The Corner

National Security & Defense

Br(exit) Strategy

The Financial Times—usually a sort of Brussels Pravda— is not a newspaper in the habit of giving helpful advice to those working for the UK’s exit from the EU, and there’s quite a bit to disagree with in this FT piece by Janan Ganesh (not least his blithe dismissal of the prospects of a vote for Scottish independence last year). Nevertheless his concluding paragraphs are well worth mulling by Brexiteers (and, to a degree, by those frustrated by, ahem, ‘establishments’ elsewhere): 

Anti-establishment politics is a paper tiger.

Which is why Yvette Cooper is now leader of the Labour Party. Which is why Labour is the largest party in Scotland.

Oh wait.

Moving on:

Britons vent in local and European elections but, when they have to choose a government or settle an existential question in a referendum, they vote with colder blood than we credit. Their livelihoods are at stake in a way the livelihoods of mobile, resilient elites seldom are.

There is something else — nearer to aesthetic taste than risk calculation. Britons dislike the establishment but not as much as they dislike people who rant about the establishment. Withholding trust from MPs and fat cats is only natural; defining your worldview against them smells too much like zealotry.

Last month, campaigners for Brexit registered a fictitious company so that two of them could attend David Cameron’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry. As the prime minister spoke, the pair — students whose combined age was lower than his — held up a makeshift sign (“CBI = Voice of Brussels”) and heckled until they were ejected from the hall.

The Vote Leave campaign saluted its own guerrilla wiles. The corporate hosts smarted at the apparent coup. Neither side could see how the average person would have viewed the stunt: sincere but silly, plucky but too keen by half. There is something of the sweaty upper lip about anyone who takes the time to invent a company for the sake of a political caper on a Monday morning. Press coverage came but there is such a thing as credibility. There is such a thing as stature. If the Leave campaign forfeits these things to become a punk rebellion against The Man, it will do as well as the anti-establishment cause always does when it really counts.

Voters reject this kind of politics for the same reason they slyly turn up the volume on their headphones when a fellow commuter stands up in the train to start talking about God. It is not antipathy, just English embarrassment. Mr Cameron could not be more of an establishment man if he wore a crown to work, but voters take him seriously. The Leavers would learn from that if the sheer sport of acting the rebel were not so much fun. Britons are not lucky in their elites, but the elites are lucky in their enemies.

There’s something to all that, I think. The demonstration at the Confederation of British Industry, a rather revolting corporatist institution with a long track record of being wrong about what counts (from appeasement, to price controls, to the euro), gave rise to rather more tut-tutting than it deserved, and an insurgent movement needs a few stunts to fire up the crowd, but stunts are not enough, and, if poorly thought through, they run a clear risk of being counter-productive.   

The argument most likely to persuade Brits to stay within the EU (however unenthused they may be about Brussels) is that quitting is simply too risky. It’s a nonsense argument (in many respects staying in the EU is the more dangerous option) but an effective one: Better the devil you know and all that.  Counteracting it will take more than waving the flag, railing at ‘the establishment’ and warning about the threat to democracy that ‘ever closer union’ undoubtedly represents, although all have a part to play. One of the reasons that those advocating Scottish independence got as far as they did was their willingness to argue both emotionally and in a way that addressed deeper issues that the day-to-day political humdrum. 

But by itself that was not enough for the Scots and it will not be enough for the Brexiteers. For the ‘leave’ campaign to prevail, it will have to demonstrate not only that Britain’s membership of the EU is a bad thing, but also that they have a better alternative that is safe, practical and makes economic sense, a demonstration that will be a matter of numbers, detail (when dealing with Brussels the details matter) and, yes, mood music that conveys seriousness and balance alongside the perfectly understandable impulse to, so to speak, sound the charge against Mordor.

How this package should be put together is a matter of legitimate debate, but it will have to include both a clear vision of the destination and a reassuring road map of how to get there. The ‘Norway option’ (negotiating a semi-detached status for the UK akin to that now enjoyed by Norway) is, as Richard North of EU Referendum has argued with some force, considerable merit as a station along the road to more complete withdrawal from Brussels’ sphere. It need not be the only option, but those suggesting alternatives will need to show why they will work and how they will work, if they are to have any hope to persuading the British public that Brexit is not a madcap leap in the dark.

They may also, I suspect, need to demonstrate why Brexit is preferable to the ‘EU lite’ which David Cameron appears to be trying to secure from Brussels, but that is a discussion for another time…     

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