Thursday, 5 January 2017

We need to talk about "Liberal Leave"

I was inspired to write this blog after reading this tweet: -
I understand Ian's desire and superficially what he says makes sense. Remainers were people who saw the value of immigration and trade. Meanwhile Liberal leavers despite their opinions on the EU were broadly disposed to both of those as well. Logically they should work together to get the best Brexit possible. Well it seems logical enough but there is a catch.... The catch is it probably isn't politically possible.

There are two potential problems with this approach; the viability of Liberal Leave and whether the general population would accept it. Sadly I believe the answer to both of these is largely a "no".

The first point I cover in my blog post. Liberal leave seems to have a strange view of the EEA that frankly doesn't seem to fit with that of any informed Norwegian. Most informed Norwegians see the EEA is essentially the EU via the back door (after Norway decided not to join). For Norway the key merit is being out of the common agricultural policy and customs unions.... which means that they are free to pursue a more protectionist agenda for their farmers.

Clearly "Liberal leave" think this looser arrangement with the EU could be used to pursue more liberal trading policies and forge trading relationships around the world. This might theoretically be possible but it would not be cost free. For example: -
  • Leaving the customs unions would introduce red tape for businesses and probably be a deterrent for new business. 
  • The EEA agreement not covering farm/fishing produce would hurt the export markets for these industries.
Meanwhile any new trading relationships would take years to establish. In short the costs would be immediately apparently whereas the benefits would be long term (if at all).

However the main problem with the "Liberal leave" position isn't its viability alone. Its whether it could work domestically. This seems even more questionable to me. Many twitter users who expose this Liberal leave have a habit of overthinking things. Its easy to show that:
  • 48% of voters voted remain
  • X% of leavers don't prioritise immigration (based on the latest survey)
And therefore conclude that there is not a majority for a hard Brexit.... This is easy but sadly wrong. For starters assuming all remainers are totally comfortable with immigration is as naive as assuming that all leavers are not comfortable.

It also assumes that people voted entirely rationally. Sadly I suspect people voted leave and remain for all sorts of irrational and illogical reasons. These may range from a trusted neighbour, concern about their jobs, to faith in David Cameron, to anger about anti-EU tabloid headlines, to fear of the unknown....

However if you look at the bigger picture, immigration has been a political hot potato since the first wave of Eastern European immigrants arrived and "Leave" were not afraid to play on this. Many people will probably (not unreasonably) assume that this will be a priority issue now "Leave" won. I'm aware that immigration is a benefit, but many people really have lost faith in experts, there is a compelling (but wrong) arguments based on the lump of labour fallacy and many people on lower incomes have seen their incomes squeezed. 

Given this the perception remains that "something should be done about immigration". Now I'm sure those polls that show the majority of people would put economic growth above immigration are right.... but there is a rub. Any deal that seemingly did nothing about immigration that wasn't substantially better for the UK is some other way would not be taking seriously by a skeptical public. 

Indeed I struggle see any PM telling people "no we haven't fixed immigration, our new deal is slightly worse but long term we may be able to do other trade deals". Such a deal would not fix any immediate concerns and would not be well received. Hard Brexit would be economically devastating but would be seen as fixing a political hot potato. Additionally the economic costs from such a hard Brexit would be more intangible (distributed over multiple years in the form of lost investment). Indeed, unless hard Brexit causes an economic catastrophe, most people will overlook the growth that didn't happen. PM May could well make a pretty awful deal with disastrous long term impacts  appear to be a political success. 

The sad thing is that many "liberal leavers" really do believe in free trade. These consequences of a the Brexit vote were not difficult to spot at the time. Indeed Janan Ganesh wrote a fine piece on exactly this

Brexit is looking increasingly like a national tragedy. The vote was a very confused affair with the leave position never clearly defined and much of the public rightly confused about what it would mean. The fact that the "Liberal leave" was even considered a viable position by some quite intelligent people whilst the mainstream leave campaigns were increasingly playing the "immigration" card ... seems to reflect the confused nature of the debate. Indeed the fact that these debates are still continuing on twitter by people who are relatively well informed shows that the issues raised by this referendum still are not settled. 

If people with a interest in politics are confused by all of this.... just think how much more confused becomes when you include people who are not interested in politics but have been drawn into this debate by an ill-advised and divisive referendum. 

No comments:

Post a comment