Saturday, 20 February 2016

Michael Gove's Fairy Tale

As Dave has fired the starting pistol for what is set to be a very long EU referendum campaign, his dear friend and alleged Tory intellectual Michael Gove has gone into print to explain why he's not backing the boss in the crucial crunch vote. And it's pretty much the usual stuff: the EU is a monster whose bureaucratic tentacles choke off innovation, research, opportunity, initiative, and sovereignty. Nevertheless, unless a politician gives a reason to think otherwise, Gove's piece should be taken at face value. His principles may be ashes in the mouths of the education workers he insulted, micro-managed, and drove out of teaching, but within the envelope of Toryism he makes a principled argument.

There is so much that can be said about his little fetishes for Britain's foreign policy role, the quality of British democracy, and the obsequious deference accorded the things the Tories are in the process of dismantling: the NHS, schools, and the very liberty that he name checks as Britain's lasting gift to the world. There's also some economic illiteracy about the Euro as the cause of economic stagnation on the continent, and bad taste gloating about mass unemployment in the EU's other advanced economies.

As it's a Saturday night and there are better things to do, this is not a line-by-line rebuttal. But there are some annoying bits of his argument that cannot be allowed to lie, as the 57 varieties of vote leave campaigns throw them around like silver bullets.
Even though we are outside the euro we are still subject to an unelected EU commission which is generating new laws every day and an unaccountable European Court in Luxembourg which is extending its reach every week, increasingly using the Charter of Fundamental Rights which in many ways gives the EU more power and reach than ever before. This growing EU bureaucracy holds us back in every area. EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).
We all hate unnecessary bureaucracy because it gets in the way of things. The problem Michael has that in the event of removing ourselves from the EU, a lot of that red tape will remain. There's a chance it could get worse. Assuming a post-Dave, post-EU Britain is able to negotiate a settlement similar to a Swiss or a Norwegian arrangement, to continue trading in that market those pinnikity missives about straight bananas will have to be implemented. Contrary to what the right think, markets generate bureaucracy because they need for regulatory mechanisms and authorities that can adjudicate. As the "Court in Luxembourg" has jurisdiction on these matters, a "sovereign" Britain shall have to submit to its dictates and expend sums lobbying governments to get the sorts of rule changes favourable to its needs.

On the small matter of movements of goods and people. While Gove doesn't touch on this in his piece, Farage and friends have been mind-bogglingly complacent about a post-exit Britain getting favourable trading terms on the grounds that, as a large economy, the EU is also dependent on the UK. This is magical thinking. Removing Britain from the EU is a business opportunity for others, and there will be sections in all the EU's most important countries minded to punish us. Look at what's going on in Greece - it's not rational to impose crippling austerity from a business standpoint, yet it happens all the same. If favourable terms aren't secured, then a resurgence of bureaucracy around visas, transport permits and the like are more than possible. A vote out isn't a vote against unaccountable rule making. By depriving Britain a seat at the EU's top table, Gove and co would exacerbate it.

Then there is the money. What of the money?
But by leaving the EU we can take control ... We can take back the billions we give to the EU, the money which is squandered on grand parliamentary buildings and bureaucratic follies, and invest it in science and technology, schools and apprenticeships. We can get rid of the regulations which big business uses to crush competition and instead support new start-up businesses and creative talent ...
Given the Tories' poor record of investing in industry whenever they've received a windfall, from North Sea Oil to better-than-expected returns to the Treasury, it's reasonable to conclude any savings would be frittered away on further tax cuts for the rich. I digress. The point is, as Sion Simon noted in his visit to last night's meeting of Stoke Central CLP, costs and benefits go far beyond the subs the government pays the Commission, and the trade deficit between ourselves and the EU (which stood at £3.6bn for December 2015). The UK is the favoured destination within the EU for capital coming from the rest of the world. Some of it is speculative and socially useless (hello, Russian oligarchs), but some of it is productive and stimulates economic activity in the real economy. In his talk, Sion discussed Tata Steel, but it can equally apply to car manufacturers, drugs companies, and anything whose operation sets up chains of supply that in turn sustain hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of jobs. The reason why Britain attracts a disproportionate share of foreign direct investment isn't because we're Jolly Nice Chaps: it's that we're the country with the global language, an unparalleled level of economic openness, and because we're in the EU. We're the ideal springboard for companies from the Commonwealth because we have the world's biggest, most affluent market on our doorstep, and free and easy access to it.

In the event of us leaving, I can't see large companies immediately pulling their investment. But because of the uncertainty surrounding the exit negotiations, investment plans would be put on hold and you could see a running down of operations over a period of time. Why wouldn't firms like Toyota start thinking about alternative sites in the EU proper if access to the market is jeopardised? They'd be foolish not to. And haven't the Tories spent the last 30-odd years telling us that business would bugger off if we can't provide them what they want?

I will give Gove some credit though. His piece does articulate a little bit of a vision and offers something new: an Arcadian future of a free-born nation facing the world on its own terms. It's a nice fairy story, and one that would warm hearts grown wretched on beggar-thy-neighbour politics, xenophobia, and acute social anxiety. But in the real world millions of jobs and the long-term viability of British industry is at stake.


jim mclean said...

Will probably abstain due to being to old. The result will not affect me. Of two minds, as a baby boomer I benefited from a protectionist market, as a Socialist I want to break down borders. If Cameron had came back and said no TTIP, or if the withdrawal camp guarantee no TTIP, may vote

Speedy said...

This is a "stop the world I want to get off" vote.

The EU is indeed indicative of a general trend away from democracy - whereby it is watered down to as being more or less meaningless - and Labour's general trend of support for the EU as a way to guarantee the laws they could not get elected on in the UK, although in practice a good thing, from a democratic POV is basically wrong - okay, so the EU brought in the social contract, but it could also bring in slavery, would you support it then?

The issue, therefore, is, as the Sceptics say, democracy, except...

- It's largely about people like them having more of a say about how "their" country is run. Even when there was more democracy and less Europe, people like IDS and Farrage had more say, people like us didn't.

- It ignores the changing world of economic blocks, and how we would be pulled apart by the likes of the EU and WTO. It has no basis in the way the world is going and the reality of globalisation: less EU would simply make us more vulnerable to other pressures.

The old world is over. Democracy was a short-lived experiment (as indeed it was in Greece first time around), we now live in a post-democratic world, really as "democratic" as the former GDR, although, it has to be said, with more freedoms - whatever they are worth.

And there's the rub - the EU offers nothing to aspire towards, while even the GDR, as per Goodbye Lenin, stood for something. The current campaign is two negatives - hate the EU or fear leaving it - no one dare say it might be something to aspire to.

Igor Belanov said...

I think Speedy sums it up. The depressing thing about the whole issue is that there are no positive arguments being put forward for either case.

BCFG said...

I would accept speedy's view that we live in a post democratic world but would want to specify it somewhat.

So, capitalism no longer really needs bourgeois democracy, a sham of a democracy that in practice concentrates wealth, power, decision making etc etc etc in the hands of fewer and fewer people. But it does allow Middle Class people to sit on sofas telling us what is wrong with the world. Funnily enough this will continue in the post bourgeois democratic world!

One crucial factor in the move from bourgeois democracy to bourgeois totalitarianism is the pace and nature of technological change. You literally won't be able to take a piss without them knowing about it soon. Imagine a world where the sewers have chips embedded in them that can read your DNA code. You didn't see that one on Star Trek!

It should be noted that this race to Soviet and Third Reich like Orwellian surveillance has been most ruthlessly exploited by the USA and Britain, with most vocal resistance coming from within the EU!

Another factor is the sclerotic nature of modern capitalism, a monopolistic, senile and decrepit beast struggling to control its own immense power, where the 1% owns more liquid wealth than the bottom 50%, let alone asset wealth! This is the fantastical result of a century or more of bourgeois democracy and state education!

So the problem isn’t one of democracy but of capitalism.

And the cure is what it always has been, socialism or barbarism. The success of Bernie Sanders, Corbyn et al point to some sections of society getting this, but the likes of Hilary Clinton and Yvette Cooper will do all they can to ensure the continued existence of the beast. In the glory days of socialism the advanced sections of the working class were those that wanted to overthrow the capitalist system, today's decents would call the advanced working class either petty bourgeois, studentist, or idiot anti imperialist or some other witless epitaph.

Know your enemy, in modern parlance they go by the name of centre left.

bjsalba said...

Well the rules about bananas are long gone, although supermarkets like Tesco still have clauses in their contracts about shape, colour etc which they can invoke when it suits them.

Greg said...

No mention of things like TTIP here. This almost sounds like the EU is an unalloyed good rather than the almost irredeemably bad organization it is.