Brexit and Nostalgia

It is unclear why anyone is voting for Britain leaving the EU nor, in many cases, why they are voting for remain. What are the possible alternatives? How is Britain or New Zealand to function in an increasingly globalised world?

As I put up this column, the Brits are about to vote on Brexit – whether Britain should withdraw from the European Union. We do not know what the outcome will be, for the opinion surveys are all over the place; in any case turnout may be crucial. In 1975 a similar referendum taken a couple of years after Britain joined went two to one for ‘stay’. No one expects that margin this time.

It is not even clear what happens if the voters choose the ‘leave’ option. The legislation for the 2011 British electoral reform poll said that a ‘yes’ for change required that legislation had to be put before parliament. This time there is no such provision. A vote to leave will presumably initiate a negotiation process without immediate withdrawal. In the interim there would be political turmoil with the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron challenged. I expect there will also be economic and financial market turmoil; their effect is even more unpredictable.

I imagine too, there will be a hiatus in international trade negotiations – and that we will be further relegated to bottom of the EU list as it struggles with what to do with Britain.

To be frank, I have not been able to take the Brexit campaign intellectually seriously. No doubt there is an alternative to Britain being inside the European Union but the ‘leave’ campaign has been very woolly about what it might be. Curiously one of the most comprehensive, but far from convincing, proposals came in a speech by Winston Peters to the British House of Lords.

He argued that there was an alterative in a trading group of the Commonwealth, describing it as ‘a dynamic powerhouse, crossing every time zone and trading session in the world. It covers nearly 30 million square kilometres, almost a quarter of the world's land area. Its members can be found in every single inhabited continent. Together, we have a population of over 2.3 billion, nearly a third of the world's population. In 2014 the Commonwealth produced GDP of $10.45 trillion, a massive 17% of gross world product.’

But would the Commonwealth be willing to contemplate such a trading group? I am very sceptical and I expect most trade negotiators are too. A major problem could well be India, the fifth largest economy in the world– currently behind China, the EU, Japan and the US – and a major component of the weight in the Commonwealth. It was very reluctant to open up its economy to international trade in the Doha round and its negotiations of bilateral FTAs (including one with New Zealand) are bogged down. It also seems to be the least enthusiastic member of RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (of 16 countries: Australia, 10 members of Asean, China, India, Japan and Korea – and us) despite India being far more concerned with Asia than little red blobs on the world map.

Incidentally the RCEP economies, the EU (even without Britian), as well as those involved with the TPPA are each a bigger proportion of the world economy than the Commonwealth. As is the US by itself. (The US and the EU are currently negotiating a TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) deal. That is a really big chunk of the world economy.)

Be that as it may, what interests me about the Brexit campaign – well-illustrated by the Peters’ proposal – is its nostalgia for a world which has passed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most nostalgia harks back to the time of the speaker’s adolescence; so different generations have different ambitions. It is the younger Brits who tend to support ‘remain’; they have been in the EU all their remembered life for Britain joined over 40 years ago.

Perhaps it is inappropriate to assume most Brexiters are rational. Many are lashing out over grievances which have only a marginal relevance to membership of the EU. (Many voters will be tempted to vote for Brexit because they cannot abide David Cameron.)

Behind all this is what is the alternative to living in a globalised world, be you uneasy about the EU or a Trumpite, or dislike the TPPA and RCEP. I am sure the answer is not nostalgia – changing technology and geopolitics rules that out.

I do not expect to write much about the Brexit referendum again whatever the outcome. There will be lots of opinions; I shall probably agree with all of them – in part.

But do expect me to continue to gnaw away at the question of how New Zealand is to function in an increasingly globalised world. I do not know the ultimate answer but I think we can progress it, providing we are forward-looking rather than nostalgic, analytic rather than emotional.