Sunday, 5 June 2016

Britain and Brexit

This is a personal note, a reflection of my experience of the UK, Ireland, Europe and beyond. It is from both the head and the heart.

There are many disadvantages to growing old.  Hair goes grey, bits start to droop - if not actually drop off.  One has also lived through history and, in the context of the European Union debate, that is a rather valuable asset.  Polls lead us to believe that the older the person, the more likely one is to vote Leave.  What I would like to know is what on earth they are smoking because I too remember England before the EU and frankly it was a bloody miserable place.

By the early 1970s, Britain was dying on it's feet.  As a nation, we had won the war, lost the Empire and lost the peace.  Britain ship building technology was stuck in the 1950s and great yards were losing contracts to Japan.  Japan was also starting to dominate the motorcycle and car industry.  When the first Honda mopeds came to Britain in the 1960s, manufacturers like Norton, Triumph and Sunbeam laughed.  By the mid-70s, there was no more laughter.  Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha dominated.  British car manufacturers took longer to fall but fall they did and not just to the Japanese.  European manufacturers like Volkswagen,Fiat and Renault were hitting the budget and mid-market areas hard.  Avengers, Singers, Maxis and Allegros didn't stand a chance.  Even later efforts like the modern-looking Rover 3500 were underpinned with an ancient Buick chassis and suspension.  

Now that is not to say that the situation for the UK magically improved once Britain entered the ECC.  No, it took time.  The Conservatives would claim sole responsibility for the turnaround in the nation's fortune but they were greatly helped by the balance of payments from both the oil industry and trade with Europe, especially in the 1980s.   It is the fall in oil and gas production that has been a major contributor to the trade inequalities that we see today.

Europe started to change our politics too.  The emergence of the Greens in the late 1980s was directly inspired by politics in Germany and The Netherlands.  The voting systems of our European neighbours have been felt in non-Westminster politics, especially in the smaller home-nations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  By sticking to the nonsensical and unfair first-past-the-post system, England is falling far behind in terms of citizen representation.

It was during the 1980s I first started to travel regularly.  My brother was serving in the military and was stationed in Germany.  They did think a bit differently.  This was the first time I saw cycle lanes.  It is sensible: dividing cycle, motor and pedestrian traffic from each other simply makes the roads safer for all users.
Another thing was that the food was just better quality.  Although the 1980s started to see an improvement in UK restaurants, at the time many were still pretty dire.  Nowadays we take a plethora of cuisine types and high quality that is available to us for granted but it was not always so.  In my birth town of Lowestoft, I remember just a handful of foreign alternatives: mostly Chinese, some Indian, with a couple of Italians and Ffrench (the name of the restaurant, not a typo) for Continental dining.   The first cappuccino coffee bar didn't arrive until 1990 and was set up by an Italian electrician who had been blackballed by local management from working in the Japanese-owner Sanyo factory.  (The Japanese had decided to invest in the UK in order to circumvent restrictive French import practices.  British social practices did not change however).

When it comes to eating out it is only in the last decade or so can it be said that the UK has caught up with our continental neighbours.  The same cannot be said for our hospitality industry.  Why is it that the vast majority of our hotel staff are from outside the UK?  No, it isn't because they are cheap labour: it is because the cultural upbringing sees no shame in offering hospitality and service.  I know this is being unfair to those British people who work in hospitality and are excellent in their job but they are the not the majority.  Once past their prime, many British hotels and guest houses remain tired, threadbare and expensive.  It isn't just the climate that drives many UK holidaymakers to foreign lands.  We go abroad for vacation to be treated well.  Hoteliers in the UK employ foreign workers in order to obtain the same level of service that we have come to expect from being abroad.  Many forget to reinvest in the infrastructure.

Many British folk have permanently moved abroad to enjoy the sunshine.  It seems illogical to some that some British immigrants to Spain (or expats as they still model themselves) are voting for Brexit.  There is a reason for this however.  Those people who live abroad and are voting for Britain to leave, left Britain because they don't like the multi-cultural nation we have become.  The evidence for this is in their humour.  If you have ever seen the fanzines in circulation among the British communities in Spain, it is as if Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown represent the pinnacle of our culture.  The readership hate modern Britain, hate foreigners and their greatest wish is to be able to assert their self-claimed superiority, insult outsiders at will and wind back the clock to 1955.  They fail to see the irony of their own position and, through their own inflated sense of self-worth, do not realise at a Brexit vote may well put their own position in Spain at risk.  A vote for Brexit defies logic but they are relying upon the Spanish government to act logically in the face of their own defiance.  What if the Spanish also throw caution to the winds and tells the British to assimilate or get out?   AdiĆ²s y per favor vete!

From emigrants to immigrants.  There are many that claim that Brexit will allow us to control our borders and thus reduce pressures on our education and health systems.  It is true that language lessons for those those first language is not English do add to school expenses but has nobody noticed that we have an ageing population in this country?  The school children of today are tomorrow's workers whose taxes will be paying the state pensions of old gits like me.  If the average population continues to get older and there is not enough young workers, the state pension, already less-than-generous by the standards of our near neighbours, will fail.

As of the ageing population of today and the relationship to immigration, I will point out that the vast majority of European people moving to the UK are of working age.  The major burden on the NHS are pensioners, not young immigrants.  It has been stated often that a lot of workers from abroad staff both the NHS and our care homes.  Brexiteers argue that if we limited immigration more British people could work here.  With an ageing population though, what if there are simply not enough working Brits to fill the vacancies of services, industry and the NHS?  We are back to immigration again.  The truth is that, in common with much of Northern Europe, we need immigrants.  It isn't out of pure altruism that the German government have opened it doors to so many refugees.

The question must be asked, what is it that the Brexiteers actually want?  There are a few on the left of British politics who follow the Bennite view that the European Union is all about big business.  I disagree but at least that is a sincere and logical argument.  Since the European Union is the world's biggest freely trading zone, it is good for capitalism.  If one is against capitalism, one should be against the EU.  That is the basic reason for socialist opposition.  Fair enough.

The main driving force for the UK coming out of the EU is not from the Left but from the Right.  UKIP itself comes from a Conservative schism.  With their usual instinct for self-preservation, the Conservative Party has managed to head off the kind of damage inflicted upon Labour in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP but the cost has been the open civil war now being openly fought between those Conservatives who want to leave and those who want to stay.

If the main thrust of the argument is being generated by the political Right, what is it that they want?  The answer is not hard to find: deregulation of the private sector and lower taxation.  One former leader of UKIP, Lord Pearson, even wanted the United Kingdom to leave the EU and go and join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).  To be fair that is not on the cards today but does go a fair way to illustrate where their sympathies lie.

The Brexiteers claim that to leave the EU is a reclamation of sovereignty but there is no talk from them that we should be leaving NATO, an organisation in which our national sovereignty is almost entirely subservient to the requirements of the USA.  I knew one former Royal Navy navigator who was so sickened by the amount of times his vessel was running American missions that he left the service.  This sharing of sovereignty passes without discussion with those on the Right but give anybody else outside the UK a say in workers' or human rights of British citizens and, apparently, the whole nation is being dragged down by the envious machinations of Johnny Foreigner.

Instead of being strong partners with our near neighbours in Europe, we are told that we should be going it alone.  Make Britain great again!  Reach out to the rest of the world and we will be that great trading nation once again.  Let us make one thing absolutely clear: Britain was never a great trading nation.  We were great imperialists.  Our country grew to the height of wealth through trading with our Empire in a closed market on the most advantageous terms.  Already by the end of the 19th Century American and German industry was out-competing the UK in free trade.   In  promotIng protectionism, the British Empire become our industrial tomb.  When we lost the empire and after nations such as Germany and Japan rebuilt their industrial base after its destruction in WWII, the UK was swept aside.

How are we going to compete toe-to-toe with not only the entire EU, the USA, China and all upcoming nations like Brazil on the world markets?  The answer is in deregulation.  Chinese workers have very few rights and so it will become with us.  Corporate taxation will be reduced.  Personal income tax rates may well fall too but with a rise in VAT: after all, t was the Conservatives who introduced that tax in the late 70s and it is easily avoided by the wealthy who can afford to shop outside the country.   Leave the EU, go it alone and one can say goodbye to the minimum wage,  a month's paid holiday, health and safety at work, maximum working hours and any vestige of working rights.  In a low-tax economy, there is no way the NHS will survive.  This is the grand vision that is meant by the return of sovereignty.

At this point, I would expect to be accused of scaremongering by those who would vote Leave but I'm not and I will prove it to you with a simple example and following question.  When the respective populations of both Norway and Switzerland cast their votes on EU membership, they knew, regardless of outcome, that their own governments and political systems would continue to look out for them and act in their best interests.
Now ask yourself the question: do you trust the UK government with your future, your families' future and to act in your best interest, regardless of outcome of the vote ahead?
If your answer is no, then there is only one logical way to vote on the 23rd of June.

Cast your vote to remain in the European Union.

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