John van Reenen
As I write on 31 January 2020, Britain leaves the European Union (EU). The loss I feel is almost as much as when my father died, almost a quarter century ago. He was 16 when he came to Britain with my grandfather who was a South African political refugee. After completing his UK national service, he married the daughter of a Merseyside dockworker. They moved to Carlisle where I was born, to run a new community centre. Then later back to Liverpool where I started school.
My secondary education was in Kelsey Park Comprehensive School. When I started it had just converted from a Secondary Modern, schools for kids who failed their 11+ exams. It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – a brutal place in a brutal time. I remember our class having a mock vote in the 1979 election. The most popular two parties for our boys were Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservatives and the National Front, an overtly racist party promising to send foreigners ‘back to where they came from’.
The lead up to and aftermath of the Brexit vote reminded me of the atmosphere of those times. Hate crimes boomed. Economic hardship meant that people wanted to find someone to blame. Many groups stoked up fear of immigrants ‘sponging’ on welfare – even though European migrants were young, educated and paid more in taxes than they used in public services, subsidising the British-born. If it is not immigrants, then it is all the fault of those foreign Brussels bureaucrats. Decades of anti-EU propaganda poured poison into English ears, leaving many people woefully uninformed on EU issues. A leader in the media tirade was the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Boris Johnson.
I often wondered why the Leavers kept lying about the membership fee we pay to be in the EU. Everyone from the head of the Statistics Authority down called Johnson out on it. But then I began to recognize that it was all deliberate. First, every time it was shot down the figure was mentioned, and all people would remember was the lie, like an advertising jingle. Second, it was like Donald Trump: a deliberate strategy to show utter contempt for the truth. The populist right abetted by a supine media, now create a set of alternative facts, where you trust your tribe and are sick of experts. So I was saddened, but not surprised, when Leave won the referendum vote. The blossoming of fear and erosion of reason gave me an awful sense of déjà vu from my school days.
Do not get me wrong: people in the UK have every right to be angry about many things. Average real wages are still lower than before the global financial crisis – making it the worst UK pay stagnation for centuries. The irony is that this has nothing to do with immigration or the EU, but much more to do with domestic policy failure. In particular, the Conservatives enthusiastically embraced extreme austerity in 2010, cutting public investment and keeping productivity growth in the economy miserably low. No surprise then that the areas hardest hit by austerity were the ones most likely to later vote for Brexit. Attacking the EU meant that the Conservatives were able to pretend it was not their cuts that meant you waited longer for your GP, or found it hard to get a place at the local school. It was the immigrants cutting in line. And many in the media merrily thumped the same beat.
How did we get here?
The EU has been a force for peace between nations that until recently were at war for centuries. It has enabled these warring tribes to trade and grow closer. European countries now fight each other over fishing quotas instead of bloody fields. This accomplishment was achieved without blood and battles, but through a growing club who realised that our mutual self-interest lay in cooperation instead of conflict. Britain has been a later but proud member of this club, helping build the single market and guiding the club’s expansion to help bring prosperity and stability to countries formerly under the yoke of fascist regimes in southern Europe and communism in eastern Europe.
Many Brexiters are the vanguard of the populist nationalists who hate the EU, because it promotes a rules-based order rather than a tribally-based struggle for power. Unsurprisingly it is apparent that Trump and Putin love a weakened Europe, one that they can bend to their will. They undermine the international cooperation, which is our only hope to deal with the global challenges humanity faces. No wonder these authoritarians reject policies to tackle climate change. They reject reason, facts and experts. They want to return to a nativist world based on gut instinct, where civility is overruled by the mob, manipulated of course by the iron fist of demagogues.
Where do we go from here?
It is easy to fall into despair in these dark times, but from where we are we must look to the future. First, the main opposition party needs to be re-built. Corbyn was a disaster as leader – a dinosaur of the Eurosceptic left who regard the EU as a capitalist conspiracy to thwart socialism in one country. By contrast, the election of a credible pro-European leader like Keir Starmer would be the first step towards renewal.
Second, it is vital for people to know their enemy. From Trump to Bolsonaro, the populist modus operandi is to stoke nationalism and blame foreigners. Johnson illegally suspended parliament rather than let MPs hold him to account. His government seems likely to continue an assault on facts and reason. If it follows the populist playbook it will soon attempt to corrupt and corrode independent institutions like the judiciary, university and the media. We must prepare to fight tooth and nail to defend key institutions against any such onslaught.
Third, we need to find stronger alternative policies and much better professional and economic narratives to deal with the real social and economic problems that caused the Brexit spasm. This needs new economic models and fresh thinking .
Finally, the project for us, our children and grandchildren must be to rejoin the EU – or whatever successor form it evolves into. The challenges that we face as a species are global, whether it is healthcare pandemics, climate change, AI-enabled military threats, the dominance of superstar multinational firms, or dealing with the emerging giant states in China and India, each commanding a sixth of the world’s population. Reverting to a petty UK nationalism does not solve these problems – it just makes them worse. One day we will rejoin and rejoice. Today we mourn, but tomorrow the fightback starts.
Vir: John van Reenen, LSE Blog
John van Reenen je eden najboljših evropskih ekonomistov, prej profesor na London School of Economics, od 2016 pa profesor na MIT.