Why I will vote Leave.

I’ve written this and re-written this so many times. Here goes one last attempt.

People are surprised I’m a Eurosceptic. I’m liberal, I’m not a racist, I’m well educated, I’m cosmopolitan. Why am I on Nigel Farage’s team?

I am not now, nor have I ever been “on Nigel Farage’s team”.

TL;DR – This isn’t about which team is better, brexiters are awful people, they happen to be right. The EU doesn’t help protect important values in the UK. Migration is great, but not enough to justify the EU. Nations having different laws according to their own preferences is good.

This is a referendum, not an election.

The winner of this referendum will not decide our government, it will not determine what laws are passed, it will not determine our policy or our leaders. Farage will never be Prime Minister, and voting leave will not make him so.

  • Voting to leave won’t make this country inward looking. This country will either be inward looking and will vote for inward looking politicians, or it will not.
  • Voting to leave won’t give power to the cranks in UKIP who want to outlaw gay marriage. This country will either vote for UKIP MPs, or it will not.
  • Voting to leave will not reduce how much we cooperate with other nations. This country will either vote for politicians who do diplomacy well, or it will not.

So many people have talked in this campaign about “what the leave camp thinks”. We’re told that the leave camp thinks X and if you want not-X you should vote to remain. The Leave camp doesn’t think a damned thing, and frankly I find it insulting when people talk like this.

Consider this question: What’s the Leave position on Nato? Now I ask another question: What’s the Female position on Nato?

I can tell you what notable pro-brexit politicians think about Nato, I can tell you what notable female politicians think about Nato. I can tell you what surveys say pro-brexit people are more likely to think on average, I can tell you what surveys say women are more likely to think on average. I can tell you what some pro-bexit organisations think, I can tell you what some women’s organisations think.

“I heard this female spokesman on the radio saying X, is that what you think?” … Doesn’t sound good does it?

But surely brexit is a decision, we should know what well happen if we vote to leave.

Here’s a dirty little secret for you: The Brexit camp has no influence over that in the slightest. If we vote to leave then the cabinet will still be mostly europhile, if we vote to leave the House of Commons will still be mostly europhile.

I have not a damned clue what will happen if we vote to leave. It’s up to parliament. (I’ve also not got a damned clue what will happen if we vote to remain just fyi).

Taking sides

Let me put something out there. I’ve spent far longer than most talking to eurosceptics recently. I think I have a good sample of what people on the ground in this movement are like. Lots of people have an uncharitable idea of what eurosceptics tend to be like. In my experience they’re not bad people. They are awful. 

I’m a good little liberal middle class chap who tries to be inclusive of people of all genders and gives money to charity work in Africa and so on. It’s fair to say that this is not typical of people involved in the brexit campaign. I cannot wait for the end of this referendum because it means I’ll never have to talk to any of them again, which will still be too soon.

Politics means taking sides sometimes. And I think that’s quite valuable. It’s good to have little labels to help people get a fast idea of what you’re about.

But policy is actually more complex than those labels. I don’t like most people who are pro-brexit. But I do think that on this one issue they are correct.

Marie Le Pen has an excellent opinion about dropping rocks on your head: she’s against it. So has Kim-Jong Un, so has George Bush, so has <insert other person you dont like>. Agreement on one issue doesn’t actually make you a bad person.

The European ideal

So, after all that. Why do I support brexit? Dont I like the European ideal?

I love some of the things that are called “European Values”, I think others are bloody awful. I don’t think they’re actually a coherent set. Let’s take some in order:

Solidarity: I’ve never had much time for this. Like “compassion” it seems like a good excuse for not doing much. If I want to help people I give money to AMF and leave the solidarity for someone else.

Harmony and cooperation: Cooperation is great, so is competition, too much of one and not enough of the other and your culture becomes sclerotic. As I’ve argued, diversity and disunity are good things.

Democracy: Democracy is fantastic. The best system ever devised for discovering policy errors and reversing them. It’s wonderful.

Rule of law: Wonderful, important, valuable. Maybe the most important idea ever to come out of Europe. Overwhelmingly a thing people should spend more effort on protecting. See also in this transparency and lack of corruption.

Liberty of speech and action: Wonderful, vital, overwhelmingly good. Ok, I changed my mind, this is the most important idea ever to come out of Europe. Note that part of this is the freedom of minorities to do strange things, be that being gay, or being jewish, or being a socialist in Buckinghamshire.

Humanism and secularism:  Suppressing the temporal power of the church is of course a good and noble thing. I worry about the modern French style of enforced secularism in so far at it rubs up against the whole “liberty of speech and action” thing.

That seems to be the main set of things called “European Values”. Of which the first two are bad ideas, the next three are great ideas, and the last one good in moderation.

So of the values I … as it were … value. Does the EU promote them in the UK?

Democracy: Promoting and stabilising democracy is a very good feature of the EU. If I were in a weak democracy (where this covers basically anyone east of Berlin) I’d be crying out to be in the EU. Democracy is rather weak if it’s not got a long history in your country. The institutions and the cultural expectations that stop people from winning elections illegitimately are hard to build.

I notice this is not a problem the UK has. (I’ll argue this at another time but for now: no, you’re just wrong, the UK is democratic, one of the better democracies that exist in fact). We have the better part of a millennium of rule by parliament. We expect it as a birthright without much consideration. Parliament is not going away, the will of the people will continue to be represented there. We really don’t need outside help thanks.

I do get rather peeved sometimes hearing lectures on how the UK needs the EU’s help to be more democratic *from the leader of a nation that was a dictatorship in living memory*.

Rule of law: I notice something odd in calling this a European value. It’s not really, it’s a Northern European value. From what we used to call the Protestant countries. In Southern Europe there’s far far less of an expectation that things are decided by rules written on paper, there’s far more of an assumption that bribes are a part of life. If you’re in the mood for lots and lots of numbers do read the EU report on corruption, but tl;dr, the UK is better than average on any measure, and normally within survey noise of the nordics at the top of the table.

But surely there must be a lot of use in EU efforts to reduce corruption, even if less so for us than others? The EU institutions themselves are far from perfect on the matter of following black letter law, let alone being free from corruption in the spending of central funds. But more seriously, I don’t see how the labyrinthine regulations of the EU (let us remember, complex trade regulations are to a greater or lesser extent the point of the EU) are actually likely to help. More complicated laws means less knowledge and practical enforcement of the laws.

Liberty of Speech and Action: To clear up one bit of confusion: the European Court of Human Rights isn’t part of the EU. We wouldn’t leave it if we left the EU. To clear up a second bit of confusion: it would be fine if we did leave it because it’s awful. Whatever the rights they claim to enforce their legal reasoning is a disaster. Seriously, Putin’s Russia is part of the ECHR, Turkey is part of the ECHR. If they give a liberal judgement on anything it’s a fluke.

The UK has a very long liberal history. I enjoyed this Patrick Stewart thing a lot. But it seems a bit confused. Asking what has the ECHR *done* is not the same as asking what does the ECHR *promise*. The right to a fair trial has been enshrined in British law since … I’m not going to be boring and say Magna Carta because a fair trial was guaranteed by the law codes of Æthelred the Unready and certainly predates him. If we leave the ECHR or the EU we would still have fair trials. Ditto the right to privacy, ditto freedom from torture.

There are many parts of Europe that have very different ideas about what constitutes liberty than the UK has traditionally had. The right to privacy trumps the right of the press far more easily on the continent than it does in the UK. The right to private and family life requires far more social intervention according to European jurisprudence than British. The UK has traditionally seen the freedom to make contracts as vital, the ECJ does not tend to agree.

Humanism and secularism:  the EU (quite reasonably) does very little active to promote secular values. There are angry noises about Irish abortion rights or Italian homosexuality every now and again but ultimately it’s left to the states. Which is probably wise.

Summary: I think European Values are important and good. I don’t think the EU is an important part of securing them in the UK. It might in the fragile democracies of Eastern Europe, but our own courts and laws and institutions are far better here.

Free movement

The thing that for so many defines the debate. You’re a young cosmopolitan liberal aren’t you? Not one of those nationalist types. Surely you don’t hate foreigners and want them to be able to come to the UK?

Yep. I’m in favour of liberal migration. I’m in favour of *vastly* more refugees, and particularly more child refugees, than the UK takes at the moment. No I don’t think the EU is a good idea on ballance in spite of this important benefit. A few reasons:

  1. Practical politics: It is a fact the the UK cannot support too much migration simply for reasons of social harmony. We have lots of bigots and keeping them from rioting is actually important.
  2. Preferences: Given the above we must surely have preferences on how we spend this finite allocation of migrants. Lots of EU migrants + limiting total migration leads to idiocy like the current student visa system.
  3. Alimatisation: A higher priotity free movement area is the natural block of UK, USA, Canada, New Zeeland, Australia. Moving from one of these to any other takes as much aclimatisation as moving from one part of the US to another, hardly any. If I’m right that free movement is a practically limited resource there’s better places for it.

Why vote leave

I’ve been asked by a few people for a 30-second reason why I don’t like the EU. I’m very bad at this, because it’s not really a 30-second issue. But here goes some things I’ve tried:

  • The common agricultural policy is awful.
  • TTIP is awful.
  • I’m a liberal, the EU’s lack of respect for the rule of law is scary.
  • Devolution matters, things should be decided by groups with common interests.
  • International trade is important, the common market good, but probably isn’t worth the Common External Tariff.
  • We shouldn’t be in a political union which isn’t based on common law.

But these aren’t deeply my objection.  My actual objection is far more simple:

I don’t want my policies to be decided by people who don’t share my values

Question: Do you think the Canada should become part of the United States?

I used to ask this as a reductio ad absurdum, expecting that everyone would say no. I’ve since found people who say yes to this, which is *fascinating*, but I won’t dwell.To most people it seems clear that Canada shouldn’t have its laws set by the US congress. Understanding why not is key to understanding nations, democracy, international cooperation etc.

What’s your gut response? Mine is “no, Canada shouldn’t have its nice liberal utopia ruined by guns and racism imported from America”. If you’re from some parts of America it’s probably “no, Canada shouldn’t ruin America with its socialism and Muslim refugees”.

Why these two different responses? Surely if Canada is better then Americans would be glad to become more like Canada. Surely if America is better then Canadians would be glad to become more like America.

Self determination

Different people in different countries have different ideas of the good life, different ideas of what things are important. It seems very clear to me that wherever possible we should err on the side of allowing groups that are different more freedom to go their own way. This used to be called the right to self-determination, but in some contexts it’s called “nationalism” and is seen as a scary thing. (I don’t want to go so far as full blown cultural relativism, because I think some of those ideas of the good life are just wrong.)

Now this idea is dangerously close to a bad idea: The idea that race is destiny, that ethnicity is all important. I’m sad to say I dislike many eurosceptics, because what motivates so many is “we need to keep these foreigners away”. And that’s really abhorrent to me. Ethnicity clearly exists, but compared to deep or even shallow cultural heritage it’s really rather weak.

It’s also close to the bad idea that some country (the speaker’s own naturally) is better than others and the people of one country have a right to disrespect and even hate the people of another. This is … I don’t even want to dignify it with abhorrence, it just seems crass. The Dowager Countess thinks it’s rather middle class.

So what kinds of things does this idea mean then? Well, some people see eachother as all belonging together, as sharing a history and a culture, as all watching the same TV, all telling their kids the same nursery rhymes. When we see clusters like this I tend to think we should let them try and live their own life the way they want as far as we can.

Where to draw the boundary around clusters is tricky. Cornish self determination is probably so expensive in practice that it would be a bad idea. Scotland is an edge case, might be a good idea, might not. Catalan likewise. Irish self determination is clearly a good idea, UK self determination likewise. European self determination? If you can name me a Sweedish news anchor, a Spanish sitcom, an Estonian nursery rhyme, and a Solvenian author then I’ll agree we’re all the same people sharing a common culture. No? Didn’t think so.

I’ve heard a few people in this debate talk about “the outdated idea of the nation state”. Which makes as much sense to me as the phrase “the outdated idea of democracy” or “the outdated idea of free contract”. The nation state is a fantastically important idea. It is the closest we can get in practice to the ideal of geopolitics, the archipelago. I *like* the divisions and differences between nations. I think nations failing to agree common rules and common standards is a *good* thing. Vive le difference! Everyone going their own way is the only way we can ever grow and improve as a species, it’s the only way we ever have.


PS: It’s depressing how often I see mobile tarriffs or some other stupid trivial policy (which generally isn’t economically efficient anyway) given as a good reason to stay in the EU. To which … I hope you and I share enough common heritage that I can say “mess of pottage” and expect you to know what I mean.


3 thoughts on “Why I will vote Leave.

  1. I assume this is a typo? “TL;DR – This isn’t about which team is better, brexiters are awful people”
    Surely you meant “aren’t”


  2. Well, I’m very late to this, as I only found it after you tweeted it in response to my plea for some rational arguments from pro-Leavers. I’m really glad you did, as mature debate seems to be missing as the debate gets more polarised. And I’ve been furious at the way politicians have just used ‘the will of the people’ as justification for going ahead with Brexit. I do realise democracy is democracy, but the problem with the referendum was that very few people understood anything about the EU – myself included. If this was to be put to a referendum – a bad idea anyway I think for such a complex issue – then it would need to be preceded by a period where people who were knowledgeable could share information about all the complexities in an honest and non-angry fashion, so the populace could make an informed decision. Given how uninformed, and indeed misled, people were, I do not feel particularly bad about saying the referendum decision should not be the basis for such a seismic change in our relationships with our neighbours.

    That said, I’d be interested in your thoughts about a couple of points about the arguments that you have put forward. And I should preface this by saying I think you know far more about the EU than I do, and I’ll be happy to stand corrected if my facts are wrong.

    The first I think applies to Brexiteers in general, which is that the argument is almost exclusively couched in terms whereby it’s seen as the EU doing stuff to us – sending us migrants, taking our money, affecting our laws etc etc. Our role appears that of passive victims. But things also go in the other direction. It was a shock to many after Brexit to discover that many regions benefitted from EU grants. Our Universities depend heavily on European talent as well as money. It was a further shock to find that if we stop Freedom of Movement, our freedom to enter, roam around, and be employed in Europe will be curtailed. And if we don’t like EU laws, one solution would be to argue loudly for them to be changed, but some of those EU laws seem preferable to UK ones.

    I felt you made some good points about the benefits of local organisations being better than global ones for looking after people’s interests, and the Canada vs US comparison really made me think. But although I agree with your basic premise ‘I don’t want my policies to be decided by people who don’t share my values’ my problem is that my values have far more in common with many people in Europe than they do with many of my fellow Brits. My views may be coloured by the fact that I grew up with a German mother and British father. This did not, in fact, lead to a great deal of exposure to German language or culture, but there was a sense of a world beyond Ilford. And when I did start to travel – first on school exchanges and subsequently as an academic – I felt very much at home in many non-UK countries. Similarly, I have a strong sense of common purpose with academic colleagues who come from all over the world who do share my values, and no sense of common purpose with the UKIPpers who were continually being interviewed on TV before Brexit. And I really grieve at the prospect of no longer being a EU citizen.

    What I dislike intensely is EU bureaucracy. On the basis of personal experience, I think it’s real, and probably hard to overcome when dealing with rules and regulations that must apply to such a wide swathe of people. Your point about differences in attitudes and culture across Europe rings true and I’m sure it creates numerous problems. But I’d rather tackle that by decentralising specific processes, allowing them to be handled by devolved organisations, rather than just saying we don’t want to take part.

    Regarding TTIP – well, there was a very effective campaign against it, with citizens of many countries demonstrating. So again, I think we should not just feel passive pawns being controlled by shady Eurocrats, but should rather become sufficiently well-informed to mobilise resistance where needed – and now we have social media, it’s much easier to this across national boundaries.

    So, what I wish could have happened would be for there to have been a requirement that Brexit would require a larger majority than 50% to be carried – this is not unusual in voting situations when a change from the status quo would be highly disruptive. The result could then have been used to exert strong pressure for change in the EU, which to my mind would be a more satisfactory outcome than embarking on a protracted and divisive process of Brexit.

    Thanks for listening!


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