.e. 0.2% of the MPS, despite gaining 12.7% of the national vote), while in the European parliament election UKIP got a little over 26% of the vote and has just under a third of the UK's MEPs. Of course, it's true that British people tend not to turn out to vote in these elections (hence UKIP's disproportionately large showing), but that's us not stepping up to the democratic plate, not the EU being undemocratic.
And then the major legislation that comes out of the European Parliament has to be ratified by all the national parliaments. It's laborious, yes; but undemocratic? No.
(And let's not talk about the House of Lords.)
More broadly though, what does sovereignty mean to the Brexiteers? What power do they think we can get back by leaving? We have pooled some of our sovereignty in the EU. And that's surely a good thing. It makes sense to make legislation at the lowest, most local level - and no lower. Is it really a good idea for every European nation to separately waste time coming up with their own regulations to make sure that electrical goods are safe or that fruit is free of dangerous pesticides? Particularly when we trade these goods with each other? It's much better to do these things at an intergovernmental, supranational level. Pooling sovereignty saves time.
And pooled sovereignty is still sovereignty. The UK has a lot of pooled sovereignty within it. We are four separate nations who have pooled sovereignty. But in fact we are multiple regions who have pooled sovereignty too. It's not an attack on the sovereignty of Peterborough that it has the same number of votes in parliament as Chorley. Nor is it a failure of sovereignty if Peterborough is sometimes on the losing side of a parliamentary vote, something that Leave don't seem to understand. We do some things better in bigger units.
More broadly, sovereignty doesn't mean what it meant when the sovereign made us, um, sovereign. One of the results of globalization has been that there are huge global corporations - utterly undemocratic, entirely unelected - whose internal economies dwarf those of most countries. In 2014, of the top 100 economies in the world 63 were corporations and only 37 were nation-states. These corporations want things that are not necessarily in our best interests: they want to drive down wages, reduce regulation, health and safety standards, workers rights, the length of your holiday, your maternity pay and so on. They have the clout to do this. We will not be better at resisting that pressure if we step away from the EU; we will more prey to these rapacious corporations, not less.
It's corporate power that is more damaging to our sovereignty than a bunch of EU regulations. If you want to preserve sovereignty, vote remain.
I'm not someone who believes that you should be swayed by personalities in this debate. If I were convinced of the argument for Brexit, it wouldn't give me a moment's pause to learn that David Beckham or J. K. Rowling or Stephen Hawking are on the Remain side. But it's not just a matter of personality to note that Brexit has attracted the support of Donald Trump and Geert Wilders andVladimir Putin. These are not people, I would suggest, who have your or my interests at heart.
But still, bad people can coincidentally have good ideas, so that's not a decisive argument. What is more serious and disheartening has been the nature of the debate. It's been the most depressing political debate I can remember, and that's even before the murder of Jo Cox by an ultra-right-wing activist.
I'm not blaming the Leave side for this, not wholly. The most prominent Remainers have exaggerated the reliability of their predictions, for example George Osborne's ridiculous claim that he can know the state of a post-Brexit economy in 2030, when each of his predictions for the following quarter have proved wrong. We can be pretty sure there would be a very serious recession if we vote to leave, but how the economy would respond after that is almost impossible to say. Cameron has unfortunately often employed the relentless negativity of Project Fear rather than promoting any positive vision of the EU. I said this four months ago and the tone hasn't changed. (It's almost like they don't read my blog.) I've been disappointed at how reluctant and half-hearted Jeremy Corbyn has been on the Labour side (at least until recently); he's not an instinctive European and it shows. The case for migration, for harmonization, for pooling sovereignty, for the cultural and intellectual benefits that flow from our EU membership, these cases have not been made. The top Remainers have focused narrowly on the economy, making it sound like a matter of selfish national calculation rather than a vision of unity and cooperation.
But, Christ alive, the Brexiteers. The Remainers have exaggerated, played on our fears, and basically been a bit hopeless. The Brexiteers have lied and lied and lied again. The tabloids have whipped up visceral hatreds against immigrants, supported by Nigel Farage, a man, who, let's not forget, was described by one of his own schoolteachers as a 'racist' and a 'fascist' and who used to sing 'Hitler-Youth songs'; who referred only a few years ago to black people as 'niggers' and 'nig-nogs'; who said he would be concerned if a group of Romanians moved in next door; who complained about hearing people speak foreign languages on the train; who argued that HIV+ foreigners should be denied NHS treatment; who declared that migration put British women at greater risk of rape; and who, a week ago, unveiled a poster of dark-skinned people warning of immigration that even his fellow Brexiteers described as being like 1930s Nazi propaganda; and when Jo Cox was murdered on the same day, he called it 'unfortunate timing' and sought to portray himself as the 'victim'. He is a disgusting man.
But his fellow Brexit campaigners, even as they distance themselves from him, still whip up fears about immigration - fears that they don't remotely believe. I don't think Michael Gove is worried about immigration but he thinks the only way Leave can win is jumping on the racist bandwagon, and so this intelligent, educated man pokes the fire.
And does Boris Johnson believe that Britain sends £350m a week to the EU? No, he doesn't. He knows better than that. He knows that - once you subtract the rebate and the money that comes straight back to us in the form of agricultural support, regional aid, and more - the figure is less than half of that. The point has been made time and time again (for instance here, here, here, here, here, and here), but Boris refuses to back down, will not change the slogan on his bus (left) continues to make this claim, and why? Because the lie is working.
Does the Leave campaign really think Turkey is joining the EU? Their poster (right) says so, but it's not true. Does Boris Johnson really believe Brexit will help LGBT rights? Probably not, since it wouldn't. Does the Daily Express really believe the EU has banned curved cucumbers or says bottled water can't be advertised as helping hydration? It seems unlikely, since these things aren't the case. Does Nigel Farage really think that 5000 Islamist terrorists, disguised as migrants, have entered Europe via the Greek Islands in the last 18 months? Surely not, since he made it up.
And so it goes on.
The worst of it is that the Leave camp seem often unswayed by argument or evidence. A poll for YouGov found that, for example, the views of academics were trusted by 68% of Remain voters but only 26% of Leave voters. The Bank of England was trusted by 61% of Remain, but 19% of Leave. Heads of reputable charities had the trust of 58% of Remain and 21% of Leave. This is why, less than a week away from the Referendum, after months of campaigning, the UK public is massively misinformed about the EU.
What this means is that quite likely I shouldn't have bothered write any of this. Why give evidence when people think common sense is better, even over matters of fact?
Look, here's the thing. I'm not naive. I know we take decisions and form our opinions in a network of other prior beliefs, and attitudes, and social practices. As a metropolitan, left-wing, university professor and arts professional I am pretty likely to vote Remain. (The Times Higher found that 88.5% of university staff backed Remain; the Creative Industries Federation found that 96% of its members backed Remain; Londoners are polling 51% to Remain against 34% to Leave). But in fact, my view has shifted. Last year, when the EU was punishing Greece and bypassing its own referendum, I seriously contemplated voting Leave.
Because we have to change our minds. Yes we make decisions based on other opinions we have; we don't like holding opinions that contradict each other. But sometimes the decision is so important, it's the other views that must change, if the arguments are compelling enough. This is one of those decisions.
I also think this is the far-right's attempt at a grab for power. It's an unholy alliance of extremist neoliberals who want to unravel worker rights, dismantle the welfare state, further liberate business and complete the Thatcherite revolution with the far-right racists who believe they can turn Britain back into the whites-only paradise it never was and never should be, let by the lounge-bar nudge-nudge racist Nigel Farage.
If you've read this far, I'll be very surprised but very grateful. For all the reasons I've given above, please consider seriously voting Remain on Thursday.