Brexit – UK’s ver­sion of 1916

Dr John Bradley on the echoes of the Ris­ing in Bri­tain’s at­ti­tude to Europe.

Irish Independent - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - Dr John Bradley

THE de­bate on Brexit has passed through a se­ries of dis­tinct phases. First, there was the phony war, when Prime Min­is­ter Cameron agreed terms of rene­go­ti­a­tion for UK mem­ber­ship but when the real sig­nif­i­cance of the im­pend­ing ref­er­en­dum cam­paign had not yet dawned.

Then in­puts emerged from both sides. Op­tions were iden­ti­fied, anal­y­sis, mainly qual­i­ta­tive, was car­ried out, and as­ser­tions as to the likely con­se­quences of “stay” or “leave” were made.

An early ex­am­ple from this phase was the Ir­ish study pub­lished by the In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional and Euro­pean Af­fairs (IIEA), ‘Bri­tain and Europe: The Endgame’, which sent a sig­nal that we Ir­ish had skin in this game and con­sid­ered the out­come of the UK vote of vi­tal na­tional in­ter­est.

More re­cently, the heavy eco­nomic mod­el­ling guns were brought into play: in Ire­land, the ESRI study, ‘Scop­ing the Pos­si­ble Eco­nomic Im­pli­ca­tions of Brexit for Ire­land’, and the IBEC re­port, ‘ The Im­pact of a Pos­si­ble Brexit on Ir­ish Busi­ness’.

In the UK there have been a se­ries of quan­ti­ta­tive stud­ies of which the of­fi­cial UK Trea­sury re­port, ‘ The Long-term Eco­nomic Im­pact of EU Mem­ber­ship and the Al­ter­na­tives’, was the most com­pre­hen­sive on the “stay” side, and ‘ The Econ­omy after Brexit’, writ­ten by a group of prom­i­nent econ­o­mists and ad­vi­sors to some of the lead­ing “leave” politi­cians, was a com­pa­ra­ble piece of work on the “leave” side.

If eco­nom­ics were re­ally a science, and if the grava­men of case made by the “stays” against the “leaves” con­cerned only nar­row eco­nomic con­se­quences, then the Brexit is­sues should be done and dusted by now. On these nar­row eco­nomic grounds, it is proven al­most be­yond any rea­son­able neo-lib­eral and so­cial science doubt, that the UK will be bet­ter off within the EU, rather than out­side it in some re­la­tion­ship yet to be agreed.

The re­ally sur­pris­ing el­e­ment of the UK de­bate is that the largely eco­nomic and busi­ness anal­y­sis seems to have failed to per­suade peo­ple that their best fu­ture lies in­side the EU. There ap­pear to be deeper is­sues here that are not cap­tured by the eco­nomic and busi­ness ar­gu­ments.

But wait a mo­ment! This is 2016 and to­day we are wit­ness­ing a pas­sion­ate de­bate rag­ing in our near­est neigh­bour and pre­vi­ous colo­nial mas­ter which has about half the sam­pled pop­u­la­tion ap­par­ently yearn­ing to be free of en­tan­gle­ments and co­er­cion from any em­bry­onic Euro­pean su­per-state. Does that ring a bell?

Turn the clock back to 1916 and imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion where, around the ta­bles in the smoke-filled rooms where the Easter events were be­ing planned, there were some econ­o­mists and busi­ness lead­ers as well as pa­tri­otic zealots.

Do you think for one mo­ment that the pa­tri­otic zealots would have had any time for ar­gu­ments that Ir­ish eco­nomic wel­fare at that time was clearly bet­ter served by be­ing an in­te­gral part of a UK sin­gle mar­ket?

I was re­cently at a Books Up­stairs event in Dublin where De­clan Kiberd and PJ Matthews spoke about their new, ‘Hand­book of the Ir­ish Re­vival: An An­thol­ogy of Ir­ish Cul­tural and Po­lit­i­cal Writ­ings 1891-1922’. It caused me to re­flect on how lit­tle prepa­ra­tion had ever been made for the eco­nomic gov­er­nance of the wished-for state. With the ex­cep­tion of James Con­nolly, whose so­cial­ist pro­gramme was ar­tic­u­lated in de­tail, the other lead­ers were not much in­ter­ested in busi­ness or eco­nom­ics.

It is al­most be­yond doubt that had there been a pre-1916 ref­er­en­dum in Ire­land where the ques­tion was, “Should Ire­land re­main a part of the United King­dom?” the “stays” would have won.

It was not eco­nomic ar­gu­ments that changed this hy­po­thet­i­cal out­come. Rather it was a se­ries of tragic and mis­guided ac­tions taken by the Bri­tish in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Easter Ris­ing. So Exit be­came the only choice and damn the eco­nom­ics.

If the 1916 Ir­ish Brexit ana­logue is too out­ra­geous, con­sider the Scot­tish ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence of last Septem­ber. Now it was Scot­land’s turn to seek to leave the UK and seek its for­tune as an in­de­pen­dent state.

The Scot­tish gov­ern­ment’s case for “leave” was set out in ex­tra­or­di­nary and com­pelling de­tail in “Scot­land’s Fu­ture”, but the eco­nomic ar­gu­ments made in Lon­don were stri­dent and co­er­cive enough to yield a “stay” re­sult. How­ever, does any­one re­ally doubt that Scot­land will even­tu­ally be­come in­de­pen­dent?

What can we con­clude from the Ir­ish and Scot­tish ex­am­ples about the forces that have emerged in the UK Brexit de­bate? First, the eco­nomic and busi­ness ar­gu­ments for be­ing part of a big, open mar­ket are com­pelling.

That is why we have the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion and why open­ness to in­ter­na­tional trade is a global rather than just an EU phe­nom­e­non.

Sec­ond, the way in which or­di­nary peo­ple (ie, not just the po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness elite) re­act to how glob­al­i­sa­tion af­fects them re­ally mat­ters. For ex­am­ple, does any­one think that the Bri­tish Trea­sury claim that a Brexit would cost every UK house­hold £4,300 (€5,440) means that the as­serted costs of Brexit (or, in­deed, ben­e­fits of stay­ing) would be shared equally across all house­holds? I think not.

Third, the fact that Ire­land and Scot­land ap­pear to be com­fort­able as small parts of a large EU owes as much to their very strong and be­nign re­gional iden­ti­ties that act as a coun­ter­vail­ing force to in­ter­na­tional en­tan­gle­ments, as it does to the per­ceived eco­nomic ben­e­fits of the EU.

Eng­land, with 84pc of the UK pop­u­la­tion, has no such strong re­gional iden­tity. So it seeks an ex­ter­nal en­emy and the EU is an easy tar­get for neg­a­tive ex­pres­sions of a miss­ing iden­tity.

If the English sub-re­gions had de­volved po­lit­i­cal struc­tures like Scot­land and Wales, the UK would not be having a de­bate on Brexit.

And what of North­ern Ire­land, where de­volved gov­ern­ment is still at the kin­der­garten stage? Sinn Fin, which un­til re­cently re­garded the EU as the work of neo-lib­eral devils, now em­braces it, prob­a­bly be­cause it fears that Brexit would de­lay move­ment to­wards greater North-South busi­ness, eco­nomic – and ul­ti­mately po­lit­i­cal – in­te­gra­tion.

The DUP, for these and more com­plex rea­sons, of­fi­cially sup­ports Brexit, but is send­ing sub­lim­i­nal sig­nals that a vote to stay would be OK. Thank heaven, this is one re­gion of the UK where North­ern busi­ness sense and acu­men will pre­vail over any mis­guided rush to the exit.

Dr John Bradley was for­merly a Re­search Pro­fes­sor at the ESRI

There ap­pear to be deeper is­sues here not cap­tured by the eco­nomic and busi­ness ar­gu­ments

The volunteers of the Easter Ris­ing – or most of their lead­ers, bar James Con­nolly – prob­a­bly gave lit­tle thought to Ire­land’s eco­nomic re­la­tion­sip with the United King­dom

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