Something is broken, but voting to leave the EU won’t fix it

I will be voting Remain on 23 June, but not for the reasons you might assume.

If you disagree with my decision it seems — at least according to the general tone of the debate raging in newspapers, on blogs, in comment threads and social media — that you probably think I’m a “metropolitan”, idealistic, elitist who’s opposing change to protect his privilege.

And if I were to take my cue from the media madness to form an opinion of you as a Leave voter, apparently you’re some parochial, selfish racist who’s being mind controlled to protect someone else’s privilege.

These are, of course, preposterous generalisations.

So before we continue let’s agree that if we were to apply them we’d be spectacularly wrong about each other.

The wrong £*€*$*! question

It feels strange voting for the status quo. It is not my default setting. In fact, just like some people who are voting to leave, I can see the urgent need for political and economic reform.

Change is needed, but in this referendum we’re obsessing over the wrong question.

If we choose to leave the EU it will achieve little more than to distract us from the real issues we should be focusing on over the next 10 years.

Let me explain.

Usually suspect

Despite my voting intentions, I admit that the Remain campaign’s general approach has been utterly depressing. Well, both camps have been pretty awful to be honest. In a desperate attempt to win votes the loudest of voices on both sides of the argument have made a pig’s breakfast of this debate with their oversimplified and disingenuous narratives.

I’m as likely as anyone to look for easy answers. In fact, in a world of information overload it almost becomes a survival strategy. Politicians know that our culture is shaped by superficial headlines, which is why they’re so eager to feed us quick, intellectually unthreatening soundbites designed to seem clear-cut and definitive.

Electoral pawn

Glib slogans and opportunism designed to win votes are casting a long shadow over our democracy, where a succession of governments have turned their ideological soundbites into short-sighted policies.

The manifestations of the bugs they’ve planted in our operating system are vicious and wide spread: inequality, creaking infrastructure, degraded public services, falling incomes, a general lack of opportunity, skyrocketing basic costs of living, a lost generation and environmental destruction — to name a few.

Divisively united

This, for me, is the irony when it comes to our current referendum debate: there seems to be as many Leave-leaning voters as there are Remain enthusiasts who are deeply aware of these challenges. We share a common frustration yet we are divided on our solution, with neither group being absolutely right or wrong. But the problem in this debate is — as I’ve mentioned — that we’re arguing over the wrong question.

Can our opinions ever overlap on an ideal solution? If the extreme polarisation seen in this referendum debate is anything to go by, this would be hard to achieve.

On the Leave side we have people seriously concerned with immigration and sovereignty, whilst the Remain camp chooses to focus on the single market, internationalism and co-operation, with the actual debate going something along the lines of “my expert says so … but your expert is rubbish!” Edifying stuff indeed.

We’re all pink inside

They may seem far apart, but these positions have much more in common than we like to pretend.

For Leave, controlling immigration means reducing pressure on public services and increasing wage rates. Coupled with that we get to unshackle ourselves from “Brussels” to “take back our sovereignty” which will allow us to make our own (supposedly more “business-friendly”) laws and carve out better international trade deals to help us grow richer. So we have efficient self-determination as our growth engine and controlling immigration as our method of ensuring fairer income distribution via better access to public services and higher wages.

For Remain, Europe of course sits firmly at the centre of the vision for growth and prosperity, ultimately achieved through membership of the common market. We get unfettered access to 500 million eager consumers and this creates the (assumed “business-friendly”) environment that helps us grow rich. In the meantime we benefit from EU regulations designed to protect “workers’ rights” and the environment, both of which are designed to prevent exploitation. So we have access to the common market as our growth strategy and the EU regulatory framework as our method of ensuring fairer income distribution via workers’ rights protection.

Both camps are basically suggesting that all we need to do is fiddle with less than a handful of parameters in our existing system. That we should respond to tomorrow’s challenges by recycling the tired ideas of yesterday: some sort of export-led, trickle-down growth strategy with regulatory measures to tweak wage rates and make them “fairer”.

This is utterly uninspiring.

The main difference between the two sides is which tools they choose to execute a near identical basic strategy. And let’s be blunt: if any side claims that they can say for certain that their set of tools will give us a better result in the long run, they’re being at best naive and at worst blatantly dishonest.

We’ve tried this trickle-down growth strategy over and over again. Without more direct, fundamental reforms our problems of inequality, exclusion and impoverishment for all but the wealthiest among us will continue.

“If you want peace you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies” — Desmond Tutu

We need much better than rehashed versions of tired economic tropes and it’s depressing that bar a few interesting exceptions the main political voices are offering almost no progressive ideas in critical areas that contain the roots of our political and economic problems.

Some examples:

  • Fairer taxes
  • Reforming the way in which corporations are managed and monitored to ensure better outcomes for people and planet
  • Reinventing our education system to cater for the needs of tomorrow, not those of yesterday – specifically equipping individuals who will have to compete in a world of increased automation and technological disruption
  • A universal basic income to complement the above
  • Levelling the playing field for smaller, independent businesses
  • Ending the unfair advantage given to insiders who feed on shady patronage and state contracts
  • Reforming our systems of energy, transport and food production to ensure our survival

“Leave” means what kind of change?

Being a member of the EU is not holding us back from making these reforms, and the debate about our membership is a fatal distraction. Our net direct contribution to the EU finances runs at less than 0.8% of the annual UK budget. “Taking back” and re-spending this money is a marginal proposition at best.

The truth is that we’re unable to make progress in problem areas mainly due to a lack of domestic political will and progressive policy innovation, and this problem does not go away if we leave.

In fact, leaving will end up making things worse.

Firstly our decision to leave will embolden the very career politicians who are at the heart of the current short-sighted political and economic project that got us into this mess to start with — people who will make it even less likely that we get to discuss more progressive ideas such as those suggested above.

Secondly, the very real short and medium-term costs of leaving will mean we won’t have the time, resources or capacity to work on these desperately needed changes, because we’ll be spending the next 10 years arguing over trade deals and re-writing regulations for vacuum cleaners and hair dryers.

All of this to end up with a system that will perhaps feel more independent and more culturally “British” (whatever that means) but that delivers pretty much the same economic outcome we’ve already got.

“Remain” shouldn’t mean that nothing changes

We have all the sovereignty we need to do what is needed, and where EU conflicts of interest arise we have a damn good track record of asserting ourselves.

Why go through the monumental cost and upheaval of leaving when it’s no more likely that we will address the very problems that gave rise to our disaffection in the first place?

Our problem is primarily one of a lack of broken domestic politics and inadequate responses to corporate globalisation and technological change.

Our opportunity is to set aside our differences and work for that change both domestically and within the EU.

Let’s get this distraction behind us, so that we may start asking and answering the right questions.