Trade and Empire

by George Hatjoullis

Article 50 is triggered. We are exhorted to ‘make the best of it’. But those that opposed membership of the EU did not make the best of membership. They formed a party and actively campaigned to remove the UK. This was their democratic right. The same right applies to those that wish to remain. They can form a new coalition and actively campaign to reverse the decision. It is their democratic right. There is nothing subversive about this and to argue that there is reveals the darker side of the political forces that have conspired to remove us from the EU, with lies and openly xenophobic rhetoric.

The EU has been condemned for being undemocratic. I have covered this at length in many previous blogs. It is not. Indeed it is a better example of pluralist representative democracy than Westminster. Ask Scotland and Northern Ireland. EU policy decisions are made by the elected heads of each member state and the directly elected EU Parliament. The EU parliament is so democratic that it enables parties like UKip to gain many seats when they are unable to gain any at Westminster. The system of unanimous and qualified majority voting confers considerable ‘sovereignty’ on all member states. One need only look at the countries that have achieved opt outs, the UK being a prominent example, to see that sovereignty is remarkably retained. The failing is that the system is too complex for your average punter to grasp and no one has taken the trouble to explain. Indeed successive British Parliaments have used this lack of understanding to obscure their own culpability in unpopular decisions and to blame the EU. Cameron was guilty of this and ultimately hoist by his own petard. Allowing a constitutional change, such as leaving the EU, on the basis of a small majority of the votes cast and a minority of the voting population is hardly democratic. Parliament needs a 2/3 majority to just bring forward an election date.

This is not to say that the EU could not do with some improvements. It can be improved. Moreover, the eurozone is an unmitigated disaster. This has allowed the enemies of the EU to conflate the two systems. The UK is not a member of the eurozone. It was nevertheless adversely affected by the mess created in the eurozone. The eurozone crisis and the mishandling by Germany destroyed jobs in the zone and forced people to look elsewhere. The single market allowed them to seek employment in the UK. They did. The flow was compounded by the failure of successive UK governments to use what power they had to limit the flows, at least for a while. This was not an oversight. It was deliberate policy  based on the understanding that, with an ageing UK population, economic growth required an inflow of young, fit, skilled workers. These immigrants are not a burden on the NHS. They fund it and staff it. If we now swap these young and fit workers for the old British retirees in the EU this will create a burden on the NHS.

The inflows have had social consequences that successive UK governments have failed to address. Declaring the UK a multicultural country was not a solution. Resentment built into a large minority of the British population. It found the opportunity to express itself in the EU referendum. It did so with a vengeance. The irony is that leaving the EU may do little to alter migration flows. The illusion of control of borders is however psychologically important to some. So much so that they are willing to pay a high economic price for this illusion. This is the same psychological illusion that gives religion force. The economic price will be high.

The UK is leaving the wealthiest free trade area in existence, consisting of 500m people, to chance its arm in the wider world. There will be no trade deal with the EU. This would require giving up control of borders which is the red line May’s barely competent government cannot cross. It will be a ‘hard brexit’. It is leaving this free trade area just as the USA is moving to a protectionist phase. The Brexit camp reassure that Britain, a once great trading nation, will recover its trading skills. But it was never a great trading nation. It was an industrial nation with an empire. This is not the same thing. It acquired the full benefits of trade by force. It imposed the terms of trade with gunboats and troops. It cannot do this today. There is no historical basis for the assertion that the UK can form new trade relations to replace those with the EU, let alone improve on them. Much of the rest of the world consists of former colonies. They have no love for their former oppressors. This is all a delusion, nostalgic delusion.

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