I am in Dublin today, speaking about Brexit to a conference of Ibec, the Irish equivalent of the CBI. Here is the text.
There are three things I hope to do today. Tell you what I think is happening in the Brexit debate. Explain why I am so keen for REMAIN to win. And also, suggest how you, the Irish, can be a big part of the fight.
The title of your conference is Bold Ambitions. Do you remember Yes, Prime Minister? Of course you do. The hapless minister having rings run round him by the wily civil servant Sir Humphrey who would use the word ‘bold … such a bold idea Prime Minister’ to indicate his total disdain for something. Bold to him meant utterly devoid of any merit whatever.
Now, bold is actually a good thing, a good word, and some of the best advances ever made have come from bold ambitions. Like universal suffrage. Racial equality. Education for all. The NHS. Bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Or – here’s a good one – the countries of Europe defined historically by war coming together in a union of peace and prosperity.
But bold of the Sir Humphrey variety is exactly what I would call the plans – if we can call them that – of the mix of oddballs such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, George Galloway and the National Union of right wing tax-dodging media barons leading the LEAVE campaign.
People love to say politicians are all the same, it makes no difference who is in power. Nonsense. Who your MP or TD is matters. Who your or our PM is matters even more. But I would say this referendum matters the equivalent of several general elections. The historic significance, if we leave, is greater than any of the elections I was involved in. The consequences – for jobs, living standards, culture, national security and our standing in the world – are greater. This referendum is not about David Cameron’s future, it is about Britain’s future. It has an impact upon many other countries and peoples too, not least yours. A PwC study estimated total UK GDP could fall between 3 and 5.5percent under alternative trade models, which could equate to an estimated reduction in Ireland’s GDP of between 0.9 and 1.6percent in the medium term. Not to be sniffed at. Not to be so airily dismissed by the other side.
So, to the question you keep asking me – who is going to win? Remain or Leave? In or Out? The honest answer is I don’t know. If I had to put my life on it, right here, right now, I would say IN. But just as the Scottish independence vote was an emotional rollercoaster, so will this be.
I also believe there are a greater proportion of undecideds in this debate. In any campaign with a binary question, essentially you have three groups of people. People like me – frankly David Cameron could have come back from his negotiations with a LIDL plastic bag and I would still vote IN. You have people like Farage for whom, whatever Cameron secured, he would have said it was not enough and we must vote to leave. Then you have the people who are going to decide this … the undecided.
It was fantastic in Scotland to be walking down the street, heading to the Better Together office, hearing schoolkids arguing not about Instagram or Justin Bieber, but welfare reform and Trident.
The EU debate right now has neither that richness nor the informed opinion. The thing you hear time and again is that people feel confused, they don’t really understand either what is at stake or what the issues are. It is hard to know who to believe, they say. One man’s fact is another man’s scaremongering.
Here we have to take a look at what I occasionally refer to as Britain’s wretched media. Newspapers which have variously reported in the past that ‘Brussels’ is intending to ban kilts, curries, Caerphilly cheese, mushy peas, paper rounds, charity shops, bulldogs, the British Army, the passport crest, lollipop ladies, lorry drivers who wear glasses; which say Britain is going to unite as a single country with France, Church schools must hire atheist teachers, Scotch whisky is being classified as an inflammable liquid, new laws are being proposed on how to climb a ladder, it will be a criminal offence to criticise Brussels, Number 10 must fly the European flag, and – did you know this one? – Europe is insisting on one size fits all condoms. This from papers which dare to claim Europe is brainwashing our children with pro-European propaganda, and go potty when the government sends out a leaflet setting out a few facts.
Alongside the inventions, there is also lying by omission and distortion. On the economy, you have not just the Treasury this week but the OECD, the IMF, the World Bank, your sister organization the CBI, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Bank of England, Deutsche Bank, Shell, BMW, Rolls Royce, Morgan Stanley, Vauxhall, UBS, Centrica, and many many more setting out serious arguments against Brexit. All dismissed as poodles of ‘Project Fear.’ Had any one of them come out for LEAVE then how many front pages would have been cleared to tell us?
This week, we hear, Barack Obama will suggest it might be a good idea if we stay. Hypocrite, says Boris Johnson. Well, at least he has some understanding of that subject if not, given his contortions about this great Canada style trade deal we could do, about economics. Ah, but fear not, Obama may say IN, but Ian Botham says OUT. And on the economy, we should apparently heed, not all those organisations, but some bloke most of us had never heard of; John Longworth, from the British Chamber of Commerce, makes a few sceptic noises and is given instant hero status by the Brexit Lie Machine. Anyone who takes another view is an idiot, and anyone from the government who objects to what he said guilty of smears and dirty tricks.
When Mark Carney, a somewhat more significant figure in the UK economy than Mr Longworth, made a few blindingly obvious statements about the inevitable uncertainty Brexit would cause, he too was denounced as being part of Project Fear. As for The Queen … she was apparently calling for Brexit before the word even existed. Project Fantasy.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is another whose views have been put through the Lie Machine mangler. He said two things, both right – the LEAVE side need to do more to explain what would happen if they won; and it is not racist to be concerned about immigration. The mangling machine largely ignored Point 1. Point 2 was spun to suggest that God was basically a fully fledged OUTer who takes his spiritual guidance from Farage and Galloway. Now with God and the Queen against you, this is a tough campaign.
I fear that Ibec are in the Project Fear naughty corner too. ‘Ibec strongly supports continued British membership of a strong, forward-looking and globally competitive EU.’ How dare you? And worse, you have published a rather good paper on the subject, with facts and reasonable arguments, and you have set out a compelling case against Brexit in those areas where you have genuine fears; the undermining of the all-island economy; trade disruption caused by years of uncertainty as the UK negotiates a new agreement with the EU, involving higher costs for business, new customs procedures, new regulation; sterling devaluation; investment uncertainty. I do hope you have sent a copy to Johnson and Farage so they can add it to their Project Fear bonfire.
There is something comical about the way the LEAVE campaign and their media cheerleaders rage constantly about Project Fear to rebut anything that dares to suggest there might be a single reason to want to stay inside a Union that has helped deliver peace, prosperity and power to our country over most of my adult lifetime. Because as I indicated earlier, their whole coverage, for years, has been based on scare stories, many with a Boris Johnson byline. Indeed, given the scale of the bias over the years, it is a miracle there is a single Mail or Sun, Star or Express reader left who is anything other than a fully fledged OUTer.
And in that reality lies a huge opportunity for the IN side. Because though people hear the noise of our newspapers, they know they cannot be trusted as once perhaps they were. If that is the good news, the bad news is that politicians are not trusted as they used to be either. It is not a happy scene for a healthy, informed debate.
Now, I wrote in the FT at the weekend that we are in the era of disbelief, where people of strong opinions tend to believe the things that fit the view they already hold, and dismiss everything else. The social media echo chamber has exacerbated this.
The danger for the Remain campaign is that the Leave true believers and their alliance of newspaper supporters manage through mood and momentum to persuade the undecideds to come their way. Or that they manage to sew so much confusion and cynicism that they depress the vote, as people say ‘I can’t decide’ or ‘I can’t be bothered.’
So the REMAIN side must always be putting the positive case for UK membership of the EU, for what it has given us in the past, and for what it can help us do in the future. But no matter how loudly the LEAVE campaign shout ‘Project Fear,’ we must not stop warning of the dangers of exit. They bleat in the hope that we do stop warning. But there is a lot to be scared about if we sleepwalk out of Europe.
Most importantly – and here is where you can help – we have to flip this issue of disbelief, turn it on its head, understand what it means for modern campaigning. If we don’t believe politicians, media or all the established economic authorities in the world, who the hell do we believe? For the answer, we need to understand the genius of Facebook – it is the simple concept of the friend. We believe each other, we believe our friends. If Mail or Sun readers believed those papers and all their lies and exaggerations, the polls would show them 100 percent for Out. They don’t. If a supporter of the Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, Green or Scottish Nationalist parties followed their leaders there would be a landslide for IN. That isn’t going to happen either.
I come here regularly. I like coming here. I have friends here. I enjoy the political debate here. The Northern Ireland peace process part of my time with Tony Blair was one of the things I look back on with warmest memories and also look forward with a real care, that we can stay on the path that was set.
And all of you, I am sure, have friends in the UK. There are 660,000 Southern Irish-born people living in Britain who will be entitled to vote, plus 1.5million who have varying degrees of Irishness in their identity. So to Irish friends who have been telling me of your concerns and saying how impotent you feel in not having a say, I say that you can have a say, and you must. You all have friends and connections. Many of you, probably all of you, know, are related to, some of those 660,000, some of those 1.5million people. I would urge you systematically to contact all your UK business colleagues, all your friends, all your relatives, and tell them why it matters and why – if this is your view – you want them to vote to REMAIN. Why you think it matters to them in the UK, and why it matters to you here in Ireland.
Obama and other high profile global figures can make a difference in terms of the general mood and message, whatever the Brexit Lie Machine may do to destroy or distort. But you can make a difference in the campaigning that really matters in the modern age, person to person, friend to friend. One of the late mood and momentum moments that halted the tide towards Scottish independence was a series of ‘please don’t go’ events outside Scotland. People who didn’t have a vote did have an influence.
Political leaders are going to command the air waves. But we are all opinion formers now, not just the politicians and commentariat. The real battle is going to be fought in millions of British homes and workplaces as people turn to friends and family and people we trust and respect, work with and for. And that includes people who do not have a vote, like you. Join the team. Get on the blower. Get on the social media networks. Get involved. Text and phone and email the people on whose business your business depends. Make them think.
I have set myself the not very bold target of persuading one undecided voter, face to face, to commit to REMAIN every day between now and June 23, and since I began I have beaten my target every day. It is a mindset that once you get into it, you find is good fun. Get into it. One a day. Minimum. Each of you. Get one Irish voter in the UK to shift from unsure to IN and you’ll be helping our country avoid a catastrophic mistake; get one UK business to urge its staff to vote IN, and you’ll be helping your country avoid the inevitable damaging consequences here too.
If we come out, on June 24 we will be waking up to confront a change way bigger than anything a change of government would represent. Yet where is the manifesto for what happens if OUT wins? Where are the detailed plans that public and media would expect from any party seeking to make a fundamental change to the way our country is run? They are not there. That is why it is such a leap in the dark.
Just one question that may be of concern to you: What will happen at the border with the North? What will happen to trade and security and energy arrangements with you as an EU member and your closest neighbour as a non EU member? As the Ibec report puts it, ‘if the UK vote to leave, then regardless of the type of new arrangement it reaches with the EU, Customs and other procedures are likely to become more onerous for exporters to UK. This could be particularly challenging for Ireland given our close trading linkages and we are also the only member state that shares a land border with the UK.’ I wonder if Bojo and Co have even thought about it.
This too from the Ibec report on Brexit – ‘Ireland and Northern Ireland’s relationship has been largely stable since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The peace process is now viewed internationally as one of the most successful peace agreements in history between two border countries. If the UK votes to leave the EU, this could potentially have consequences for the Northern Ireland peace process that has recently come under strain and may have a destabilising effect on the region. Northern Ireland also receives significant funding from the EU under a special PEACE programme. If the UK votes to leave the EU, this would undoubtedly be affected.’
And this … ‘The all-island electricity market is particularly important for Northern Ireland as it relies on electricity imports from Ireland to make up for insufficient local generation capacity.’
Have you heard a word on any of this from LEAVE? Nor have I. No doubt everything will continue as now, no difficulties whatever, like their fantasy that we can vote to come out and yet stay part of the single market.
It is nonsense. A market of 500 million people. Producing and selling one third of the world’s goods and services. Where British businesses do at least 50 per cent of their trade. And we would be out of the decision-making process determining the rules. Can anyone tell me why, if we are out, other European countries will allow Britain to operate like some offshore centre, free from Europe’s responsibilities but participating fully in its opportunities. Even Norway doesn’t get that deal, and with their Sovereign Wealth Fund, they can call a lot of shots.
Firms come to Britain because we offer a gateway to high-income consumers who want high-value goods. Because of the single market. If you really drill down on all the expert economic opinion, it is saying investors will pull out, firms relocate, jobs disappear – because we choose to leave this remarkable free trade area, and deliberately opt for a more restrictive trade relations with the world. So PWC has estimated almost 1m jobs will be lost if we come out of the single market. Every serious organization issues serious warnings and these are waved away as nonsense by Johnson and Farage. They’ll work it out. Those two. There’s one to tell your UK friends and relatives. That could be your government not long after June 23, those clowns.
No serious overseas player thinks we should leave, unless it suits their agenda. Putin probably. ISIS definitely. And, depending what mood he is in, Donald Trump. That’s about it on the international scene.
I do remain confident, and there are the beginnings of an amazing debate. It is going to get like it was in Scotland, even more so once the May 5 elections are out of the way.
The day the FT piece appeared I was on a train to a Burnley game and a load of Millwall fans came into my carriage. You may be aware Millwall fans have something of a reputation. But we not only had a very good laugh, but also an interesting discussion about the referendum.
You can read about my encounter with these Millwall fans, one nicknamed the Molekiller, another, I kid you not, Paddy the Arab, on my blog. The general mood, and I keep coming across it, was one of confusion. Our discussion started because Paddy the Arab – real name Samier by the way – asked me straight out ‘In or Out?’ IN, I said. And when he said he just didn’t feel he had the information, or understood the issues, luckily I had in my back pocket the government leaflet that has gone to every home, which had arrived at my home on Friday morning, and here was my first attempt to use it. He read it cover to cover and that, with a bit of discussion, and he was over the line. Even better the next day he tweeted that he had persuaded some of his mates over the line too.
Paddy the Arab, who is half Irish, half Egyptian, agreed to become the REMAIN Ambasador to supporters of Millwall FC. Like God and the Queen, Millwall fans are people you would rather have on your side in any big fight. I will be sending him the Ibec brochure to work on his fellow half Irishmen and women. And I hope you are sending it far and wide too.
What that train ride told me is that this debate is really going live right now. Politicians and media think they control the debate. I’m not so sure.
So I now urge all Brits I meet who want us to stay in to keep the leaflets and the arguments in their pockets, purses and handbags, and when they hear someone say ‘I don’t have the information,’ whip it out and get them to read it.
And I urge you the Irish with a legitimate interest in the outcome, and genuine concerns as I have been hearing in recent days, to get stuck in. Yes, only the British people will decide. But you can be influencers, and you must be. It is a legitimate and necessary thing to do. Please do it. My country needs you. And I think most of you agree that Europe needs Britain too. As the Ibec report on Brexit says ‘Ibec strongly believes UK membership of the EU is good for European, British, and Irish business.’ Ibec is absolutely right. Thank you.