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Economics may sway the balance

27 May 2016

Paul Vallely joins the referendum fray and pinpoints one factor


FOR months, I have held off contributing to the great Euro-bore-fest that is consuming our politics. The referendum on whether or not the UK should pull out of the European Union is, of course, the most serious decision facing voters in this generation. But there has been something wearying about the relentless back and forth of the way the issue has been handled.

In part, that is because the BBC’s fastidious commitment to neutrality has meant that every significant development — such as a warning from some weighty international body such as the International Monetary Fund — has had to be balanced by a comment from an obscure backbench lightweight on the other side.

Form and content have been hopelessly out of equivalence, because voices with authority must be set against those of political mavericks.

On the other side, British newspapers make no pretence of impartiality. They are dominated by a shrill Brexitry. They repeatedly insist that “all the public wants is the facts,” and then exhibit extreme bias in not properly delivering them.

The facts are now pretty clear. The case for remaining in the EU is economic, and — according to a raft of magisterial opinion which extends from the Bank of England, the Treasury, and the CBI to international bodies such as the IMF and OECD, and the leaders of the United States, France, and Germany — the risks of leaving vary from a dip in the economy to a serious semi-permanent setback on jobs and national income.

The arguments for leaving are based around sovereignty and control over immigration. Attempts by churchpeople to relocate the European project in a wider Christian moral vision — about solidarity, or maintaining peace after centuries of internecine war — have failed to gain political purchase.

More interesting than the facts are the tactics. Remain versus Leave has become a battle between authority and indignation. Remainers have produced that cumulatively persuasive body of heavyweight opinion; Leavers have got out on to the streets complaining that the EU wants to make our bananas straight and force our kettles to take longer to boil.

Both those tactics seem more productive than abstract arguments about sovereignty. National autonomy makes for good slogans, but you do not have to drill down far to see that we swap a bit of sovereignty to obtain a desired outcome every time we sign an international treaty.

Our commitment to defending fellow NATO members does curb sovereignty, but only in the way that stopping at red traffic lights curtails our individual freedom. Otherwise, like Milton’s Satan, we prefer to rule in hell than serve in heaven.

Voters appear to be gradually seeing the logic of this. A poll in The Daily Telegraph this week suggests that pensioners, Tory voters, and men are deserting the Brexit campaign. There may be a clue to the reason in another poll, which showed that although voters say that immigration is the issue most important to the country, they give a different answer when asked what is most important for them and their families. Then it is the economy that dominates.

Who will win out? My tip is: follow the money.

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