Imagine if, during the Scottish independence referendum, a few nationalists with a bit of cash had got together to make a ‘Scexit Movie’.
“We the people,” a gravelly burr would portentously intone, “are being cajoled, frightened, and bullied into surrendering our democracy and freedom. This film is a rallying cry. We must fight for ourselves for the right to determine the freedom to shape our own freedom.”
Imagine, then, a succession of talking heads babbling about how England having 85% of the UK population means the Scots can only influence the direction of the UK when the English are split down the middle, about how the UK voting system means that two out of five English votes can be enough to control the whole UK, and how a free and independent Scotland would be wealthier than anyone could imagine.
And then, having pondered that, imagine a thoughtful-looking Scot on the train from Edinburgh to London, saying he’s on his way to London to find out what the UK is all about, and in London hopping into a black cab at Trafalgar Square, addressing a baffled cabbie with “The UK, please”.
That’s pretty much how last month’s Brexit: The Movie starts, and looking at it again now after a few weeks’ recovery since my last viewing, it’s not matured with time.
Time and again in recent weeks, friends and nodding acquaintances have been flagging video after video online, calling on people unsure of their referendum voting intentions to watch them as though they’re slamdunk arguments for the UK quitting the EU. I’ve looked at a few and found them unpersuasive, typically loaded with fictions, half-truths and contradictions, dependent on dubious presumptions, and assiduously devoid of inconvenient truths.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been impressed by the louder voices calling for the UK to stay in the Union; while prominent Brexiteers have traded in outright falsehoods about the past and present, prominent Bremainers have with depressing frequency tended towards apocalyptic predictions based on worst-case exaggerations, their cases not being helped by – all too often – their own back catalogues of anti-European opportunism.
Sure, I think reckless prophecies are better than blatant and demonstrable lies, but I think we can all agree that neither's especially good.
Given this is my fourth attempt in the last fortnight at trying something on Brexit: The Movie, as life keeps getting in the way, I’ll not be tackling any other high-profile interventions in a head-to-head way this side of the referendum. Instead, if I can, I’ll try to do two or three posts this week on why I think the EU is a good – if imperfect – thing, and why I think leaving it would be an irresponsible thing to do.
When I first watched the film I scrawled 18 pages of notes detailing obvious problems in it, and though I’ll not get through them all now, I think it’s worth starting by pointing out how problematic and telling the map that first appears a little over a minute into the film is.
See the obvious problem? Yep, there’s the EU carefully marked in blue, and there, floating off its coast in ‘rest of the world’ beige, are Britain and Ireland. It’s almost as though the people who’ve made this film don’t realise that most of Ireland is part of the EU and indeed has been independent of the UK for almost a century.
In truth, it’s almost as if the people responsible for this film haven’t a very good grasp of history at all: they seem to have but the most cartoonishly propagandist understanding of British history up to, oh, 1913 or so, and depend utterly on pub rantings for their knowledge of what’s happened since.
But on that, more later.
As suggested above, the whole “take me to the EU” thing is, of course, as absurd as hopping into a taxi in London and saying “take me to the UK”, partly because you can’t be taken to the EU when you’re already in the EU, and partly because just as there no single building that houses the UK’s governing institutions there’s of course no single building in which the EU’s institutions are found –that's the nature of complex institutions intended to tackle complex things like, well, reality.
For Brexit: The Movie, this is a bad thing: the narrator describes this as where “the EU slips its first cog” since “for a democracy to function there needs to be transparency”. Of course, while the EU has democratic elements, it isn’t a democracy, and I don’t know many British people who would want it to be one, given how this would mean abandoning all British vetoes and any decision-making mechanism beyond the parliament in which they’d never be likely to make up more than 12% or so of the vote.
No, the EU’s structure is basically that of a mixed constitution, a bit like the UK and a bit like the US and a bit like Germany, but overall is something entirely new. Its institutional structure is actually pretty simple in its essence with laws being made more or less as follows:
• The European heads of government collectively set the EU’s direction through the European Council;
• The Commission then drafts legislation in line with that direction;
• These drafts are then sent to national parliaments for feedback;
• The directly-elected European Parliament approves, proposes amendments to, or rejects the draft legislation;
• Providing the Parliament hasn’t rejected the proposed law, the European governments then through the Council of the European Union actually make the law based on parliamentary feedback;
• And the Commission is tasked with implementing it.
There’s more to it than this, of course, not least as there are different types of laws, but this is the guts of it.
The key thing to note is that it is the elected national governments that collectively set the course of the EU, and that make the laws in combination with – in most cases – the elected MEPs of the European Parliament. These are not “faceless bureaucrats” or anything of the sort. They are elected representatives whose own people can remove from office.
The Commission, despite constant claims to the contrary, do not make the laws. They may draft things, but unless the European governments decide to turn those things into laws, they’re just bits of paper. It is a blatant untruth that “the real power in the EU, including the power to legislate, lies not with the parliament, but with EU officials”: EU officials do not make laws.
If the various talking heads in this polemic don't understand how the EU works, well, maybe this says something about the extent to which they’re qualified to criticise the EU. At this point I'm starting to wonder if it'd be worthwhile paraphrasing Fulton Sheen to the effect that there are not one hundred people in the United Kingdom who hate the European Union, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly believe the European Union to be.
“Would it help if you knew who they were” wails one of the film’s talking heads, continuing, “because you don’t have any power over them, so what’s the point?”
An extensively lobbied and utterly irrelevant parliament?
Cue a section dismissing the Parliament, beginning with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas rhetorically asking, “Have you ever known anybody know who their MEP is? No, because nobody does.”
Leaving aside how mine, fwiw, are Brian Hayes of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan, and the independent Nessa Childers, I think the question doesn’t really work in the UK, or at least in England. English people are used to having “their MP”, such that it’s not always easy to get the hang of having, say, eight MEPs, as people in North West England do. Would Claire Fox require people in that constituency to know the names of all eight of their MEPs, or just one?
Nigel Farage pops up next, claiming that the European Parliament is the world’s only parliament where elected representatives cannot initiate legislation. The fact that the Parliament can ask the Commission to draft legislation – with these requests increasingly being acceded to, reflecting an informal but real growth in parliamentary influence – doesn’t get a look in.
Next up there are more heads claiming that the MEPs are utterly powerless, and that voting for them is pointless, all of which is rather undermined by a sequence later in the film about how large corporations spend a fortune trying to influence them. Would large corporations really try so hard to woo MEPs if they didn’t matter?
In truth, MEPs have a wide range of powers, can block most Commission proposals from becoming law, and have the power to censure the Commission, forcing its resignation. Yes, democratically-elected MEPs have the power to depose the Commission. None of this, of course, is mentioned in Brexit: The Movie, which instead concentrates on painting a risibly false picture of the British as subjects of unelected bureaucrats who impose laws in which the British have no say.
All of which makes it all the stranger then to see, after a section about how MEPs are given startlingly large amounts of money, MEPs Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan banging on about how the only reason why local authorities, academics, and people in the arts like the EU is because their support is bought with EU money.
Yep, people who get money from the EU can't be trusted to tell the truth about the EU, say two people who are very well paid by the EU. I’ll just let that sink in for a bit.
Teach a man nonsense about fish...
Predictably enough there’s a section on fisheries, which talks of huge declines in the numbers of fish being processed in Newcastle while skipping how fish processing often happens at sea nowadays or how more than a third of the British catch is landed abroad, before declaring, “When Britain joined the Common Market it lost control of its fishing grounds. When quotas were imposed, several other European countries lobbied the EU for Britain’s fishing rights to be divided up between them. The British government was powerless to stop this.”
An elderly fisherman then says, “The EU has just obliterated the English fishing industry altogether. The quota system they’ve got now is just mad.” He then gestures beyond a nearby pier to say how a huge Dutch trawler had been there, three or four miles off the coast, entitled to “25% of the whole quota of all of England”. There is still a prospering North Atlantic fishing industry, the film continues, “but only in countries that have retained their independence”.
Now, there's no denying that fishing in Britain is not what it was, but what tends to be glossed over is that the main decline in the industry happened before Britain joined the EEC. The numbers employed in fishing dropped by 55% - 26,000 people – between 1948 and 1970, before basically stabilising and staying more or less the same until 1994, when numbers again began to drop after quotas had to be imposed in order to prevent fish stocks from being wiped out.
The overall decline since 1994 has been less than half that than the years leading up to the UK joining the Common Market.
What's more, it's simply nonsense to talk of how Britain lost control of its fishing grounds when it joined the Common Market; at the time Britain joined the EEC, Britain’s territorial waters extended twelve miles beyond the coast, and this twelve-mile zone is still exclusively British now. If a large Dutch trawler was indeed genuinely operating in this zone, as claimed in Brexit: The Movie, it was breaking the law, and the issue then is one of simple lawbreaking and perhaps an English inability or unwillingness to enforce the law as it stands.
Britain’s territorial waters have since the mid-1970s extended 200 miles from the coast, but this extension into waters where the Dutch, Scandinavians and others had long fished happened while Britain was already an EEC country. Far from being powerless to prevent others from being allowed to fish in these waters, the UK agreed to this in negotiations.
According to recent statistics, the UK has the second-largest fishing fleet in the EU, and with 30% of the overall fish quota, lands the second-largest catch in the Union.
An invisible empire
A core part of the video is a “historical” section, purporting to explain how “the British” are different from “the Europeans”. Yes, the inverted commas are deliberate.
“The British,” it begins, “freed themselves from suffocating feudal regulations centuries before the Europeans.” Leaving aside how this ludicrously presents feudal class structures as though they were akin to government regulations, the point of this line is to lay down the central thesis of the film: regulation is bad and the absence of regulation is good.
“While serfdom still existed in large parts of Europe,” it continues, “the free British were carrying out the great commercial and industrial revolutions that gave birth to the modern world. In the 19th Century, unregulated Britain was the pioneer of global free trade, the workshop of the world, dominating the world economy like a leviathan.”
There’s not a word about how the costs of unregulated industry were born by the urban poor, of how diseases, malnutrition, child labour and infant mortality were rife in 19th-century Britain, and there’s certainly not a word about how a lack of regulation and a fetishisation of free market economics contributed to the Irish famine that killed more than a million UK citizens and forced at least as many again to leave their homeland.
Yep, the single biggest disaster in terms of lives lost the UK ever experienced was in no small part caused by a lack of regulation. Good times.
Neither is there even the slightest mention of how all this was utterly dependent on the exploitation of people all over the world, with vast numbers dying in the colonies through famine and massacre. Orwell nailed this reality in 1937’s The Road to Wigan Pier when he observed that “apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions of it such as India and Africa”.
He continued: “Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes.”
With nary a mention of how Britain needed that Empire to maintain what comfort the middle classes and those above them had, the film ignorantly or duplicitously goes on to talk about how things were great till the First World War, when regulations started to creep in, being ramped up in the Second World War, and going out of control after that, strangling British ingenuity.
The 1950s and 1960s, then, are painted as an over-regulated hell, with no mention of how Britain was struggling with the massive costs of the Second World War and was in the business of losing the Empire. Most of Ireland had broken away from the UK itself after the First World War, massively reducing the national territory, and India broke away within three years of the Second World War ending; colony after colony would follow.
The single most important factor in Britain’s mid-century decline goes unmentioned in Brexit: The Movie, which is determined to hold up regulation as its culprit so it can present deregulation as the saviour of an independent Britain/
Heroic deregulation strikes again
Meanwhile, the film claims, West Germany was blossoming through deregulation, which I think a somewhat simplistic take on the Economic Miracle. Along came the Common Market then, holding up a wonderful tariff-free future. Daniel Hannan leaps in to claim that in the 1970s Britain had loads of problems but looked across the channel and thought “these chaps are doing something right”, almost as though the UK hadn’t been desperate to join from 1960 on.
“But the architect of the EEC wasn’t German – he was French,” the film continues, presenting Jean Monnet as an obsessive planner, partly responsible for having crippled the post-war British economy, and all set to shackle the EEC. Schuman and the other fathers of the European project don't get a mention in this shamefully selective narrative, of course, but maybe that's the nature of polemics: this isn't about truth, this is about winning.
“It soon became clear that the Common Market was so much more than a trade deal,” observes the film, as though this hadn’t been obvious since Robert Schuman’s 1950 Europe speech, explicitly stated in the first sentence of the Treaty of Rome, and praised by a young Margaret Thatcher in the 1960s.
“Its membership kept going up, as the EU assumed greater powers,” it goes on, as though increased membership wasn’t a British objective, before returning to the eternal villain that is regulation. Rather than arguing that perhaps some regulations shouldn’t have to be applied to companies that trade only on a local basis, but the creation of a genuine common market requires common standards for companies, products, and services being traded across that market, the film simply goes for the line that regulation is bad.
EU regulation pushes up the price of everything, we learn, forcing up the cost of living and making Europeans poorer. Now, I think we all know that since the crash of 2007 things haven’t been as they were, but still, if you look at the overall figures I don’t think there are many economists who’d say the figures show that Europeans have gotten poorer since joining the EEC or EU. Certainly Britain hasn't.
The Common Agricultural Policy is another predictable baddie in this screed, but while the policy is by no means unflawed and in some ways has been immoral, there’s no hint in the film of how it exists to ensure that Europe keeps people on the land and can always feed itself if it has to. It’s worth bearing in mind how much food – not far off half its total consumption – Britain has to import, remembering that food security was one of the reasons why Thatcher said on 8 April 1975 that Britain shouldn’t leave the Common Market.
Still, if regulation is a villain in this film, it’s nice to see the World Trade Organisation appearing as a hero, even if its first head, Peter Sutherland, was previously an EU commissioner and someone who consistently warns against what he sees as the absurdity and destructiveness of British withdrawal from the EU, noting that the current incumbent of his old WTO seat holds the same views.
The WTO is opening up the markets, deregulating and driving down tariffs, the film assures us, claiming that the EU is a thing of the past, a declining trade block, and a macroeconomic corpse. None of these claims about the EU are true, and insofar as the EU has a smaller proportion of global trade than it once did, this mainly reflects how such huge countries as China and India have been playing catch-up, and expanding rapidly in the way that low-cost economies can.
Switzerland is held up as a model of what a Britain outside the EU might be like, with ludicrous lines about how despite not being in the EU, Swiss exports per head are five times higher than Britain’s. Predictably, the film doesn’t discuss how Switzerland avoided such major 20th-century body blows as the two world wars and the loss of an empire, and how this might have benefitted the country. One Ruth Lea rightly says comparisons with Switzerland are “totally bizarre”, but the film storms on to show just how wonderful things can be outside the EU.
Indeed, the film maintains, Switzerland’s secret lies in its radically democratic nature, with its politicians and bureaucrats being kept on a tight rein with – you guessed it – one of the least regulated economies in the world. “Do it like the Swiss,” another talking head says, “have some arrangements with Europe but be independent and look to the world.”
There are others, of course, who would point out that Switzerland offers a genuinely useful case study in why it's not a good idea to thumb one's nose at the rest of Europe. Given how the EU countries responded to Switzerland trying to curtail immigration a couple of years back, is it ever really likely to be the case that the EU will give competitive advantages to a country that turns its back on the whole project?
And finally, the trading fantasy
Nigel Lawson shows up thwarting a straw man when he says “the idea that you have to be in the European Union to trade with the European Union is a total absurdity” – so it is, Nigel, which is why nobody’s saying it.
Onward then, with the claim that “the EU is desperate to keep its goods flowing into the UK”, with German cars as ever highlighted as the key product; the “Germans’ biggest industry needs us to the tune of 16 billion plus every year,” declares David Davis. Perhaps so, but with Germany’s automobile sector having a turnover of €351 billion in 2011, and a foreign generated revenue of €194 billion, I’m not sure how “desperate” Germany might really be.
Besides, we’re told, there’s a big world out there. Anglo-Chinese trade over the last ten years has been growing several times faster than Anglo-EU trade. The fact that less than 3% of the UK’s trade is with China, as distinct from about 45% with the rest of the EU, is conveniently omitted. “They need us more than we need them” declares Ruth Lea, which is a baffling statement given how the proportion of UK exports that go to the rest of the EU is far larger than the proportion of exports from the rest of the EU that go to the UK.
“It’s true that British companies wanting to export to the EU will have to comply with EU regulations,” the film wryly observes, triumphantly continuing, “but it’s also true that EU companies wanting to export to Britain will have to comply with ours.”
Ours? What regulations are these? The fact that the whole film has been holding up the dream of an unregulated Britain seems to have been forgotten.
I'd hope that most people who've watched the film would realise that that line made no sense whatsoever. Just like the economic models underpinning the films grand aspirations.