The ideologues within

Insight
John Springford, Simon Tilford
19 May 2016

Britain’s right-wing populists will not stop at Brexit – they want control of the Tory party and thus the country. Their ideological, unempirical world view provides few solutions to the problems facing the UK.

Some eurosceptics are genuinely committed to openness and believe that the EU prevents Britain from being true to its liberal internationalist roots. But they are a small minority. If Britain votes to leave it will not be because the British people want the UK to embrace globalisation, immigration and liberalism, but the reverse. It will be a vote for less openness to trade, people and foreign ideas and culture, and a victory for ‘common sense’ and gut feeling over evidence.

Right-wing populists do not just have the EU in their sights – they want to take over the Tory party and the country. The failure of Conservative moderates to face down these ideologues and their backers in the media mirrors what is happening in the US which has culminated in Donald Trump becoming the Republican candidate for the presidency. But whereas Trump has little chance of becoming president, the outlook in the UK is more worrisome.

David Cameron will not survive a British vote to quit the EU. A right-wing eurosceptic will take his place, or perhaps an opportunist who will have to throw plenty of red meat to the right to win the contest. Even if Britain votes to stay, Cameron’s days as Tory leader are numbered. He might survive what promises to be vicious post-referendum infighting for a year or so, but he will be forced to stand down eventually, just as Tony Blair was. Then the populists might well assume power.

Who are they? They are a nationalistic and ideological group who have no interest in evidence. Their responses to the great challenges of our time – climate change, increasing inequality and the decline of social mobility, the need to create a stable financial system that serves the interests of the real economy, and international migration – is either to deny the evidence outright or to treat large economic and social forces with the same Thatcherite medicine: a smaller state, less regulation, and an ever smaller safety net. The only exception to this hands-off approach is in their opposition to unrestricted immigration from the rest of the EU.

Their antipathy towards the EU stems from the fact that it is a regulatory power that places some constraints on their ability to advance their ideology. It is not down to legitimate concerns with the EU, to which a cursory analysis of two of their bugbears attests.

They claim that EU regulation is a drag on the UK economy, but do not explain why, ignoring the wealth of evidence provided by serious economists to the contrary: EU rules promote trade and investment between member-states. At the same time, they are silent on the biggest constraints on the UK economy – the lack of affordable housing, poor skills and weak infrastructure. Similarly, they claim to be concerned about the impact of immigration from the EU on low paid British workers. But, according to our best estimate, EU immigration has reduced the wages of low-skilled services workers by 0.8 per cent between 2004 and 2015. For comparison, the government’s tax increases and benefit cuts between 2010 and 2019 will reduce the incomes of the poorest tenth of Britons by 10.6 per cent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that eurosceptics are often climate-sceptics. Cutting greenhouse gases can only be achieved through binding international targets, with some mechanism to stop countries from free-riding; such co-operation is anathema to the right. Declining social mobility and rising inequality in the West requires state intervention. Governments need to invest more in retraining workers, make sure housing is affordable so that people can move to where the work is and to resist pressure  from older voters to advance their interests at the expense of the young. It also requires co-operation between countries. Governments have to work together to ensure that wealth and corporate profits are properly taxed. Trade agreements need clauses that require emerging economies to improve labour and environmental standards over time, or popular support for free trade and globalisation will evaporate. Britain’s nationalist right offer no solutions to these problems, and prefers to simply deny that they exist, or that the market will miraculously correct them.

David Cameron is now campaigning with vigour for Britain to stay in the EU and he might yet prevail. But he and his predecessors have let the populist cat out of the bag. The Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, hit the nail on the head when he said, “If you have an Alsatian sitting in front of you, and it growls at you and bares its teeth, there are two ways of dealing with it. You can pat it on the head, in which case it’ll bite you, or you can kick it really hard in the balls, in which case it’ll run away.” Had the Conservative leadership done this years ago, we might not be standing at the precipice now.

John Springford is a senior research fellow and Simon Tilford is the deputy director at the Centre for European Reform.