Brexit: Who Benefits? Who was conned?

Written by AC Grayling on 17 February 2017.

If you are puzzled, as you should be, by the question: what can Leavers possibly imagine to be the benefits of Brexit? you need to remember another question, the one that guides detectives in their criminal investigations. It is: Cui bono? Who benefits? Whose interests would be served by Brexit? Let’s see.

A Brexit Britain, struggling on its own in a world economy already tied up in many existing trade deals obtaining internally and externally among the many EU-like trading blocs that have come into existence in emulation of the EU itself, would be forced to become a low-tax, low-regulation economy to attract inward investment. So our question becomes: who in the UK would benefit from a low-tax, low-regulation economy?

Well, it would not be people who benefit from the existence of the NHS, state education, welfare, and the regulations that protect employee rights and the environment – a Sunderland car worker, for example. Such things need sufficient tax revenues; they need pooled resources, contributions from us all for the benefit of all, through taxation.

A low-tax economy therefore would not, because it could not, benefit those who rely on what taxes pay for. It would instead benefit people who do not use the NHS because they have private medical insurance, who do not need a state education system because they educate their children privately, who will never need welfare because they are rich, who object to not being able to sack their employees easily, who do not care if city air quality is bad because they have houses in the country, who do not care if if our beaches are dirty because they can take their holidays in exotic locations abroad. People like Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example.

Now I do not object to Mr Mogg or anyone else having medical insurance and educating their children privately. That is their legitimate choice. But I object to them not wishing to pay the taxes that fund the NHS and education system, I object to them not caring whether there is an excellent NHS and state education system, and whether there is welfare provision and a regulatory landscape that protects employees and the environment. These are all things that a civilized community should care about in the interests of everyone. But people who want a low-tax deregulated UK are caring only about their own pockets, let the rest go hang.

Moreover they accept that Brexit will shrink the national wealth, but that just means they will have a larger slice of a smaller pie, and therefore more influence over it. The longer term fate of the economy and the nation need not much concern to them; they have the means to move to America if things become too third-world here.

So Brexit is about the Mr Moggs of Britain, not anyone else. Yet the Sunderland car workers voted for it – how come? Answer: they were conned. The Mr Moggs and Mr Farages, the Daily Mail and the Express, sang about sovereignty and immigration and put the blame for all the ills of the world on the EU. It worked a treat with just enough of those whose living standards have stagnated under post-2008-crash austerity measures. Yet these latter would be the first victims of what Brexit really means. They have been conned into supporting an exercise that is in their own worst interests. Brexit is not about sovereignty – the government White Paper admits we never lost it. It is not about immigration; immigration cannot and will not stop, because the country needs it and it is a net contributer to GDP. The EU, for all its flaws and problems, has been a huge boon to our economy and a huge success in many areas of our national life, not least in those very regulations that the Brexiters would scrap. No, Brexit is not about any of those things: it is about the pockets of Mr Mogg and the desire to be a bigger frog because the pond is smaller.

It is also about revenge. Mr Murdoch wants to hurt the EU because it won’t kowtow to him as the UK Tories kowtow to him. Google backs Brexit because the EU has caught them out on their monopolistic practices and tax dodges and it wants to hurt the EU and use the UK as a low-tax offshore aircraft carrier for its activities.

How did the Mr Moggs con the Sunderland car workers and others who voted Leave? It is no secret. Remember when Donald Trump said during his election campaign ‘I am Brexit’? It is because his campaign used the same techniques based on Big Data (indeed, used the same Brexit-influencing Big Data company: Cambridge Analytica – nothing to do with Cambridge University) in targeting a variety of messages to a variety of constituencies of interest, thus corralling them into a unified vote. It works as follows.

Listen to a Trump speech. It seems incoherent and even self-contradictory. This is because it is made up of a patchwork of messages, each one targeting a different voter group. Each voter group will hear the message that most interests it, and will not pay much attention to the other messages in the speech, although the overall tone – it is easier for campaigners on extreme political wings to shout, bloviate, promise and threaten without treating what they say as genuine commitments – helps also because it makes them seem different and determined. Political moderates trying to explain the details of sensible policies do not sound so exciting.

In the EU referendum campaign the same Big Data experts as helped Trump were at work here. (So, it seems, in a different way, were the Russians – at last a conspiracy theory turns out to be true! see the Guardian, New York Times, CNN, every front page.) In the EU referendum Remainers were of one mind: they wished to stay in the EU, and they know what the EU is. Leavers were of many different minds with different reasons, some of them bizarre (think ‘bananas’), in addition to the manipulated reasons fed to them about immigrants and sovereignty. Accordingly, the Leave campaign scattered different messages to different constituencies. Even the immigration message was tailored: to workers concerned that their jobs were being taken by Poles working harder for less money, to pensioners in well-off all-white county villages who had hardly ever seen an immigrant in their lives and who are therefore all the more afraid of them. Prejudice is usually the child of ignorance.

Those few who stand to benefit from a Brexit knew that many of those whom they could manipulate or persuade into voting Leave did not have ideas, only attitudes, about the EU and the UK and the meaning of the former to the latter. To change ideas you need evidence and argument. To annex and use attitudes you address emotion. ‘Take back control’ – the vague generalization in the word ‘immigrant’ – the lie that ‘Brussells’ exerts a dictatorial control over UK affairs – these and more were the dishonest tools used to that end.

In short and in sum: the Leave campaign was a con perpetrated on many by those who will reap the few and highly dubious benefits of a Brexit, if the UK leaves the EU for a position of inglorious isolation on the world stage.

‘If the UK leaves’: Brexit is not a done deal. We can stop it. And if the felons who are trying to drag us out of the EU succeed temporarily, it will not stop us fighting to get the UK back in; and we will get it back in. When the lies and self-interest and manipulations of the Brexiters have been defeated, the future of the UK will be as in a full partner with its European friends and allies in the EU.