The Short, Uncertain and Unenthusiastic Case for Remain.

I was leaning uncertainly towards leave throughout most of the campaign. But here’s my parsimonious case for voting Remain (for now).

As an undecided voter*, and to help me make up my feeble mind, I’ve jotted down endless untidy thoughts on the detailed issues, the evidence, the campaigns, and the referendum itself. But in the end, I decided they could wait, and that the following four points are sufficient to both determine and explain my stance. So here’s my Short[1], Uncertain and Unenthusiastic Case for Remain (Based Mostly on Neither Details nor Grand Principles).

  1. Any net advantages on either side are outweighed by the uncertainty (and we haven’t had a very useful campaign). I’m not going to make detailed arguments about the pros and cons here, or review the campaigns. Suffice to say that while there has been some great writing and analysis on the fringes of this debate, the official campaigns have taught me little. Both campaigns have misused experts, expertise, and evidence, in depressingly familiar ways (but that’s for another blog[2]). But more importantly, there is a great deal of uncertainty on both sides, for two reasons. First because the factors that must be predicted are political and cultural, as much as economic, and these are devilishly difficult[3]. Second, because the parlous standard of the mainstream debate has left many important arguments on both sides largely untested (because all of the best arguments have been made on the fringes). Perhaps the only reasonable position is agnosticism and I’m rather suspicious that those who claim confidence about which is the right course have fallen prey to assorted cognitive biases.
  2. I simply don’t trust our political class to successfully pull off a Brexit. We’ve been told that a vote to leave is “a vote of confidence in Britain”. I have a lot of confidence in the British people, but I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of confidence in our senior politicians[4]. I have been persuaded that we could successfully leave the EU (though it would not be a simple matter). Unfortunately, the intelligent, thoughtful people that have persuaded me of this are sitting nowhere near the levers of power. A Brexit would require the ability to think carefully and deeply about complex issues and apply good judgment to novel situations. I’m afraid I’ve seen no evidence that our senior politicians are capable of this. Those on both sides of the argument[5] who are likely to exert influence over the way Brexit unfolds seem to me to be deeply unimpressive. A Leaver might respond: “well why trust them to look after the UK’s interest in the EU?” My reply would be that this is a simpler task[6], and thus one to which they are better suited.
  3. Leaving is almost certainly harder to reverse than remaining. If we vote to leave and then regret it, we’re unlikely to re-join for a generation and it would be awkward at best[7]. A remain vote, on the other hand, will not “settle the issue”, nor should it: there is no need to have a settled position on a continually changing question. If we vote remain, we can change our mind in a few years’ time. Thus…
  4. We don’t need to do this now[8]. Finally, and most importantly, the Leave campaign has failed to convince me that we need to do this now. In some ways this isn’t their fault: there’s no particular reason to hold this referendum now. No treaty change, no major upheaval, just a poorly-timed renegotiation by a disingenuous Prime Minister. Some have argued that a Remain vote would embolden the EU – ‘if they know we aren’t going to leave they will really crank up the craziness’. There may be some truth in that (I don’t particularly trust Donald Tusk when he promises to reflect regardless of the result[9]) but not enough to persuade me that it’s urgent. A Remain vote (especially a reasonably narrow one[10]) would hardly be an unambiguous endorsement of the status quo, and the wider mood in the rest of the EU is also changing in a way that can be useful to the UK. I think we can bide our time and see how things pan out. Not much of a rallying cry I admit, but often a handy strategy. In fairness, it is true that the Remain campaign has been equally poor at articulating how the EU might be reformed in future: there’s been no positive prospectus. But I don’t agree with the narrative of an un-reformable EU getting unremittingly worse: for example, EU enlargement was a good thing[11]. We need to be especially careful of changes that make it harder to leave: much of the Remain argument has consisted of “the EU is a prison, we can’t leave even if we wanted to”[12]. This is something that deserves greater attention if we vote to remain, since the absence of any realistic prospect of members exiting does not seem conducive to the kind of reform liberal Leavers and Remainers alike would like to see. But that’s an issue for another day, and another blog[13].

*I favour free movement of people, free trade, and internationalism, but dislike centralization, bureaucracy, and weak or ad hominem arguments, and none of these point unambiguously towards one side or the other.

[1] If you don’t read the footnotes. Which nobody does, do they?

[2] In short, Leavers have ignored expertise they don’t like. Remainers have engaged in a simplistic ‘vote counting’ exercise. There’s a lot of evidence (e.g. from forecasting experiments), that neither of these approaches is smart.

[3] In effect the economic projections have been made assuming a certain political, cultural and technological scenario. Yet these three factors are highly unpredictable AND partly endogenous to the decision. I’m prepared to believe that reasonable measures of uncertainty around economic projections for Brexit actually include plenty of positive, and that the upside risks of Brexit have been underestimated compared to the downside.

[4] I don’t really subscribe to the “Great Man Theory” of history, but I think elites have a larger role at crisis moments like a Brexit than they do in normal times (like the ongoing evolution of the EU).

[5] This includes politicians from outside the UK: the Eurozone crisis, amongst many others, has demonstrated a proven capacity for spitefully immature policy. Vote Leave rightly argue that it would be in the interests of the European people for the rEU to come to a sensible agreement with the UK. But, as they should well understand, there is no reason why, at least in the short term, we can expect the much maligned European ‘elites’ to act in the interests of their own citizens. This error – assuming the state always represents the citizenry – is exactly the error that Leavers often, and rightly, criticize Remainers for. In general, consideration of the incentives various actors face pre- and post-referendum (for they differ of course) has been poor in this campaign.

[6] The exception is dealing with the issues raised at the end of #4. I am not very confident that our politicians will deal wisely with this, but see footnote 13.

[7] Admittedly, because the referendum is legally not binding (see the always excellent David Allen Green on this and much else, a vote to leave is not the same as leaving: parliament could, and might, defy the referendum result (especially if very close) and not invoke article 50. For me this strengthens the argument to vote leave – but is counteracted by #2, which makes me worried that Boris et al would play a Leave vote wisely.

[8] Leavers wanting my influential endorsement (perhaps to counter the Beckhams?) are welcome to concentrate their arguments on this point, which seems the most important.

[9] Politicians are rather like most of our students: once an exam or crisis is over, any desire to learn from it is overwhelmed by an even stronger desire to get out into the sunshine and chemically erase the memory.

[10] At the start of this referendum campaign I wondered whether a narrow remain vote – say 52-55% – might be the best possible outcome. I still suspect that’s the case. Unfortunately, the polling doesn’t make this an easy result me to vote for. If I was just putting a fiver on, I’d go with Carl Gardner’s 57%, which suggests I should vote leave…If only we had a proper referendum question at a sensible time.

[11] Yes we have to be careful about ratchets – small disagreeable changes, none large enough to provoke us to leave but each one worsening the deal. However, I’m not convinced that’s a good model of what is happening.

[12] Leavers, meanwhile, like to portray Leave as enhancing independence (for the UK). But I care also about people’s independence, and, while it’s frankly silly to argue that the British people have the EU to thank for their freedom from slavery or their rights to a fair trial, for now at least, the EU seems as likely to protect the individual’s rights as to erode them. But there I am getting into details when I said I wouldn’t.

[13] Or just yet another footnote: In brief, I think the UK needs to build a coalition of non-Euro/Euro-regretters and EEA/EFTA states to effectively construct an enhanced EEA option that blurs the boundary between In and Out: common market (incl free movement) + plus voting rights + assorted opt outs + heritability of trade deals. Essentially improve our current position, but with more mates and a smoother exit route if we need it. Although my point #2 might imply this was unlikely, I think it’s more likely if we remain than if we leave and I think it’s quite likely to happen as much by accident as by visionary design.