Voters in the United Kingdom (UK) are being asked to vote in a referendum on their future membership of the European Union (EU.) In an earlier post I looked at this issue from the point of view of democracy and also racism. Here I shall consider the economy and the environment. It is a curious fact that economists and environmentalists who are, as it were, natural enemies with radically different perspectives have for the most part united around supporting Britain’s EU membership. It surprises me that so few people are surprised about this emergent consensus or have asked why it might have come about.
To begin with economists. A positive avalanche of reports and statements from large international financial institutions, large international bureaucracies and huge transnational corporations have landed on UK voters predicting economic catastrophe should they vote for a British exit from the EU (Brexit.) The Leave campaign response has been to point out that many of these bodies benefit financially from the Union and that this has influenced their conclusions. I think this is too crude and insults the integrity of report authors. What is more significant is that economists and bureaucrats have an instinctive horror of instability. For them stability means growth, uncertainty means decline. If they were asked to express a preference as between a popular revolution in China producing a liberal, pluralist democracy or continued one-party rule producing stable economic growth and improving trade then as economists or bureaucrats they would probably favour the Chinese Communist Party.
Additionally, economics has for long been known as ‘the dismal science’ for a good reason. Gloomy prediction is the stock in trade of economists. Its what they do. Looking to the future they see change and change is what they like least hence their reports are seldom mistaken for rays of sunshine. None of which necessarily means that they are wrong. Leave campaigners are hamstrung by the perceived need to deny, at least in public, that Brexit can possibly have any negative consequences at all. This is simply not credible. At the very least there will be short-term disruption which will have an impact upon the economic life of the UK.
The reason why Brexiteers feel the need to be so Panglossian in their arguments is that like the Remain campaigners they are wedded to the idea that growth is good. I think that this is mistaken. Beyond a certain point acquiring more stuff does not add to the sum of human happiness. Indeed aspiring to possess more goods- shoes, handbags, cars, houses etc.- than we can possibly need or even use makes us more anxious and driven not more at ease with ourselves. In a country like the UK it would be positively beneficial if the economy were to shrink and the living standards of the top 80% or so of the population, with their associated consumption, declined. If we spend less time pursuing material benefits then we can spend more time pursuing emotional and spiritual ones like solidarity, community building, compassion and strengthening family life.
If therefore the forecasts are correct then they represent not a threat but a promise. A managed decline of the UK economy, with the poorest and most vulnerable being protected, will be beneficial to the quality of UK life and will act as a stimulus to drive back the crass materialism, hyper-individualism and long hours working culture that have been such a blight on so many lives. Of course, most front-line politicians are even more horrified at the thought of advocating lower living standards and less consumption than bureaucrats are in the face of instability.
Which brings me to the environmentalists (Greens.) Green philosophy has long been in favour of ending economic growth and reducing consumption. This is not so much because of a desire to promote human spiritual and moral well being; more a concern to protect the planet and the creatures on it (including humans if absolutely necessary.) It seems anomalous then that, for the most part, Greens have lined up behind the option which will promote precisely the opposite outcome. The EU, additionally, is committed to other things Greens are against such as globalisation and centralisation. More parochially the way the Union is structured encourages the economy of the South-East of England to overcook, with associated concreting over of open spaces, while the rest of the country cools down, with associated industrial wastelands and depopulation. A Brexit makes an environmental and economic rebalancing of the country more probable than a Bremain.
It seems that Greens have done a Tony Blair and abandoned their philosophical underpinnings in pursuit of short-term pragmatic goals. Specifically: UK voters (currently) tend to elect anti-environmentalist governments and the EU bureaucracy (currently) favours maintaining a Green-ish regulatory framework. So, in order to protect the country against the people Greens have opted for the centralising, globalising, pro-capitalist, undemocratic structure which is the European Union with the vague hope that it can somehow, somewhen be reformed into a ‘Europe of the Regions.’ As I argued in my previous referendum post it seems to me that the safest way to secure long-term political objectives is to create a consensus in their favour amongst voters such that no government will dare to override them. This has happened with the National Health Service and it seems unduly pessimistic to assume that it can’t be done around other issues too.
To conclude then. The referendum on 23 June offers UK voters, at least those outside of Scotland, possibly the best chance in their lifetimes to vote in favour of reducing their material well-being. This is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Against this is the risk that the economists may be wrong as they often are and that, sadly, after a brief dislocation the economy will once more grow and consumption will continue to rise. There is also the danger that UK voters will continue to vote for governments of which ‘we’ disapprove. The choice is a clear one, Aristotelian pragmatists will vote Remain, Platonist idealists will vote Leave. It is not policies but characteristic outlooks on life which will decide this referendum.
My other blog is Catholic Scot