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3 March 2021updated 05 Mar 2021 1:52pm

Why my New Statesman reviewer is wrong to fear Brexit

We will soon see the UK is better out of the EU than in it. 

By Robert Tombs

I am grateful to the New Statesman for having published the distinguished historian Richard Evans’s courteous and stimulating review of my recent book, and for inviting me to reply. He seems primarily to object to my having written a polemic. Well, yes, I have. Surprisingly for one who is himself no stranger to polemic, he seems to regard mine as improper. Much of his review consists of paraphrases of a miscellany of my arguments, sprinkled with quotations. Some he approves of, but many he disapproves of and seems to think that merely summarising them will condemn them in the eyes of unbending Remainers. Perhaps he is right. But this means he rarely rebuts these arguments, only simply interjects a contrary opinion from time to time.

He does, however, try repeatedly to trip me up with my own expository shoelaces. How, he asks triumphantly, can I both worry about the EU’s attempts to centralise power and at the same time allude to its fissiparous tendencies? If “the EU is about to collapse” – not something I suggest, by the way – “why should anyone worry too much about the idea of ‘ever closer union’?” There is plenty of reason to worry, unfortunately. Emmanuel Macron has argued repeatedly that unless the EU further centralises control as “sovereign Europe” it will face a possibly terminal crisis. I argue that such centralisation without democratic consent or accountability is a remedy that aggravates the disease. The fissiparous tendencies between east and west and north and south are surely too glaring to be ignored, and they are dangerous for the EU and its partners.

Evans twice states that I condemn Brexiteers for post-imperial nostalgia: in fact, I say that nostalgia is an element of support for the EU. I point out that in 2016 opinions of the EU in Britain were similar to those elsewhere in Europe; he responds by referring to a poll in 2019. (We agree that Brexit turmoil has increased acceptance of the EU, surely a sign of resignation rather than enthusiasm.) I say that David Cameron’s failed negotiations showed Britain had no significant influence; he replies by referring to Margaret Thatcher and the single market. I argue there is no evidence that membership of the EU has raised UK economic growth; he interprets this as claiming that it “has brought no economic benefits”. I say “chalk”; he answers “cheese”.

Evans asserts that when I am in polemical mode I resort to methods I “would never dream of indulging in when doing [my] academic historical work”, cherry-picking evidence and using “specious economic arguments” dredged up from Brexiteer sources and right-wing think tanks. Could this be why he rarely attempts a counterargument? He admittedly deploys the economic historian Nick Crafts’ estimate that joining the EEC raised Britain’s GDP by 10 per cent, but he does not mention Crafts’ contrasting conclusion that leaving the EU – even making improbably pessimistic assumptions – might reduce GDP by only around 2 per cent. Cherry-picking?

[see also: The Brexiteer’s guide to history]

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For my part, I do indeed refer to economic data published by Briefings for Britain – a website I co-edit and which I respectfully recommend to readers. But my main guides to EU economic history and performance are professors Ashoka Mody (Harvard), Joseph E Stiglitz (Columbia) and Helen Thompson (Cambridge and the New Statesman). My take on the EU more broadly is strongly influenced by John Gray (also in the New Statesman), Yanis Varoufakis and Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books – to which Evans is a frequent contributor. Two points at which he scoffs – the effect of free movement on the labour market and the non-apocalypse in the City – are drawn respectively from reports in the militantly pro-EU Economist and Financial Times.

Immigration and employment are evidently important issues. Evans repeats the familiar argument that European workers “in the fields of East Anglia, were doing jobs that the British were unwilling to do themselves”. He thus implicitly accepts that downward pressure was exerted on wages and conditions. If he has ever walked along the Cam towards Ely, he will have seen the huts in which labourers were lodged at the minimum wage. Perhaps in future years we shall have to pay a little more for our asparagus in Cambridge market.

He ends by reassuring us that all is well in the EU: there is no “solid evidence to suggest Europe is declining” – as I suggest – “rather, the reverse”. Consequently, he claims (polemically?) that polls show if we had another referendum, “Remain would win decisively”. Perhaps he was writing before the EU’s recent vaccine debacle, made even worse by the irresponsible blame-shifting of its leaders. Unlike earlier EU failures, this one cannot be ascribed to feckless southerners having only themselves to blame. This time, the fallout hits the Germans too, hitherto by far the EU’s biggest beneficiaries. It will be interesting to see what opinion polls show in six months’ time.

As for British public opinion, I presume Evans is referring to a recent YouGov poll (2 February), which concludes overall that “people’s perceptions differ, depending on the question they are faced with”. I wonder how he thinks we would vote if asked whether Britain should place its vaccination programme under EU direction.

Evans and I differ over Brexit. Fair enough. The single thing I object to in his review is his dismissal as “lachrymose” my factual statement that “institutional pressure made… younger academics with vulnerable careers cautious about speaking out”. When senior academics appear indifferent to the academic freedom of their juniors, they become part of the problem.

Robert Tombs is emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge University and author of “This Sovereign Isle” (Allen Lane)

[see also: Why the EU’s vaccine disaster doesn’t prove Brexit was right]

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This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus