Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
What country was richer than Britain at the height of its power? Not Germany or the still emerging United States, but one in South America famous for wine, steak, military dictators, footballers with a weak grasp of the rules, and hyperinflation.
Before the First World War, Argentina was the richest country in the world. It had successful export industries, took in huge quantities of foreign investment (mainly from Britain) and attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe. Buenos Aires boasted both a Harrods and a Hurlingham club.
Yet by the 1980s Argentina had come close to becoming failed state. Its military dictatorship murdered as many as 30,000 people in a dirty war, and lashed out at its old British ally by invading the Falkland islands. Defeat doomed the junta, but the democracy that followed struggled from economic slump to currency crisis to default, and back again.
Argentina suffers from a chronic political virus: with only brief interludes, it has since the 1930s been run by populists who maintain that the system is run for the elite, and against the people; that any experts are the system’s hired clerks, their wisdom corrupted by money; that the plain anger of the ordinary man isn’t just right, but righteous.
Populists take hold because there’s usually an element of truth here: no elite is entirely disinterested; experts vary in quality and integrity; and instinct and common sense are an essential check on ideological extremism. In the Argentina where Juan Perón rose to power the elite governed in its own interests; independent technocrats were few; the descamisados (shirtless ones) were justly entitled to feel aggrieved.
If you listen to the Leave campaign, Britain in 2016 is like Argentina in 1935. An elite runs the country at the expense of the people: rigging markets in favour of big companies, and bringing in cheap labour to undercut the locals. So-called institutions are in its pay: the Bank of England and Institute for Fiscal Studies are alleged to be suborned husks. The common man, of course, is held in contempt: demonised as racist for worrying about immigration.
Its campaign director’s need for “a general process of national renewal” gives Leave confidence in its egregious tactics: outright lies about the cost of EU membership and Turkey being on the point of joining the EU; demands that the governor of the Bank of England resign; threats made against ITV. Meanwhile, Vote Leave rejects requests from every ally that we stay in as insincere; and dismisses a genuinely unprecedented consensus by economists is as mere groupthink.
Leave’s scorched-earth tactics take a huge risk with Britain. Not content to be an anti-European enemy of “the Brussels elite” they’ve turned, like punks, against all established wisdom and authority. Not only the ECB, but the Bank of England, independent British think tanks and media organisations have come under fire for daring to disagree with the self-appointed activists of the Leave campaign. The campaign does not consider it enough to disagree with and argue against its opponents. It has smeared them as corrupt and motivated by money. Far from providing a solution to mistrust of European institutions, Vote Leave have done their best best to undermine trust in British ones.
Nowhere is this as dangerous as their fanning of popular anger about immigration. Because immigrants from the EU are a net fiscal benefit to us, restricting them will make the shortages people attribute to immigration worse, not better. Having whipped up this anger to try and win, they will find it directed against themselves if they do.
Before the campaign started, a case could have been made that Britain outside the EU would be governed better than it is at present, and while EU membership raised the level of, say, Italian, governance, it lowered ours. Freed from this European average, we could rediscover our Anglo-Saxon traditions: the rule of the common law, impartial public administration, and small government. But this campaign has shown that Leave are willing to trash that heritage, not restore it. In place of the representative government of English tradition they demand French-style implementation of the people’s will. In place of parliamentary democracy, where crude majorities are tempered by centuries of constitutional convention and experience, they plan to overturn a system that their chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, thinks “got every major decision wrong since Bismarck.”
As much as you might want a British Singapore, if you support Leave you’ll get a British Argentina.