Janan Ganesh: Anti-Brexit campaigners need to focus
The case for British membership of the EU is grounded in international power politics
Brexit referendum: Remainers need not stand up the prediction of a post-Brexit meltdown, only the noticeable and sustained dip in prosperity that most economists expect. Photograph: Thinkstock
Barack Obama’s speeches trace a picture of the world as it could be if only people had the vision and moral depth of, for instance, Obama. This week, the US president should drop the grandiloquence for a plainer register when he visits Britain to recapitulate half a century of American enthusiasm for our place in Europe.
His knack is for framing practical subjects as matters of national destiny. If his hosts wish, he can give a disquisition on British power as something that is nourished, not curbed, by the EU. He can testify that Britain’s audience in Washington comes from its centrality in Brussels.
As surely as he and the prime minister, David Cameron, will trade hoary banter about that time we tried to burn down the White House, analysts will excavate Dean Acheson’s wheezing old quote about Britain’s postwar aimlessness for one more airing.
And it will all be true. There is a case for EU membership grounded in international power politics. As substitutes for empire go, you can do worse than a large minority holding in a regional bloc of 500 million mostly rich people near several hinge corners of the world.
The problem with this argument is not its veracity but its salience. No normal person, at least in Britain, cares about their country’s influence in the world. It is something that may animate the citizens of great powers or nations with raw memories of humiliation, but our benign history and retirement from the top table make us different. To keep tracking our place in the food chain would require an insecurity we have mostly grown out of.
Asked the New Zealand question – could you live with being rich, safe and peripheral? – most voters fail to see the downside, much less reject the deal.
The indifference is captured in a survey published this month by the Fabian Society and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. By a margin too large for Leavers to close before the June referendum, people believe EU membership enhances Britain’s global influence. But only 16 per cent of them put influence in the top three issues that will decide their vote. The economy tangles with immigration as the most salient anxiety and even a cause as nebulous as “control of our laws” moves 43 per cent of people. Twenty-one per cent name public services among their three. Just be grateful that “UK influence in the world” comes ahead of the environment (9 per cent).
The folly here is the opportunity cost. Any time and energy spent vaunting British influence – as wired through the boosting force of the EU subwoofer – is not spent on the itemisation of Brexit’s economic costs.
To the extent that political campaigns work at all, they do it by telling us what we already know. This time last year, Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign director, did not persuade people that the opposition Labour party was badly led and fiscally wanton. He just reminded them that they already thought as much until they voted accordingly.
In the two months Remainers have left, they must crystallise the economic fears that lurk inchoately at the back of people’s brains. They need not stand up the prediction of a post-Brexit meltdown, only the noticeable and sustained dip in prosperity that most economists expect. To convey that message they must forgo others, even if those also work in their favour. Tangents must be scraped off, starting with the cult of influence.
It follows that the most powerful thing Obama can say – or, given the diplomatic protocols and his impending retirement, imply – is that a post-EU Britain cannot count on a quick and favourable trade agreement with America. Ancestral fealty is not enough to make a $3 trillion economy compelling for a $17 trillion economy. A presidential hint in this direction would sharpen the vaporous notion of influence into a material dread among voters.
Acheson was only half-right. Britain may have not found a post-imperial role but Britons were never looking for one. Peace and prosperity were enough back then. They are enough now.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)