In the autumn of 2014, Gordon Brown made a significant late intervention in support of the Union in the Scottish referendum debate, which helped to sway the vote against independence. Now, in a book billed as a “sequel” to this, the former chancellor and prime minister weighs in to back the continued membership of another British union: that with the rest of Europe (or most of it).
Brown does not disguise the disadvantages of the connection for Britain. In a high-risk approach, he candidly begins with a series of individual case studies of those who have lost jobs, status or access to public services as a result of it. Brown is also well aware of the weaknesses of the current European Union – especially the single currency, which he wisely kept Britain out of.
That said, Britain: Leading, Not Leaving makes a passionate and persuasive case for the Remain side. The author systematically dismantles the arguments for a departure in June. Far from being an offshore island that can simply pull up the drawbridge and face towards the open sea, the United Kingdom, Brown demonstrates, is closely tied to the continent in economic, political and especially strategic terms. The British economy benefits immensely from access to the single market, whose rules it helps to set.
It is true that the UK would enjoy considerable bargaining power in the event of Brexit but negotiating a new arrangement would take time and the intervening period would almost certainly be marked by severe disruption. Whatever the long-term economic advantages of Brexit might be – and Brown does not concede them even for a moment – one has to agree with the author that the effect in the short to medium term cannot be anything other than
Likewise, Brown makes a strong case that while immigration puts pressure on public services in ways that are not easily captured by statistics, the influx of talent from the rest of the EU has been good for the British economy, and that Brexit would cause socio-economic pain of a greater order.
Brown also sets out a persuasive strategic argument for our continued engagement in Europe. That is where the main weather has always come from – and still does. The EU, for all its faults, has been a major stabilising factor in Europe whose work complements that of Nato, the provider of military security. Brexit without simultaneous further continental European integration would jeopardise everything that has been achieved so far.
Above all, Brown rebuts the strongest claim of the Brexiters against the current EU, which is that it subverts the sovereignty of Westminster. Not so, he shows. The sovereignty pooled by parliament can be reclaimed at any time. Moreover, Brown points out that the prospect of a European federal superstate has been receding for some time. Bailing out of what is, in essence, an intergovernmental relationship, he argues, would weaken Britain’s ability to steer the rest of Europe in the right direction.
It is refreshing that, unlike many pro-Europeans past and present, Brown does not argue for continued membership because he thinks that there is something fundamentally wrong with Britain. On the contrary, he is honest enough to admit that the UK would be strong enough to survive on its own but he is confident that it has so much more to gain and contribute by staying engaged in, and leading, the continent. Brown is making the “patriotic case for remaining in Europe”.
British leadership, he argues, is needed now more than ever. It could help to galvanise the European economy by creating a single market in services and by putting in place other liberalising measures. British leadership would help to contain Vladimir Putin, with whom the author takes a commendably hard line, and it could also put some energy into European counterterrorism policy. “Lead it, not Brexit” is his pithy slogan.
The book suffers from some of the drawbacks of the genre. It has evidently been written in some haste. It is unruly, long-winded and even garbled in places. The late Derek Scott, for example, was not a “pro-European”, at least not in the last years of his life. By contrast, the present reviewer is neither an “economic historian” nor a Eurosceptic in any meaningful sense of the word; the remarks he attributes to me were actually made by the US investor Jim Mellon. No great harm is done, as there is inevitably a trade-off between speed and perfection. One must make the argument with the book one has, rather than the book that would ideally have been written.
My only serious objection to Brown’s reasoning is that he is rather too quick to acclaim the continent as a “United Europe of States”, rather than a “United States of Europe”. That, surely, is the problem. Mainland Europe can only master the challenges it has set itself – a common currency, a common foreign policy and a free travel zone – if it becomes a full political union. Brown describes this as a “spectre” but for the mainland it is a vision that cannot be relinquished.
If continental political union comes to pass, there will have to be a fundamental decision about continued British membership. Perhaps then Brown would change his view. But that is not the question being asked in June – “Should we stay?” – to which the reader of this tour de force can only answer with a resounding “Yes”.
Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at Cambridge University
Britain: Leading, Not Leaving by Gordon Brown is published by Deerpark Press (358pp, £10)
This article appears in the 25 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad