It's the Stupidity, Stupid

Reflections on the state of debate on the European Union

Intellectual historian Keith Tribe offers a domestic perspective upon the current debate over Britexit from the EU.

I’ve been observing recent political events with a sense of deep-seated dismay. In Britain, the first half of 2015 was dominated domestically by the backwash of the Scottish Independence referendum; internationally, by the circus of the Greek debt crisis, where Tsipras would agree one thing in Brussels and then go home and disown what he had agreed on TV, as if nobody outside Athens watched Greek TV.

Scottish independence vanished from the public agenda of the SNP within a few months of the referendum, with the collapse of the oil price. Scotland’s prosperity now clearly lies with the current terms of the Union. Although it should be noted that when in 2013 it looked as though the Grangemouth refinery was to be closed, the real problem was that this one closure would take 10% of the Scottish manufacturing base with it. In January 2016 Scotland’s non-oil and gas exports to the rest of the United Kingdom were four times that to the rest of the EU and increasing – exports to the rest of the EU had fallen 8% in one year. So the idea that the path to prosperity lay through an independent Scotland was always a rather flaky idea. Besides which, actually establishing an independent Scotland could well turn out as costly as the Darien project.

Much the same is true of the idea that Britain could prosper through leaving the EU. As Philip Stephens has pointed out in the FT recently, the idea that Britain could “reclaim sovereignty” by leaving the EU is self-refuting: the possibility of leaving is itself confirmation of sovereignty. Quite apart from the very rudimentary idea of “sovereignty” that those who make such arguments display, detached from any serious consideration of the relationships now existing between European states, or any comprehension of the government of modern polities. Best estimates of the economic gains from membership of the EU run at about 10%: that Britain is now 10% better off than it would have been had it never been a member of the EU. Detaching Britain from the EU, and reorganising our political, economic and social relationships with the world’s third-most important political bloc, could well chew through that in short order. What the dawning new era would be like is anyone’s guess, but there is no particular reason to suppose that it would be any improvement on the present.

Scottish independence could well follow on from Brexit. The turbulence of Spanish politics could well lead into Catalan independence given the reduced legitimacy of established parties. In France there is a related lack of support for the mainstream parties of right and left, which only together seem capable of stemming the electoral advance of the Front Nationale. Similar stories of disaffected voters placing their faith in the politics of anti-politics can be told about Italy, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, and Denmark. And on the other side of the Atlantic those with any commitment to serious politics look on aghast as a huckster channelling the ghost of Huey Long steadily treads his path to nomination as the Republican Party presidential nominee.

As Max Weber noted, modern politics requires the firm, slow boring of hard boards, united with passion and a sense of proportion. Today many seem to think that passion is enough. “People” are said to be disaffected from politics and political leadership; a new antipolitics is said to be abroad. True enough, today some of the leading British parliamentary figures plumb new depths of shallowness. David Cameron presents himself as the honest broker seeking to save us from a mess he created in the first place by his casual approach to party politics. Tariq Ali tells us in the last London Review of Books that Jeremy Corbyn articulates a national mood – clearly he does not get out much, nor has he noticed that it is Corbyn’s advisers who seem to do all the articulating, the Labour Party leader being mostly mute.

The practice of politics in a representative democracy is an unedifying sight. Representative democracy is however what we have, and the alternatives – plebiscitary democracy, authoritarian democracy, monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchic rule – are all much worse. We should be grateful for what we have, not be surprised by how imperfect it is. Our efforts should be directed to improving ourselves and those around us, not blaming remote others for not giving us what we want. All of the countries and regions mentioned above belong to the wealthiest part of the modern world. Even being poor in a wealthy country is very rarely much like being even reasonably well-off in a poor country, a point that Adam Smith made long ago. Articulating this principle in discussion of Europe’s immigration crisis would be helpful. Simply being alive is a privilege; being alive in a wealthy country confers enormous benefits on those who live there, benefits to which they themselves have directly contributed little.

There is no economic case for Brexit, but that is more or less beside the point. Extending the line of argument above, being a citizen of an EU member state brings with it social and cultural advantages that, being taken for granted, are usually ignored. Britain is now more like e.g. Holland than it is like any other non-EU country in the world – not the same, but in many significant ways similar. Only for tourists and a wealthy elite does the USA look anything like Britain. The truth of this is confirmed by the progress of Donald Trump through the Republican primaries. But even here we can find confirmation of Adam Smith’s analysis of commercial society: that its motor is emulation and vanity; translated into the political process, those who already have much of what they need respond to politicians who promise them more of what they already have, which they no longer even notice they have.

Header image: James Gillray, ‘Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast (1787)’. Public Domain.

About Keith Tribe

Keith Tribe is an economic historian with a long-standing interest in language and translation. Born in London, he now lives on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border near Malvern. Keith studied at Essex University and Cambridge, and did postdoctoral work in Heidelberg and Göttingen. Between 1976 to 2002 he taught first sociology and then economics at Keele University. His publications include: The Economy of the Word, Oxford, 2015; Strategies of Economic Order: German Economic Discourse, 1750-1950, Cambridge, 2007, and Land, Labour, and Economic Discourse, London, 1978. In 2016 his new translation of Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (edited by Alexander Schmidt) will be published by Penguin Press.


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