The repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s and Irish home rule at the end of the nineteenth century are the only precedents for the kind of disruption threatened by leaving the European Union. Both split parties, divided the nation and inflicted such deep damage on the Conservatives in 1846 and the Liberals in 1886 that they took decades to recover .
Like Brexit, both were arguments over interests; land versus industry in the corn laws, imperialism versus little Britain in Home Rule. But these great disruptions differed from today's in one key way. The arguments then were clear and basically about the national interest.Today's are nebulous, hypothetical and all about vested interests not the nation's. Few today have any clear idea what Britain's national interest is.
The argument is unreal because the nature of the deal we may be offered is still not known.The EU's negotiating tactic is to make negotiations so protracted , and to impose so many hurdles that it deters anyone from leaving its happy band. It's all a game of bluff and bluster, a phoney war in which Remainers parade terrifying fears like David Miliband's claim that Brexit would be "an unparalleled act of self harm". Every vested interest trembles at the unparalleled horrors to come, and Brexiteers talk of opening up to the world without explaining what that means. Neither side can justify its claims because it ain't over until the German lady sings.
Result? Maximum confusion,in which the national interest comes nowhere. That's always been a problem of our membership. The EU It began as a deal between Germany's manufacturing interest which needed wider markets and France's agricultural interest which demanded protection.
We gave little consideration to our national interest because no one was sure what it was. We were told that the benefits would be primarily political, meaning it offered a new stage for Britain's elite to strut on .The economic arguments were said to be more evenly balanced, but were sold as an opportunity to show our courage, determination and inherent greatness..
It was an astonishing degree of complacency backed by homely images which showed little understanding of industry. Cold showers would stimulate our competitiveness. We would be hitching up to Europe's faster growth. Unfortunately the showers produced pneumonia, EU growth slowed and foreseeably (but not foreseen) it proved easier to penetrate our smaller market from the larger than vice
We were duly penetrated. The balance of trade with the single market became a huge and growing deficit and it became clear that we had assumed damaging obligations, the loss of our fishing grounds, the rupture of our trade with cheaper agricultural producers and a burden of payments far greater than our GDP per capita would justify, to join a club which offered us little. Except maintaining peace in Europe which NATO was already doing
Those at the top loved Europe and the EU and its puff pastry politics but the consequences hit the less well off, along with globalisation,austerity and stagnant incomes, so it was hardly surprising that the people left behind took advantage of David Cameron's over confident referendum to protest.
Which begins round two of the Great Debate, a phoney war which is even more of a clamour of vested interests but should be about dosh.The cost of staying in the single market is a drain of approximately £90 billion a year with the trade deficit the membership fees and the CAP all of which we're now borrowing to pay. Yet there's no thought on whether an economy which cant pay its way in the world can continue to bear such a heavy Euro-Geld
The costs of leaving are variously estimated by the EU at up to €100 billion.Is this worth paying and for what? Every interest claims that its own is the national interest. They get away with it because Britain is the only advanced country which has no idea of what its national interest is.
What sort of economy do we want? Free trade was in the interests of the world's first industrial economy but now of a society which consumes much but produces little. So what are the alternatives?Racing to the bottom with a cut price, low wage , low tax economy? A service economy driven by consumer demand and selling assets just to survive? Or a high skill, high investment industrial competitor. Should we sustain the City or rebuild the industrial economy which is better balanced than lopsided dependence on finance?. Do we want free trade or insulation by a competitive exchange rate and state investment to build strength in the way our competitors have?.Should we welcome or restrict foreign ownership, already greater in Britain than in any competitor?
Other nations make these decisions in the light of their national interest. Britain seems unable to understand what that interest is or what the pursuit of it entails. The EU's is clear given Britain's value as an easy market and a over generous contributor, but if Britain can't agree on what it's interest is, it's impossible to negotiate for it.
This is not a rational discussion but a clamour of vested interests. Importers fight producers, the City fights industry, foreign owned businesses see things differently to British owned, consumers fight producers and employers argue with unions. So many battles that irreconciliable Remainers hope that it will all look so difficult that we'll give up and slink back into the EU. Yet they can't tell us on what terms, and experience with Greece indicates that the EU is not exactly designed to help lame dogs over styles.
It's a gloomy prospect. Not because withdrawal is wrong or right but because our elite, has no clear view of the national interest or how to pursue it. We'll probably muddle through getting the worst of all worlds, but in or out, the prospects for a weak economy unable to pay its way, can't be all that bright in a world growing ever more competitive. Unless our leaders suddenly discover the national interest but I've got the dreadful feeling that they don't know.
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