Brexit – UK’s version of 1916
Dr John Bradley on the echoes of the Rising in Britain’s attitude to Europe.
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