Brexit blues

Ruth asked:

What do you philosophers think about the Brexit crisis? Do you have anything useful to contribute? Any advice to Theresa May?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Let’s get clear about the ground rules for the kind of answer you are looking for. A philosopher needn’t be (and usually isn’t) an expert on economic theory or political theory. What we are good at is seeing connections and relationships, and drawing logical conclusions. And we have good memories, too.

I remember the early 70s (I am that old) when German industry and business was booming and the UK was dubbed “the sick man of Europe”. It was a situation that called for drastic action. Under Margaret Thatcher union power was curbed, and the UK shed a large proportion of its manufacturing industry. Between then and now, the service industry and financial sector grew to take up the slack, which is why the UK economy is currently in a relatively healthy state.

Was that the best possible outcome? Those who remember the misery that many endured during the Thatcher years will say, No, but then they owe a plausible story about what real alternatives there were available at the time.

More history, military this time. In 1956, the UK went through the Suez disaster, then 1982 celebrated the Falklands triumph (a disaster for the Argentinians, of course). In both cases, a calculation was made and risks taken. In war, much hangs on relatively small incidents and events. The attempt to retake the Suez Canal could have succeeded with a more credible plan, and if a few more French Exocet missiles had hit their target, the Falklands conflict would have ended in British national humiliation.

Maybe you can see where this is going. The battle to save Brexit is a war. In the case of no deal, trade and business will be hit and some businesses will be hit very hard. Those who have much to lose will naturally complain loudly and lobby for support. But it was always going to be that way. When Churchill took over as British Prime Minister at the beginning of the Second World War there were many who, remembering the terrible loss of life in the Great War wanted to make peace with Hitler, and they had arguments that were just as persuasive as the arguments that Remainers give for revoking Article 50. (I am not comparing them in any other way.)

If you can’t take injuries and losses, you can never win any conflict. The important thing is making an accurate assessment of what you stand to gain. The Leavers have made a strong case that in the place of businesses that fail, other businesses will start up and thrive. If you run a company, you know that there are nearly always alternative markets and alternative sources of supply — if you are willing and able to adjust your business plan. The businesses that can’t adjust will be replaced, and that is as it should be.

You do not need to be an expert to perceive that in UK politics today, cowardice rules. The blamers and complainers get the most TV and radio air time. Meanwhile, watching the antics of the British Parliament day after day, there must be many in the UK who have come to the realization that any vote, in a Parliamentary Election or a Referendum is a wasted vote.

US President Donald Trump has expressed the opinion that he would have handled the Brexit negotiations better than the British have done. I am tempted to conclude that he may be right. But it is not too late. Theresa May has given more than a hint that if her deal with the EU fails as it is now very likely to do, the UK will leave without a deal. There is no logical reason why that course of action should lead to disaster. Along with many others, I believe that we have as much to gain as we have to lose from making a clean break.

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