I feel I now know what it must have been like in Salem during the witch trials in colonial Massachusetts in the late 16th century, when a sort of illogical, irrational, reckless mass hysteria took hold of a large part of that community and the only way to argue with them was on their terms. I don’t want to talk about the current debate which has plumbed the depths on both sides but I do want to talk about logic and reason.
Virtually every economic forum and organisation in the UK and in the world, whether left-leaning or right-leaning, has advised that leaving the EU would be harmful to the UK. And so has every friendly ally, every major trading partner, every single one of them, whether in the EU or outside it. And in the UK every large, major public body from the NHS to the security services to the Bank of England and every representative body from the CBI to the TUC and virtually all the major trades unions have advised of the major risk to the UK of leaving. Stephen Hawking and 13 world-renowned Nobel science laureates and 300 distinguished historians have just warned that leaving the EU will harm Britain. On it goes, every day.
And yet when the Leave campaign is challenged on the overwhelming weight of informed opinion from all these bodies, nations, organisations and world-renowned experts from the UK and from around the world their response, with a total lack of irony, is to claim that the institutions of the British state (the very ones we want to return power to), the nations of the world, all these organisations, all of them, are part of a great conspiracy of the elites, that they are riddled with vested interests and that we must “take back control”. This does not make sense.
Lack of facts
Many in the electorate feel unable to decide because of the lack of facts about the forward projections of both sides. So why not look back at real, historical facts from Britain’s more than 40 years of EU membership? Curiously, the dread hand of Brussels is invisible.
Let’s start with the economy. In the 1980s Britain transitioned from a state-controlled to a liberal market economy via privatisation, deregulation and an assault on trade union power. The Thatcher revolution was Margaret Thatcher’s not the EU’s. Boom turned to inflationary bust. No one, that I recall, claimed it to be the fault of the EU. Nor did anyone in Brussels push Lord Lawson into the Big Bang reform of the City of London. The long period of non-inflationary growth from the mid-1990s rewarded tough British pragmatism, not any intervention from Brussels.
Elsewhere on the home front, gay marriage and stronger protections for minorities were driven through by Westminster not Europe. Devolution in Scotland and Wales was the work of UK politicians. In another potent irony, many of those fighting so passionately to leave the EU fought just as passionately a year ago to keep Scotland within the UK. Where is the logic?
Abroad Britain has fought a half-a-dozen wars, from the Falklands to Iraq, since it joined the EU. The Royal Air Force is currently bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Whether you agree with these wars or not, not even the wildest of Eurosceptics could claim these were battles joined at the direction of Brussels.
As for immigration from the new democracies of eastern and central Europe, people seem to have forgotten that no one pressed harder than the UK for EU enlargement eastward. And it was the government in Westminster that took the decision not to impose any limits on the flow of workers from the new entrants: not the EU.
The UK is not a nation that has surrendered democracy or self-government. On the things that really matter—taxes and welfare, war and peace, national security—the shape and direction of policy has been set by Westminster politicians.
However, there are indeed significant areas of British life in which EU laws take precedence such as protection for workers and environmental controls. Elsewhere, Britain has opted out—from the euro, from open borders and from some legal and judicial affairs. But the vast majority of these EU laws set the business standards that all nations must observe. And we will still have to, whether we are in the EU or not, because we operate in a global economy. If we leave we have no say in these laws and regulations.
In publishing, we have benefited from the strength of the EU to regulate both copyright laws in the border-free world of digital content and the huge opportunities and risks afforded by the new, vastly powerful global entrants to our markets. Who can know what will become of our industry if we leave the EU? But I would suggest we look to Australia for a possible vision of the future, where the globalised publishing landscape has decimated their local market and where they teeter on the edge of an open market.
Jeremy Trevathan is publisher for adult books at Pan Macmillan.
The Bookseller also spoke to senior book trade figures about the EU referendum. See what their thoughts are here.