If it ain’t fixable, don’t break it: Society & the European Union

A week or so ago, in more innocent times, I was contemplating attempting to write a coherent piece on Britain’s membership of the European Union and remarking on what a nice non-violent continental shelf we seem to have, with tones that there seems no need to worry while the Prime Minister isn’t being blown up at party conferences.

Shortly afterwards a US gunman, in a somewhat crazed and rather distorted attack, proceeded to spray a nightclub in Orlando with bullets. The response was so divided and so predictable one wonders why either side of the political process bothered to actually say anything. Obama was clearly going to point out the problems with too many people having easy access to guns. Trump was clearly going to say that US Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to enter the USA and that if the people in the nightclub had all been armed they would have shot back.

Then in Britain a man who was apparently an British man of British ancestry looking to achieve the best deal for Britain as a land of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants shot a Member of Parliament repeatedly in the head. There has been some interesting remark as to whether this is because he was mad, not because he had been brainwashed by excessive claims of the destruction of Britain, or whether it was because the media had been banging on at scaremongering, not because he was mentally ill. The extreme nationalist movement have now gone off tarring everyone in an association with the same brush, which is progress of a sort.

It is some years since the last time an MP was assassinated and it is an unsettling sort of thing to happen in a safe, civilised country. It can also be argued that it has absolutely nothing to do with the political discourse around the referendum on EU membership. For the purposes of dramatising this article, they will be conflated anyway.

The European Union

Once upon a time there was a continent consisting of a load of countries that could be ruled by a King with a small army and a horse. In order to rule such a country, it is necessary for the King, his army and his horse to be able to get clear across the country in two or three days. The logic for this was aptly proven in autumn 1066, when King Harold II was obliged to march four days on each side of a nasty battle in the North of England – the result being that his reduced army was cut down at Hastings after the second march and he lost his kingdom.

Such kingdoms are also just large enough for the King to have a week off moving the border by a few miles and then popping home before the King next door has a chance to react.

The result is that by the beginning of the 20th Century Europe consisted of a lot of smallish countries. Most of them had managed sufficient economic growth between wars to tottle off and build empires in distant parts of the world. Despite the Kings persisting in popping over neighbouring borders, building pop-up fortifications and challenging their neighbours to Orwellian perpetual war (and periodically being replaced by fake Kings that called themselves other things), their actual countries had remained much the same for many centuries. This gave everyone a pleasant patriotic feeling of being different to neighbouring counties, who spoke other languages, ate strange food and lived on the other side of the river.

Komsjo 1 JPG.jpgA border. On the left is Sweden. On the right is Norway. This is important. 

After the European countries had fought the First World War for no reason worth speaking of, most of these pleasantly patriotic people found they had spent four years suffering for their country to be confronted by unchanged borders, bankrupt governments, severe shortages of healthy young men and a taste of defeat. Between bouts of Spanish flu, several of these countries ejected their Kings and hurriedly replaced them with people promising economic growth and a restoration of former pride.

This in turn led to the Second World War, which spent nearly six years tidying up all the contradictions and resentments caused by the First World War by the simple expedient of demolishing everybody’s countries and selling half the continent to the Russians.

After the Second World War France, Germany, Italy and Benelux (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) took a rather unusual step. They buried the hatchet and formed a trading bloc called the European Coal and Steel Community.

Trading Blocs

Trading blocs are handy things. The countries within retain their individual identities but arrange to make trading between them easier. Ultimately, why should it be easier to sell coal from Paris to Marseilles than it is to go from Paris to Amsterdam? Amsterdam is slightly closer to Paris than Marseilles and the fact that 500 years ago the Netherlands were owned by one King and Paris by a different King is an odd condition on which to base trading arrangements.

Trading blocs are however liable to go various ways. Sometimes one country grows more than all the others and loses interest. In another notable example, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries is basically a cartel:

In accordance with its Statute, the mission of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is to coordinate and unify the petroleum policies of its Member Countries and ensure the stabilization of oil markets in order to secure an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consumers, a steady income to producers and a fair return on capital for those investing in the petroleum industry.

OPEC, http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/about_us/23.htm

In other words, members agree to sell oil at a fixed price rather than competing for work. Of course, in something like oil where supply is limited by getting the stuff out of the ground (rather than building contractors who are more limited by brick purchasing and staff availability) it could be said that a cartel is the best way of ensuring that nobody gets priced out in a race to the bottom and a basically dangerous industry can be managed with proper safety standards.

OPEC has not moved beyond managing oil prices. The European Coal and Steel Community could have decided to stick at coal and steel. This would have made life since much simpler.

Britain failed to get involved in this trading bloc for various reasons, including the fact that it hadn’t been burned down as much as the other countries involved and so felt less need for such things. Britain had lots of home-produced coal and steel and didn’t want to start reducing its perceived competitiveness (particularly in its Empire) by forming a cartel with a bunch of continentals. There was also a belief that Britain was a massive Imperial world power. This belief persists and is awkward for persuading people of things.

British World Power

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, formerly the centre nation of the British Empire, now claims various notable statistics:

  • 22nd country by world population;
  • Home of one of the ten most densely populated regions of the world;
  • Fourth (possibly fifth) largest military budget;
  • Fifth largest Gross Domestic Product;
  • Nuclear-weapon owning power;
  • Permanent member of UN Security Council;
  • Sixth largest Government expenditure (and fourth largest Government deficit);
  • Largest television broadcaster;
  • Several transport accolades relating to airport capacity, age of city metros and usage of railway stations;
  • 29 World Heritage Sites;
  • Ancient, broadly reliable, well-known currency;
  • Similarly well-standing legal structure based on precedent;
  • Home of the world’s most widely known language;
  • Largest international financial centre (London);
  • Former owner of the world’s largest Empire, which was rolled up remarkably peacefully over a 20-year period (barring one colony that legged it in the 1700s);
  • Apparently more “soft power” than any other country in the world.

This is brought on by various things; several are historic and geographic good fortune, some are pot luck evolution and one or two may be deliberate.

Unlike some countries, England tended to combine rule of law with a tendency to get rid of Kings who overdid matters; this resulted in having an elected Parliament (of sorts) to vote on taxes from the late 13th Century and a charter of rights for free people (such as there were) from the early 13th Century (which was periodically reissued with minor changes, and which dwelt on such matters as fish weirs in the Thames). A conveniently sited capital combined trading with being a financial centre, its streets apparently “paved with gold”. Being on an island just off France, largely surrounded by rough seas but separated by a channel that everyone doing seaborne business with the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia has to use, helps both defence and encouraging trade. The presence of an elected Parliament to discuss whether the King should be allowed any pocket money forced a relatively open Government that was unable to impose stupid taxes (until, ironically, the power of the King declined in favour of Parliament and taxes on things like windows and income began to emerge).

Britain’s good agricultural basis and surprisingly stable government (the Glorious Revolution was partly Glorious because the King was simply allowed to become aware it might be a worthwhile idea if he packed a few bags and left the country) allowed it to develop several bits of technology which improved industrial efficiency and allowed more stuff to be exported. The canal was not entirely new. The locomotive-powered railway, by contrast, is a wholly and indisputably British invention which suddenly made it possible for a man who owned a hole in the ground near Newcastle to become filthy rich selling the South Americans cheap coal. The Government also demonstrated a intriguingly amoral approach while trying to conquer China by selling the Chinese opium and then declaring war on the Chinese Government when the Emperor of all the Chinas took a dim view of this.

The island thing has ensured that wars tend to happen elsewhere, so it was not until Hitler turned up with bombers that the Briton at home had to seriously face the impact of war that had long troubled residents of Ypres. This reduced the impact of periodic setbacks caused by major trading centres being razed to the ground. Periodically people also claim that the British Army has never lost a war.

The Government, terrified of losing any degree of international status, has traditionally been keen on remaining at the forefront of things. Thus there was extensive development of battleships, until the concept became obsolete; early and rapid development of an air force; very early development of the atomic bomb and the world’s first commercial nuclear power station. (Calder Hall – also the first nuclear power station to experience a meltdown. The official reaction was very British, with the Government taking the view that nothing had happened, that the decision to pour the morning’s Cumbrian milk production down a drain was routine, and that if anything untoward were to be suggested to have occurred then it was the fault of the staff.) Other notable UK figures have developed understanding of relativity and created the Internet.

All this is inclined to make it sound like Britain would be a very happy country outside the European Union, readily able to stand on its own two feet (or multiple component parts). This may well be true; on some levels whether the United Kingdom remains in or leaves the European Union is irrelevant. On some levels it may help to be Out. On other levels it is useful to be In, and the UK can make a better impact on the world as a member of the Union.

Sellafield 1 JPGSellafield, seen from Muncaster Fell. An ominous looking place. Nearby is a container park where low-level nuclear waste is put in containers until it becomes safe to handle in quantity.

Membership Referendums

The UK didn’t have a referendum on joining the European Economic Community before joining. It simply went in, along with Ireland and Denmark. The economy was in a hole and clearly getting worse; the “can’t go on like we were” option won out in the 1975 referendum on membership and the UK stayed in.

Left-wing hostility to membership of a capitalist trading bloc was slowly augmented by right-wing hostility as the trading bloc grew in size and scope. It was an organic growth. There may have been founders who envisaged a United States of Europe, but the growth was fairly logical bloc development:

  • If you have a coal and steel community, why not freely trade other stuff? Particularly as coal becomes less relevant to household living.
  • If people can freely coal from the Ruhr, why buy peat from a Galway bog?
  • If not buying peat from a Galway bog, what happens to the people who cut that peat? Should they be allowed to go to the Ruhr, where production needs to increase? Should they be subsidised to keep cutting the peat?
  • If you are allowing people to buy from wherever in the single market things can be produced most efficiently, shouldn’t you allow employers to “buy” their labour from wherever in the market the best skillset is?
  • If the former Irish peat-cutters want to go to the Ruhr, what is stopping them from moving there and selling their labour to Ruhr collieries?
  • If they all go to the Ruhr and the people left in Galway are unemployed, should support be provided in Galway to get the area going again?
  • If coal is realised to be mangling the environment, poisoning the skies and wrecking the landscape with waste heaps, should there be action taken to stop this?
  • If action is taken, isn’t it fairest that this should be across the market so one country doesn’t undercut everyone by mining coal in an unsafe environmentally degrading manner and then burning it irresponsibly?

At the end of this programme, what had been established as a 6-nation cartel had become a 28-state economic and political union. The European Union has a shared currency (subject to meeting various tests, which some of the longer-standing members don’t meet)


Positive vision 1: Britain becomes a thriving economy of financial services, efficient agriculture and quality manufacturing, respected in its own right, with quality geographic links to Continental Europe and the Commonwealth of Nations.

The problem is that nobody can remember who’s in the Commonwealth of Nations these days, except for when occasionally it holds the Commonwealth Games in one of the Imperial Motherland’s cities or one of the African nations is expelled for some reason. Otherwise the British press ignore it. It is hard to see how it could be brought back into national consciousness (except as a nice idea) for long enough to develop it as anything, debatable as to whether anyone else in the Commonwealth wants to develop it into something serious (one has images of a Granny trying to organise a Hunt the Biscuit game at a student birthday bash) and questionable as to whether there is any point in a trading bloc between North-West Europe and Australasia.

The economic shock in leaving would certainly clean out the inefficient agriculture and poor quality manufacturing. It is also reported to be likely to remove the Euro financial markets, which for reasons the Eurocrats are not quite sure of trade in London rather than the eurozone.

Positive vision 2: Upon Britain voting Leave, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland (plus possibly Finland) look at their views on the EU and follow us out. Norway and Iceland are invited to join a looser North Sea trading bloc which sells people oil, eats whalemeat and insists that people be nice to each other and the environment. (Possibly the whalemeat isn’t that positive.)

North-western Europe, with the exception of Ireland, largely has strong economies with a certain amount of social democratic welfare tradition. This alleviates the inherent strains between economies of the North-West and the Mediterranean economies, which are more based on sitting under olive trees drinking ouzo and inventing democracy. The smaller area with smaller populations also makes constructing a democratic supra-national body easier. Part of the problem of the EU is that the democratic structures were established when it became apparent that the rapidly-growing organisation had advanced beyond a coal cartel, which left a body publicly arranged around cartel management rather than political democratic responsibility. This has been changed, with the abolition of the former Article 252 EU law implementation approach, but it is still struggling to appear democratic and is too recent for public conciousness. (Article 252 asked the European Parliament to comment on laws, then passed them anyway. Article 251, which survived the Lisbon Treaty under a new name, gives the Parliament and the Council the final say and requires Parliamentary agreement. The Council is of course made up of Ministers from Member States, so is not overly undemocratic. The European Commission is now little more than a law-proposing civil service.) In any event the popular press isn’t interested in such things. A new body might be better placed to overcome such things. (It would go down particularly well with the UK press, given that of the countries listed above only the UK and Sweden have a population larger than Greater London. The UK would therefore essentially run the show.)

The Scandinavians are currently busy proving that it is possible to have a currency union without actually having a currency union. Denmark, Sweden and Norway all use the kroner. Unfortunately for people seeking an easy life, but happily for people who like currency variations, all three use different forms of kroner. Their values float around 10kr to the £.

Negative version: The UK abruptly discovers, rather too late, that it is a small rain-soaked island in a North Europe archipelago with no firm contacts elsewhere and the economy promptly sags. International companies withdraw into continental Europe. Ireland is forced to spend its time deciding between European affiliations and its land border with the UK.

When the European Commission introduces a rule that all bananas sold in Europe must curve at 1 gradian per millimetre (hands up all those who, like the spell-checker, have never heard of the gradian), the UK will find itself being supplied with compliant bananas at enormous extra expense because banana suppliers see no point in segregating non-compliant ones for UK sale. (For balance, the positive version of this is that the UK gets supplied with millions of non-compliant bananas at junk prices.)

For a better example, we become the dumping ground for the next wine lake and all our vineyards go bankrupt.

Also when the EU changes the rules on car design everyone flogging cars in and around Europe changes to comply, even if the alterations put up UK prices without benefiting anyone.

European students cannot cheaply come here to study; UK students find it harder and more expensive to go abroad to study. USA students on tours of European teaching institutions for a year abroad (I ran into such a person in the Lake District last October on the cross-Windermere ferry) find their programmes don’t seem to come to the UK so much.

As with all negative concepts, this one isn’t very cheery. Unfortunately for the Out movement, they have made little effort to expand on the sunny concepts and have let Remain paint the negative option. Taking back control is all very well, but what sort of control, and what do we plan to do with it?


Cameron has stated that he doesn’t see reform as being ended by the referendum; more begun by it. Certainly a tight result will clearly state that his renegotiations were only just enough and that further amendments, possibly involving treaty changes, will be required. Agitation in other countries may start to make these more desirable. His party has the challenge of either not unseating him or finding someone who is better at talking nicely to other European leaders to replace him.

Other countries in the EU will appreciate having Britain’s bulk to offset Germany’s, which stops either country from obtaining total dominance.

Vision 1: Britain continues sitting just inside the fringe, arguing to be outside everything and holding up integration amongst the countries that want it. EU continues broadly as usual, satisfying nobody and selling itself badly.

Vision 2: Britain throws itself enthusiastically into Europe in a spirit of making a proper go at it, involving joining Schengen, the euro and the metric system of measurements. Anyone who wants to enter the UK from another European country will be allowed to do.

Vision 3: UK representatives sit down with people from likely reforming states (several bits of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Germany) and hack out a realistic plan to rebuild the Union from within. Free movement for leisure is retained, but work is made a little more constrained (reasonable grasp of language, formal work paying taxes, minimal reliance on state aid). Lending to less developed parts of Europe is heavily constrained and reconstructed into more of a grant structure. External borders are properly policed. A strategy for incoming migrants and refugees is written with a cool head. Regulations are streamlined. Fishing is reassessed and the French are told to stop being so protectionist. Efforts are made to ooze positivity in general, suggest a more nimble and less steamroller-y environment and avoid giving an air of a tractor statistic organisation, completely up itself and living in an ivory tower. Possibly make the President directly elected (not using the US electoral college), simply because it would be symbolic.

In any of these versions the UK remains a handy conduit between the American continent and the European one. UK-based companies can continue to take advantage of the single market.


The campaign has not managed to suggest anything very positive. This includes both sides. Both have managed to sing about reducing immigration if they win, both have threatened economic collapse if they lose.

Neither has noted any benefits to immigration – widening experience, growing talent pool or even cheap labour. Nor has it been officially noted that if immigrants are working – and the fairly stable UK absolute unemployment number suggests they are – then they are presumably paying taxes and therefore contributing towards providing the improved infrastructure (hospitals, schools, hydroelectric plants, railways) that their presence requires. If the Government is spending this money on something else, this is the Government’s problem and will not change simply because we leave the EU.

The assassination of a MP while tensions are running high is probably not a coincidence. Certainly it is reasonable to argue that the assassin decided to do it so takes responsibility, rather than some silly poster – if Mrs Jones shoots Mr Jones then this is the fault of Mrs Jones. But, if someone has been dripping in Mrs Jones’s ear that Mr Jones is only in it for himself, doesn’t care for Mrs Jones and knows there’s no way for her to get at him… does this for a long time… and takes advantage of any moments of weakness or strain on Mrs Jones’s part to reinforce the message – then that someone might not be criminally liable, but they should bear some guilt for their relentless, unmitigated negative campaigning against Mr Jones. Particularly if he is actually very much in love with Mrs Jones and merely bad at showing this.

Nigel Farage will of course take no responsibility for hammering on about terrible immigrants who must be stopped at all costs while a few MPs suggest that, after we went to so much trouble to destabilise the Middle East under Tony Blair, we might make some sort of gesture to help the people who have the misfortune to live there. Nor will anyone ever question why Rupert Murdoch, billionaire Australian, is considered more interested in the long-term prosperity of the United Kingdom than a few British born and raised politicians on salaries that equal around 10% of what they might expect for a similar job in the private sector. But we all have to deal with the fallout of suggestions that immigrants are “others” that can be kicked around. It normalises the concept by standing around shouting that it is legitimate. It’s a tricky debate to play, but it can be played better.

Cameron’s major problem is that he is discovering Tony Blair was right about not getting much done in his first term because he hadn’t got the levers of power. But Blair was wrong about finding them, and Macmillan’s summary of the biggest problem in politics (“Events, dear boy, events”) was quite right. The Prime Minister has no department to run. There is no direct power. There is very little to pull and there is very little control. Rising immigration can be leant on, but stopping it in the modern world is an entirely different matter. All it can be said is that it’s rather complimentary to us that so many people want to come here, rather complimentary to our politicians that nobody who can get elected is that open about stopping them and rather complimentary about us that we can debate the matter. Thought it would be nice to debate it rather than throw tomatoes at each other.

Does it matter?

Probably, but it can be hard to say.

  • Rules on employment law will likely remain, unless anyone really wants to lose paternity leave.
  • A lot of equal opportunities and things like abortion law or same-sex marriage are UK ideas anyway.
  • The immigrants who are already here can be expected to stay.

What will change is that when we next want to impose rules on improving car engine efficiencies, making financial markets behave themselves, exposing tax evasion or the importance of National Express being allowed to freely bid to run German rail services we will be ignored and irrelevant.

The £350,000,000 sent to the EU every week (around £365 per annum per head of population) will not all be spent on the NHS, since some of it is currently rebate and some of it is returned as EU funding for regeneration projects. If it all goes to the NHS, this means that regeneration schemes to improve livelihoods for people not in hospital will go down the pan. So the next time a railway in an Objective 1 area wants a passing loop providing, it will be told the money can’t be spent on the railway but can be spent treating the remains of accident victims and air pollution on the adjacent road.

Penryn 11 JPG.jpgAn EU notice board, hidden behind construction fencing, claims responsibility for said fencing – to provide Penryn station with an enhanced car park, a crossing loop and more trains. Before the EU came along, the now half-hourly Falmouth Metro service was a bit like a Swiss cheese – slightly plain and full of holes.

In that regard it does matter – very much matters.

Political leadership

Two bits of early 19th Century political reform come to mind. The first is the Reform Act of 1832, which eliminated representation for places like Old Sarum (an isolated hilltop with the remains of a castle and cathedral on it) and Dunwich (a town that had been washed away by the sea some years previously). It was deeply opposed by the Tories until the Duke of Wellington decided it was going to happen and might as well go through gracefully. The Tories then went out and encouraged people to vote for them (by the traditional expedient of “I’m the Tory candidate and your landlord; vote for me”). The result that they got back into power some years after the reforms with more votes than they’d had in the days when only their voters could vote – and considerably more cheaply, as they no longer had to buy the votes at £100 a throw.

The second is the abolition of the protectionist Corn Laws, which was abruptly shoved through in 1846 by Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel, in almost total opposition to his party. His party is of course still going strong and is currently arguing over use of protectionist policies. His political career was extinguished the same night. The country moved away from agriculture and into manufacturing, with the resultant decline in agricultural standards of living.

It is likely that, whatever the result of the referendum, if the Tory party does not manage some rapid smoothing of opinions there will be an attempt on Cameron’s leadership. Whether a Boris/ Gove government would decide to celebrate the autumn by reintroducing the Corn Laws is hard to say. Unlike during the 2010-15 Parliament it is hard to see the Cameron wing of the party (or some representatives thereof) transferring to the Lib-Dems at the moment. There may be a session by the Tory Whips on Friday morning going round the usual suspects to tell them that they can either shut up or join UKIP.

The Tories will have the awkward job of trying to terminate a fixed-term Parliament early if they change leader and want an early election. A loss of 6 seats will eliminate the fragile majority. On the other hand, Corbyn can be fairly legitimately (by political standards) called a tax dodger (for his taxes) and a liar (for his very vague support for an Union he usually opposed). Presuming, of course, the Tories are going to be talking enough to share an election platform…

Koln 2 JPG.jpgKoln, or Cologne – a place where people live, work, pay taxes and generally act like citizens of the European Union.


One thought on “If it ain’t fixable, don’t break it: Society & the European Union

  1. gawainsmum June 22, 2016 / 12:11

    Interesting and detailed survey of the issues — more than any of the referendum leaflets has provided! I like ‘In’ vision 3.

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