Thursday, 16 May 2013

Winning the arguments against British isolationism

Back in the 1980s, I seem to remember the Militant newspaper often quoting from the Financial Times. The thinking of the Trotskyist editors was that the title represented the authentic voice of the bosses. If you wanted to have a true insight into the devious and calculating minds of the capitalist enemy, you needed to read the FT.

David Cameron should try reading it too. The letters page has recently been full of people explaining why leaving the EU is a bad idea. The arguments are various. One contributor explains the damage that an exit would do to the UK’s non-EU exports. (That’s because we currently benefit from dozens of trade treaties, which we’d have to renegotiate single-handed. ) Another talks of the improbability of our being able to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with the EU when we exit. A third points out the madness of threatening Scotland with potential isolation outside the European bloc if it votes for independence, while planning for the whole UK to withdraw.

Of course, all this is just scratching the surface. But it’s indicative of the mood of folk who actually think about these things. People who tend to be significant executives or proprietors of major businesses, economists and so on.

Clearly, it’s not an auspicious time for politicians to embrace a pro-European line. The majority of the population is highly sceptical of the EU and the UK Independence Party is riding high in the polls. The Daily Express, grandma’s journalistic comfort blanket, is currently running a ‘crusade’ – not a campaign, a crusade – for British withdrawal. The problems with the EU are pretty easy to outline. The broader picture discussed by the readers of the FT is rather esoteric and technical in comparison.

It’s going to very difficult to avoid a referendum. The Labour Party can’t be seen to oppose a public vote on this vexed question. So how are the pro-European elements in the political and business world going to make their case? Surely they are heading for a catastrophic defeat?

I’m actually not so sure. Observing the recent debate, I see two lights shining at the end of the Channel Tunnel. The first concerns the personalities who are lining up to demand the UK’s exit from the EU. And the second is the self-defeating arguments they seem inclined to advance.

Notice how excited the Tory backbenchers became when they discovered that Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson had both declared themselves in favour of withdrawal. These ‘heavyweight’ endorsements were supposed to show that the bandwagon was on a roll. The reality, of course, is that these Tory grandees carry no weight with anyone apart from Eurosceptic Conservatives.

Those old enough to remember Baron Lawson of Blaby will recall that he presided over the late 80s bubble, which was followed by high inflation and rising interest rates. His personal position was constantly undermined by Margaret Thatcher’s retention of her own economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters. Baron Lamont of Lerwick has even less credibility, as he’s forever associated with the UK’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism during his own tenure as Chancellor under John Major.

The fact that Michael Gove and Philip Hammond are prepared to go part of the way to endorsing the former finance ministers is hardly cause for concern. Gove is another character whose beauty only exists in the eye of the geriatric beholders in the Tory shires. Defence Secretary Hammond is someone who looks as if he’s had his charisma bulldozed by a Challenger tank.

So far, so good. But we’ve also had a glimpse of the way in which this rather motley crew intends to frame its arguments. When Nigel Lawson made his intervention, one of his major points was that the European Union is far too restrictive and interventionist when it comes to the UK’s financial sector. ‘Hands off our bankers!’ he rails. Well, I think we know exactly how popular the banking community is since the debacle in 2008. The idea that people will be voting to leave the EU so that bankers are given free rein is so wildly off target that one wonders if Lawson is a secret agent for the pro-European cause.

There’s plenty of water to flow under the Bridge of Sighs before the UK votes whether it wants to distance itself from its continental partners. But those of us who understand and value the political and economic importance of European integration must make sure to present the anti-EU campaign for the high-risk, free-market strategy that it is.

Another piece of good news is that younger people are decidedly more pro-European than the older generations. In a recent Fabian Policy Report, sponsored by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Peter Kellner of YouGov shows data suggesting that 18-34 year-olds are noticeably more favourable to co-operation than the over 60s.

I say this is good news, but we know that the over 60s are probably much more likely to vote in a referendum. That’s why the pro-EU lobby must relentlessly target younger people and talk to them about the things that really matter to them. The ability to move and work freely across borders. The entrenchment of rights in the workplace. And, of course, the need for collective action to protect the environment.

Although it’s a game that some of us would rather not play, everything is now up for grabs. British isolationism would be so disastrous that the political stakes in the UK are now higher than at any time in 30 years. Let’s make sure we get it right.