Traits

The permanent traits of English character that he identifies will come as no surprise: ‘A people tough, sceptical… more grumbling than rebellious… ironic, appreciative of human oddity, allergic to moralizing but noting people’s faults, tolerant but indignant at blatant hypocrisy, deceit, cruelty.’
Jacket notes to In Memory of England, Peter Vansittart, 1998

I see you believe what you say, or you would not have come all this way to say it. But you must not expect me to renounce immediately the customs which I and the English have followed from one generation to another.
King Aethelbert of Kent to Augustine of Canterbury, 6th century AD

Thought should be harder, heart the keener, courage the greater as our strength dwindles.
Battle of Maldon, 10th century AD

Who governs Britain?

France is suffering one of its periodic bouts of industrial unrest. One of the main trades union organisations, the CGT, is mounting sustained protests against a government proposal, already heavily compromised, to modify employment legislation. Oil refineries and power stations are blockaded. Riot squads are tear-gassing demonstrators on the streets of Paris. It’s all quaintly reminiscent of Britain in the 1970s.

In February 1974, the National Union of Miners called a national strike. Prime Minister Edward Heath called a general election for 28 February using the slogan “Who governs Britain?” Once the results were in, the answer was clear: not Edward Heath’s Conservative Party.

A decisive¬†intervention in the campaign was that of Enoch Powell, who argued that the main issue in the campaign was whether Britain was to “remain a democratic nation … or whether it will become one province in a new Europe super-state”.

After a second general election that year, Harold Wilson formed a majority Labour Party government. After his so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, and the subsequent 1975 referendum, the answer to our initial question was even clearer: neither Heath’s Conservatives nor Wilson’s socialists any longer governed Britain. The unelected and unaccountable European Commission did. And still do.

Riders and elephants

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider helps explain social intuitionism: in forming judgements, intuitions come first, rational argument follows in an attempt to explain and justify the initial intuition.

Voters in the referendum will not be swayed primarily by rational, intellectual arguments.

The archetypal undecided voter hasn’t thought a lot about the EU. But he (she) has two conflicting¬†concerns. Leaving the EU might damage economic prosperity, threaten jobs, increase the cost of living, as every authoritative voice claims. But remaining could open the UK to unlimited immigration, ever-greater pressure on social services, the NHS and housing and downward pressure on wages for plumbers and other tradesmen.

There is a respectable argument that the least-disruptive route to exit would in the short-to-medium term involve continued membership of the Single Market via the EEA/EFTA option. But the undecided voter may disagree. If we say: it’s OK, we have a way out which will preserve membership of the Single Market, and may protect your livelihood; but by the way you’ll have to accept all the other stuff (immigration, social services, Polish plumbers…), he well may say “Oh no, that is not what I meant at all.”¬†He may instinctively feel that we don’t need any of this corporatist, statist, bureaucratic, elitist political stuff, and that Britain should control its own borders and immigration policy.

Who are we to disagree? Would we prefer to lose rather than win for the ‘wrong’ reasons?

Trade

Trade is good. It’s not a zero-sum game. By matching one party’s needs with a second party’s surplus, free trade in an open market enriches both parties.

Individuals trade; companies trade. But — with the exception of government procurement — governments don’t trade. Despite their rhetoric about striking trade deals, most of the time, most government intervention in the market is designed to impede free trade. By erecting tariffs and non-tariff barriers, they aim to protect indigenous industry, to promote consumer protection or to advance some dubious policy objective. Most “trade deals” aim simply to reduce constraints on trade previously imposed.

The single market of the European Union is a protectionist structure, erecting barriers to the ability of Europeans to trade with non-members of the Union.

Some who argue in favour of leaving the EU place the highest priority on Britain retaining participation in the single market — at least in the short-medium term. From this flow consequences such as continuing to accept, at least temporarily, the four freedoms of movement, of goods, services, people and capital.

We don’t agree. Trade is important, especially for a nation such as Britain. But inter-governmental trade arrangements cannot be given absolute priority. Our instinct is that in the end the natural individual propensity to trade will overcome governments’ desire to constrain it. Considerations of sovereignty thus have to take precedence over those of short-term trading constraints.