Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
The debate on Brexit has, after the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave, now found its new centre. The hard core of avowed Remainers have ceased lecturing us all that the vote to leave the EU was wrong and that we should have another referendum. Instead they now say – with great condescension – that they have accepted the result.
However, I sense this is not the whole story. It seems that they have decided on a new tactic: to seek to grind the Article 50 process to a complicated halt. They claim a renewed belief in Parliamentary sovereignty, demanding that the Government now gives Parliament a vote on the Article 50 process. This is a bit ironic, coming as it does from people who used to lecture us to the effect that parliamentary sovereignty didn’t matter any more, and that EU law was supreme. It is also a pretty bogus demand. Just in case they hadn’t noticed, the Government is committed to the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act – which of course will give them to opportunity to debate almost any subject that the Article 50 process will cover. Furthermore, all the Opposition has to do, if it wants these matters raised in the Commons, is to hold opposition day debates about them.
Meanwhile, every short term change is seized upon to show how we purportedly cannot prosper outside the EU. The pound goes down, and this is reported as though the entire economy were on the rack. Yet at the same time the FTSE 250 rises to levels higher than before the referendum – but this is casually ignored. There was a time, I recall, when we were lectured by remainers that the behaviour of the FTSE 100 and 250 would be seen as the indicator of how adversely we would be affected by a vote to leave…but not now, it seems.
Then following last week’s Conservative conference we have the same old suspects such as the CBI (who, remember, warned us of Armageddon if we voted to leave,) now demanding that we stay in the Single Market even if that means staying under EU law and having uncontrolled borders. If we don’t do so, they opine, tens of thousands of jobs will be at risk. Sound familiar?
They seem to confuse being a member of the single market and having access to it. The Single Market is in effect an EU internal market. The UK doesn’t have to be in this internal market to have access to it: after all, the EU does a huge amount of bilateral trade with the US, China, India, Canada, Japan, Russia, Australia, Brazil, and many other countries. None of them has “free access” to the EU – but they don’t seem to be doing too badly at trading with them.
As the Centre for Social Justice’s paper The Road to Brexit makes clear, the EU is right to say you can’t control your borders and stay a member of their internal market. No amount of special pleading will deliver such an outcome, and trying to negotiate such a position would bog down the Article 50 process – with humiliating results. Far better to recognise that the EU wants to keep the four freedoms intact, and discuss instead how to access the internal market with free trade arrangements that would work for both the EU and the UK. Even the WTO offers that option.
And it would do us all good to remember that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel are heading for elections with two anti-EU parties snapping at their heels, so they can’t afford to show any public flexibility. What they say about Brexit publicly should be discounted.
We would instead do far better to concentrate on what the UK needs, and how we could deliver it. Take the issue of controlling migration after Brexit. Despite what the CBI and some others say this is not an extreme demand: instead, properly implemented, it will help right the very real grievance that many around the country feel about the problems that uncontrolled EU immigration has caused them. The CSJ paper makes it clear that the way to do this is to have a simple system of work permits and caps.
Such a system would be flexible and ‘light touch’ at the top end of value-added high skills employment, but much more restrictive at the low skills end. Bearing in mind that 80 per cent of EU migration has been low skilled, which has had the biggest impact on wages and working conditions, such a system would both control migration and allow flexibility to academics, scientists and other highly skilled workers.
Finally, we should remember as we go into discussions with our friends in the EU, (despite the public rhetoric of politicians) just how much they need – and I believe will ultimately want – a good relationship with us, and why.
We too often see things from one end of the telescope. European countries need London. After all, the world’s top ten financial centres, according to this year’s Financial Times ranking were, in order: London, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Zurich, Toronto, San Francisco and Washington DC. These are our real competitors – for no EU city made it into the top ten list (Frankfurt is 19th). As one German financier said to me: “London is the only really global city in Europe with the scale, the skills and the hinterland to be a global finance centre. Why don’t you believe in yourselves more?”
Quite so – and if this wasn’t enough, just check the world university rankings for 2016. Four of the world’s top ten and ten of the world’s top 50 universities are in the UK. And how many others are in the EU? Just one: one out of 50, and the highest of these is only ranked 33rd. There are no universities from other EU countries even in the top 50. The Netherlands comes in with one at 55th. Not even Germany gets into the top 50 – the top German university is 60th, the top Spanish one166th, and the top Italian one 187th.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the UK has the world’s second highest number of Nobel Laureates, the second largest national aerospace industry and the third largest Pharmaceutical Research and development budget. I could go on…
A passionate Remainer wrote recently that she feared that the vote to leave the EU was a sign that the UK was in the throes of a breakdown. I disagree. In fact, the vote to leave was a rational response to an EU that is mired in economic chaos and political inertia. This vote was a breakthrough moment – to ensure our future as a globally engaged, free trading nation once again. No, the UK is not in the throes of a breakdown; but the EU may well be.