The politics of blame in the UK’s relationship with the EU
Paul Copeland (Queen Mary University London)
During the 2016 UK referendum campaign on UK membership of the EU the slogan ‘take back control’ became the dominant message of Vote Leave. ‘Take back control’ is arguably one of the most successful electoral slogans since New Labour’s 1997 electoral manifesto ‘because Britain deserves better’. While ‘taking back control’ is specific regarding the consequences of voting leave, it’s sufficiently broad to encompass a wide range of policy issues.
By far two of the most common themes to be mentioned under the slogan by Vote Leave refer to: 1) immigration and borders; and (2) ‘our money’, the latter referring to the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. While at first these two issues appear to be distinctively separate, the populist-right both during the campaign and since, have been able to link both issues in a clever but misleading way.
Austerity provided the political and economic context in which Vote Leave was able to craft its argument. Since 2010 UK governments have attempted to reduce government spending and national debt by savage cuts to the public sector and the welfare state. These cuts have disproportionately affected those on the lowest incomes. The now infamous Brexit Bus used by Vote Leave claimed membership of the EU cost UK taxpayers £350 million per week. While this claim is inaccurate (official estimates put this at £250 million), the argument that this money could be spent on the NHS or other public services resonated well with large parts of the electorate who have seen deep cuts to government spending.
However, while £250 million per week appears to be a large sum of money, the UK’s contribution to the EU budget represents 0.7 % of UK government expenditure – the lowest proportion of any category. The largest share is spent on social protection excluding pensions (23.8 %), followed by healthcare (19.9%) and pensions (12.8 per cent).
In the grand scheme of things, redirecting the UK’s contribution of the EU budget to spend on domestic policy is unlikely to have the positive step-change that was implied during the referendum campaign. In the context of UK government spending, the contribution to the EU’s budget is a relatively small amount.
The second prominent issue, immigration and the control of UK borders, is again less clear cut. As readers of this piece will be aware, approximately only half of migrants to the UK come from within the EU. Vote Leave was able to claim that as a result of EU membership, immigration into the UK was uncontrollable. EU migrants were not only taking jobs and homes from Brits, but it was also argued that they were using scarce public services such as the NHS and school places for their children.
Restricting EU migration, which membership of the EU does not allow, would therefore relieve pressure on public services – public services that have suffered under austerity, not money being diverted into the EU’s budget or being used by EU migrants. As EU migrants to the UK are often young and in work, their contribution to public finances in the form of taxes and access to the welfare state is more likely to be positive than negative.
Vote Leave therefore found a scapegoat in the form of UK membership of the EU to take the blame for austerity and this helped Brexiteers to their marginal victory in June 2016. Given that a considerable number of those in the Vote Leave campaign were supporters of austerity, this is an impressive act of political double-speak.
For some voters this trick worked. But what the situation reveals is that post-Brexit, Brexiteers may aim to replace EU migration with migration from outside the EU. In reality, the UK economy needs migrant works to plug gaps in labour supply and this is true regardless of the skill level we’re talking about. Migration underpins the UK’s economy and unless Britain were to radically transform – which no Brexiteer has really mentioned – migration remains important for future growth and jobs. There are an estimated 75,000 – 100,000 job vacancies in the NHS alone.
Since the referendum the political double-speak around immigration has continued as current and previous Home Secretaries, as well as Prime Ministers, have promised an Australian points-based immigration system. Note that such a system does not preclude a reduction of immigration, a points based system can be designed in an infinite number of ways. While the threshold for entry could be 100 points today, tomorrow this could easily shift to 80 points. How those points are accrued can also change.
Meanwhile, the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has suggested the government will increase the earnings threshold of migrant workers to £36,000. Not only would this leave 10,000s of NHS vacancies empty, but it seems to make the idea of a points-based immigration system unnecessary.
Blaming other people for the failings of government policy and political incompetence has become a mainstay of current UK politics. Until the electorate is willing or able to listen to the truth, this depressing situation will continue and the wrong groups of individuals will take the blame for the failings of others.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Paul Copeland is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University London