As this column forecast four weeks ago, Treason in the Brexit process prospered, and Brexit has been postponed to October 31. Businesses groaned, as the uncertainty prolonged itself to an unendurable length. Most likely, Brexit will now either be abandoned or diluted to a degree where Britain does not break free of the EU’s regulatory straitjacket. However, the battle is not yet over, so I thought it sensible to use this Easter respite to offer some thoughts on how to maximize the chance of a genuine return to a free Britain.
Andrew Roberts, in a splendid recent Wall Street journal op-ed, pointed out that George Washington would not have given up his dream of American independence because of a mere 3% potential loss in GDP (if at that time they had possessed the concept or the ability to measure it). That heavily understates the case. The true loss in per capita GDP (i.e. living standards) from American independence was about 15-20%. In 1776, the American colonists had the highest living standards in the world (and among the lowest taxes, which makes one wonder why the silly people wanted independence at all – oops, sorry, that’s Hate Speech!)
By 1790, U.S. living standards were considerably lower, and well below those in the mother country. Profitable trade patterns had been disrupted – the Boston smugglers found it very difficult to make a (moderately) honest living when there were no longer any legitimate British suppliers to undercut. Furthermore, American government under the Articles of Confederation was a shambles with no control over tariffs imposed state by state – so the United States suffered the same loss of income from 1776 to 1790 as did the countries of former Austria-Hungary after 1918. Meanwhile from the end of 1783 Britain enjoyed an exceptionally competent free-trading, free-market government under the Younger Pitt, and was thus by 1790 considerably richer than its ex-colonies.
Thereafter, the Napoleonic Wars boosted U.S. wealth (neutrality was profitable) and depressed British wealth, so that by 1815 the U.S. was again wealthier than Britain, on a per capita basis. However, after 1815 rapid U.S. immigration, foolish economic policy (we’re looking at YOU, Andrew Jackson) and the Civil War once more caused U.S. living standards to lag those of the peaceful rapidly industrializing Britain. Only after 1870, as Britain began to suffer severely from its unilateral free trade policy, did the United States pull decisively ahead.
Even with the very substantial loss in wealth, however, there was no sign in 1790 of Washington and his colleagues regretting their choice of independence. Freedom was simply too important to be abandoned to avoid a temporary loss in living standards. However, if it was worthwhile for Washington and his contemporaries to suffer a 15-20% loss in living standards to avoid the mild and benign rule of George III, how much more worthwhile must it be for the British people today to put up with a much smaller loss in living standards to get rid of a genuinely tyrannical, oppressive and foreign rule from Brussels. The cause of Brexit is thus a worthwhile one, and should never be abandoned, however long it takes.
There is an additional reason to favor Brexit, and to ensure the installation of politicians committed to Britain’s historic freedoms: the tide of new censorship regulations emanating from both Brussels and Theresa May’s government in London. In the EU, a new “Article 13” has made those providing portals to users responsible for copyright violations. In Britain, tech companies will be forced into a “duty of care” to tackle “illegal and harmful” items that appear on their sites. Including items that “may not be illegal but are nevertheless highly damaging.” Cases in which Internet bullying has led to suicides among vulnerable teenagers have been used to justify the new restrictions. Such cases are very sad, and make for good media campaigns, but are alas inevitable in any society and should not be used to justify such illiberal policies.
Both sets of regulations are directly aimed at free speech and in particular, given the political and social views of those doing the regulating, are aimed against political content that is disliked by the PC regulators. As forecast in this column a month ago, if Brexit does not pass now, the triumphant leftist regulators will make sure that it can never be seriously advocated again. Cases in both Britain and the EU have already proved that courts and police are prepared to inflict draconian prison sentences on those making statements that a generation ago would have been regarded as entirely unobjectionable or even obviously true. If it was written from Britain, this column might or might not pass the Pastor Martin Niemöller test for staying out of jail under the new system, but if the new system becomes law, I have no intention of finding out the hard way.
Even for those whose political and social views are blandly acceptable to the censors, the new regime in Britain poses an obvious threat, this time economic. Entrepreneurs by definition achieve success by pushing against the boundaries of what is normally done, and often have views on certain issues that are well outside the mainstream. Britain’s moves towards censorship have already reduced the willingness of such entrepreneurs to operate within such an arbitrary and restrictive intellectual environment; if the new rules are imposed they will simply find new places to conduct their activities.
Since Britain’s entrepreneurial tech and science-based sectors are already vulnerable, this is likely to make them disappear altogether, with incomparable losses to the British economy’s future. Having been the leader in industrialization 200 years ago, Britain will no longer be a serious player in future-oriented industries and will be forced to compete for back-office operations and low-skill services, none of which command premium living standards.
Stopping the new British law requires a new British government, something that in any case has shown itself as desirable; stopping the new EU law requires Brexit. There are four possible electoral avenues through which public opinion can be brought to bear over the period before October 31 to increase the chances of a satisfactory outcome: the May European elections, a second referendum (if one is held) a General Election and a Conservative party leadership election.
In the European elections, the Brexiter strategy is pretty clear: vote for one of the two formal Brexit parties, UKIP or Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party. Of the two, UKIP has gone off at a tangent denouncing Moslems, which is both irrelevant to Brexit and off-putting to many people (I didn’t like George W. Bush’s international crusade against Moslems in 2001-05, I don’t like UKIP’s domestic one now). Hence, I prefer Farage’s new party, which also has the advantage of Annunziata Rees-Mogg – I am in many respects (in British elections in which I no longer vote) an old-fashioned Tory deferential voter, so snobbery appeals to me and beer-swilling Cockneys don’t. The European elections are by proportional representation and give representation in a Parliament Brexiters hope not to be a member of and would like to disrupt if they are. Therefore, the more disruptive Brexit party and UKIP MEPs and the fewer untrustworthy backsliding Labour and Conservative ones, the better.
Next, the poll that Brexiters may be forced into: a second referendum. If Brexiters could be sure that a second referendum would be held fairly, and that the votes would be tallied accurately, they could be pretty confident in such a referendum. Many voters the first time around did not really believe that leaving the EU was possible, and so voted for the better-backed “Remain” side. Now they know it is possible, and they have watched the EU bureaucrats and Remain supporter “moles” in government use every sleazy trick in the book to prevent a clean Brexit – an enterprise in which the bad guys have succeeded, at least temporarily. So, the 52-48 result of 2016 might be improved upon, modestly, in a new fair referendum.
There are two problems. First, it is quite likely that the referendum will not offer a clear in/out choice, but only a choice between “remain” and Theresa May’s dreadful quasi-Brexit, booby-trapped with the Irish “backstop.” Such a referendum would be completely unfair, since neither option offers the clean exit for which the electorate voted in 2016, and many Brexiters would consequently abstain in disgust. Second, referenda, which poll the entire electorate, are all too easy to steal, because votes can be manufactured in Remainer strongholds such as central London. This is the reason Hillary Clinton and other Democrats want to get rid of the Electoral College; if total votes alone counted in Presidential elections, they could be manufactured in infinite quantities in the noisome Marxist slums of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. For these two reasons, any second referendum is thus almost certainly a Remainer trap and should be stoutly resisted.
A General Election is a more attractive proposition. The Newport West by-election, which showed a small swing to Conservatives from 2017, and polling before the infuriating postponement of Brexit at the end of March, both suggested a modest Conservative victory. If that was combined with a rigorous purge by Tory constituency associations of Remainer MPs sitting for Brexit-supporting seats, the House of Commons might be pushed just far enough in the right direction to support a worthwhile Brexit.
The problem is Theresa May. For the Conservatives to go into a General Election without having delivered Brexit and with Theresa May as leader would be electoral suicide. Brexiters would entirely justifiably want to punish the party for the incompetence of May’s efforts, and the result of such punishment would either be a Labour majority and Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister or a hung parliament in which Brexiters were even more outnumbered than they are currently. Hence, before a General Election, the Conservatives must hold a leadership election. This time, for only the second time in the party’s modern history, they must at all costs avoid the temptation to select the most left-wing possible candidate, and vote as their constituents would wish them to. My own first choice would be Jacob Rees-Mogg, but there are several other decent alternatives, although the popular Brexiter favorite Boris Johnson should be avoided if possible.
There is just time to hold a leadership election followed by a General Election before October 31, and this offers Brexiters’ best chance of victory. Otherwise, they are liable to be stuck with May’s booby-trapped deal at best, and more likely something that fails completely to give Britain the freedom it so urgently needs.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)