Yesterday I spent a lively couple of hours debating the pros and cons of EU membership with former Chancellor Norman Lamont in the City. He was one of the first high profile political figures ever to suggest one day we might leave the EU (so long ago I can’t remember when.) At the time it was something of an eccentric position, but as June 23 nears, not only do we have a referendum on membership many thought would never happen, but the prospects of Lamont being proven right are more real than even he, I suspect, imagined they might be.
His main arguments were that the EU’s primary if not sole objective was preventing the eurozone from imploding, and we were better to be well out of it when it happened which, he was adamant, it would; and that the basic project of the EU remained to create a political union that morphed into a US of E. I disagreed with the second part, had some sympathy for the first, but made the points that 1, we are not in the Euro 2, we would be affected by economic meltdown in the EU anyway.
He had little time or respect for either of the campaigns, and he did at least admit (and this is something I will be discussing on the BBC Northern Ireland referendum debate tonight) that he could not see how it was possible for the UK to leave and not have border controls at the border with the Republic of Ireland, our only land border with the EU.
As for my own main arguments, here, for those who can be bothered to read a speech in this era when some consider a whole tweet to be a long read, are the opening remarks I made before we got into the q and a.
It is very nice to be trading blows with Norman Lamont. Or Lord Lamont as he now is, one of those unelected peers who complain constantly about unelected bureaucrats making laws in Brussels. The difference being that he does and they don’t, the elected politicians do.
Norman was an important figure in my time as a journalist. Black Wednesday, when we crashed out of the exchange rate mechanism, was one of the busiest days of all for a Labour supporting Mirror hack like myself, whilst his view that unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’ for economic rigour was one of the great enduring soundbites of the era, and might perhaps be relevant too to the current debate gripping the nation and indeed the world.
But despite my parti pris approach, there was something of the politician-defending spin doctor in me even then. When we were summoned towards the end of Black Wednesday to the back of the Treasury where a pale looking Norman was to do an impromptu press conference, I noticed that the cameramen had all gathered in an arc, knowing that if the Chancellor stood in the centre of the arc, they would have a very good shot of Norman in the foreground, and a drain directly behind him. My fellow hacks will not forgive me but … I called Gus O’Donnell, the PM’s press secretary who was overseeing this event, and warned him about these looming ‘down the plughole’ headlines, so that when they came out he directed Norman very pointedly to the edge of the arc.
Also in that little gathering was one David Cameron, then a special adviser, now the Prime Minister and leader of a campaign in which I find myself, this time, on his side, and it is Norman who is on the other.
I do not particularly like being on the same side as Cameron. Partly tribal politics. Also, the strategist in me is angry that we are having this referendum, promised as a tactical response to the rise of UKIP three years ago, perhaps one of the factors that gave him a majority he didn’t always expect, but now we are having it and, guess what, possibly the most important vote of our lifetime and it is becoming as much an argument about the future leadership of the Tory party, as the future of the UK, and all manner of issues and personalities are crowding in in a way not exactly predicted when it all began.
So I do not stand here as a natural supporter of Mr Cameron, or a great admirer of the way he has handled this debate.
I stand here purely as someone who, amid all the bleatings from LEAVE about Project Fear thinks there is an awful lot to be scared about if we do the wrong thing on June 23.
I centre my arguments on three Ps and a U.
The Ps. Peace. Power. Prosperity.
The U. The Unknown. More accurately Fear of the Unknown but I thought if I said FU it was too early to be going all Malcolm Tucker on you. We can do that in q and a.
Let’s start with peace. There have not been many wonderful examples of communication in this campaign, but one I noticed, from Labour, was a short film about a very old second world war veteran, close to tears, saying he couldn’t believe that a time the forces of the good in the world need to work together, Britain of all countries, historically a leader, is on the verge of ripping itself apart.
I know that NATO has been a big part of keeping the peace in Europe. But do not underestimate the importance of Europe’s institutions becoming ever closer in helping deliver peace to a continent historically defined by wars between its great powers which have engulfed the world. If Black Wednesday was one of the big days of my journalistic career, one of the defining images was of Mitterrand and Kohl hand in hand. I am not saying that a vote for LEAVE is a vote for World War 3. I am saying that it is hard bordering on impossible to see the circumstances in which EU nations go to war with each other when they are pulling together. Easier to do so when they are pulling apart amid the kind of strains we have now over migration and economic inequality, and the reassertion of Russian power. The answer is not to run away from those challenges or think we can be immune from them but seek to meet them together.
We should resist the short memory syndrome. How many felt, as I did, a certain chill when Austria came so close to electing a far right president? Amid economic uncertainty, the forces of the far right are on the rise, sufficient even for Angela Merkel to have to warn about the return of anti Semitism. We will defeat them better together.
I am saying too that the nature of the threats we face to peace require us to be part of the collective strength that the EU gives us. There is the obvious threat, of global terrorism, which requires greater not less co-operation between the forces of security and law and order. ISIS would love it if we began the break up of the EU. So would Vladimir Putin. We should not be weakening ourselves at a time his entire objective, his strategy and his tactics are all about the reassertion of Russian strength.
Virtually every security voice is saying we fight terrorism and organized crime better together. If we leave the EU, we would lose our access to the European Arrest Warrant, making justice slower and reducing our ability to deport suspected criminals. The Association of Chief Police officers has said being out of the EAW and relying on less effective extradition arrangements could have the effect of turning the UK into a ‘safe haven’ for Europe’s criminals.
There are two borders I worry about too. Our border with France moving back from Calais to Dover. And the only land border in the UK, the one between north and south Ireland. Think that one through, those who take peace in Northern Ireland for granted. I have still to hear any credible answer to the question – how can you put an end to free movement across the EU without controls at that land border? And what are the trade and security implications in the incredibly important relationship between the UK and Ireland?
This takes me to power, the second P. The UK remains an important country. And we will not vanish off the face of the earth if we come out. But I do believe we will diminish in power very quickly. When Barack Obama talked about us going to the back of the queue, when President Hollande talked about their being ‘consequences’ to Brexit, when Angela Merkel says we have more power at the table than away from the table, when Prime Minister Modi said we would be of less interest or relevance to India out of the EU, they, in common with all the other world leaders saying the same thing, were all dismissed as part of Project Fear, in Obama’s case dismissed by Leave leader Boris Johnson – hoping to be PM in a few weeks time if we make the wrong call, ladies and gentlemen – in rather unpleasant and racist terms. But when virtually every world leader is arguing that they believe we would be taking the wrong decision, might their collective wisdom actually be worth thinking about? And might there be a message in reflecting that the only foreign voices who appear to want us to leave are Putin, ISIS and Donald Trump?
The EU is the world’s largest provider of development assistance, the world’s biggest trade bloc, and a key player in the global effort against climate change. Inside the EU, the UK has influence over how the EU uses its weight around the world. Alone, we can do some good, but not as much as through the pooling of our resources.
Let me weave in part of the U here, the fear of the Unknown and also the unintended consequences. A prediction … if we leave, we will do so despite a majority of Scots wanting us to stay. Nicola Sturgeon will have her excuse for the second referendum. This time I think she would win it, low oil price or not. Bye bye UK. And with it bye bye our seat as a permanent member of the UNSC. The power we have now comes not merely because of our history but because it gives us a top table place on so many of the important bodies of international authority. Alone in being a big player at the UN. NATO. G7. G20. Commonwealth. EU. We are deliberately taking a risk with that … and for what?
So to P for prosperity. Again, I am not saying that our economy will vanish overnight. I am saying that the single market is of enormous advantage to business and to consumers and, short of there being any compelling evidence that we would be better off out, then why on earth would we put that at risk too? And why would we assume, once we are out, that what will be by far the bigger market – 500m people minus us – would want to do a deal that was better for us than for them? This is on a par with Trump’s vain belief that the Mexicans will pay for the wall that, hopefully, he will never be in a position to build.
A vote to stay is a vote for, if not certainty in these uncertain times, much greater security. Not only with access to the single market but with a say over the rules of doing business across Europe. That means more jobs, lower prices, and more financial security for British families.
A vote to leave is a vote for a risk so big it should only be made with at least some sense of certainty that Vote Leave have not been able to provide.
If we stay, we are, Cameron’s reforms not withstanding, largely sticking with the status quo. If we come out we are making several general elections worth of change in there. And yet have the LEAVE side done the equivalent of a manifesto and said what will replace the arrangements we have now?
‘We just don’t know’ is their answer to what replaces the single market arrangements, and at various points different LEAVE campaigners have suggested deals similar to those enjoyed by Canada, Albania, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Macedonia, Andorra, The Isle of Man, The Channel Islands, Turkey, Australia, South Korea, Ukraine, Moldova, Morocco, Vanuatu, Brunei, Nicaragua, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, or Columbia.
The truth is if we left, the EU would not give us a better deal than they have for themselves. This would harm our economy, lead to a fall in standard of living, billions in spending cuts, which would hit the NHS and other public services. And as Johnson travels Britain with his mobile lie machine, and the straightforward untruths on the side of his bus, it is hypocrisy of stomach churning proportions to see him, Farage and the NHS-hating privatisers who run Vote Leave pretending this is a fight for more money for hospitals.
It is also fantasy to say we can leave the EU yet stay inside the single market while delivering on Leave’s pledge to stop freedom of movement. To quote former civil servant Sir Stephen Wall, one of those ‘experts’ LEAVE are so keen to dismiss, who has forgotten more about the EU than most of us will ever know: ‘A vote to leave the EU would be interpreted as, at least in part, a vote against the freedom of movement of people. It is likely therefore that the Government would be obliged to seek terms giving the UK continued open access to the single market while excluding freedom of movement. Such a deal would be unnegotiable’
Again, it’s good to take a look at whose side you’re on in an argument. Now given that a lot of the current dissatisfaction with politics and economics stems from the failings which led to the GFC, and the feeling that those who caused it have carried on as per, and those who didn’t have paid a price, it is not an automatic that great economic voices are as credible as we or they might like. But can they all be wrong? Bank of England, World Bank, OECD, IMF, CBI, IMF, LSE … I could stand here pretty much for the rest of my speech and list the voices who are backing REMAIN. On the other side there is John Longworth of the BCC, and as major employers there are hardly any outside the tax dodgers and foreigners who own most of our national press and make sure the Brexit Lie Machine can tick away nicely.
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.
It is not so much a leap in the dark as a dive from a top board into an empty pool, knowing that a catastrophe is likely but saying, oh what the hell, let’s give it a go. That is why, just as passionately as Norman believes the opposite, I believe we should vote to stay in the EU on June 23.