Mark Littlewood: Brexit the only option for a shot at Liberty

About half a decade ago, I attended a dinner at which Mark Littlewood was the speaker. He had just become the Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and he talked about that. I was greatly encouraged by what he said, and did a piece for Samizdata to that effect.

But you know how it is. When you do a piece about someone who really impresses you, you look around for a minor insult to begin with, to add credibility to the major non-insults that follow. In this spirit, I mentioned early in my piece that Mark Littlewood was “rather too EUrophile for my liking”. Given that Mark Littlewood’s talk to Libertarian Home was about Brexit, this little insult of mine got dragged out of obscurity by Simon Gibbs as part of his introduction. Let’s see if Mark Littlewood is still a EUrophile, said Simon, knowing already that he no longer is. And then, in his preliminary rapport-establishing chit-chatting before he got stuck into his first proper point, Littlewood mentioned that I once gave a talk about libertarianism at Cambridge University which he attended, and he said to himself: that’s me. So, I helped Mark Littlewood to become a libertarian. I did not know that. This just goes to show how valuable it can be simply to tell anyone who is interested what libertarianism is.You never know how much of a someone that anyone might turn into.

Here is Mark’s talk:

Mark Littlewood’s first big point was that we libertarians should think about the EU, and about all other international organisations, in a “contingent” way. We should not assume them automatically to be evil, or for that matter automatically to be good, but rather by thinking if this or that organisation is “on balance” a force for good or for evil. He mentioned the World Trade Organisation in particular as an international body whose influence upon the world is, on balance, in his opinion, good. Not perfect. Not “optimal”. Just doing that bit more good than harm. The WTO is, said Littlewood, on balance, “benign”.

In this spirit, Mark Littlewood said that he had at first been quite  attracted to the European Union. He talked, most entertainingly, about tractors, and about the regulation of tractors. Yes, the EU emits an elaborate and arbitrary definition of what a tractor is. But the choice faced when it came to tractor regulation was not between, on the one hand, one intrusively absurd definition of a tractor, or on the other hand, total freedom for all manufacturers of tractors to make and sell whatever tractors they please, to the rest of Europe and to the rest of the world. The choice was between one regulatory definition of a tractor for all of Europe, or about a dozen mutually contradictory definitions of what a tractor is, each emitted by each of the national governments of Europe. Replacing a multiplicity of tractor definitions with just the one definition struck Littlewood as being, although certainly not the perfect arrangement, at least a quite big step in the right direction. Hence those earlier EUrophile tendencies.

But, Littlewood went on to say, he had since, not changed his mind exactly, but rather had watched the EU itself change into something rather different. The EU regulatory mechanism stopped being a reason to be in favour of the EU, and instead degenerated into a gigantic “displacement activity”.

The EU, said Littlewood, faces two basic threats to its existence. There is the migrant crisis. And, there is the economic crisis of southern Europe, unleashed upon it by the Euro. However, the EU, instead of directly addressing these issues, has become instead a vast machine for not thinking about such things, but instead for discussing every imaginable sort of regulation, of absolutely everything, in the minutest possible detail, in order to avoid those big questions. Instead of continuing to move in the direction of greater flexibility and greater mutual recognition of different regulatory systems, regulation has become a “mania” for regulatory uniformity. Littlewood didn’t claim to have solutions to those big crises. But neither, he said, did the European Union.

However, Littlewood further cautioned, don’t imagine that the Sir Humphrey Appleby tendency in Whitehall is champing at the bit to unleash anarcho-capitalism on the British economy, just as soon as we can escape from the EU. If we vote Brexit, that won’t mean an immediate libertarian nirvana on the morning of June 24th. On the contrary, the Appleby tendency has been in the habit of using the EU as an excuse for its own home-grown dictatorial impulses. For instance, the EU, a few years back, made some pronouncements about uniformity in measurement. It would have sufficed had Britain’s regulators issued a pamphlet asking Britain’s traders to ponder the benefits of greater uniformity of measurement. Instead British local trading standards officials started arresting people, creating those famous “metric martyrs”. Remember them?

Littlewood did not say at this point that if Britain left the EU, then using the EU as an excuse for such home-grown regulatory tyranny would no longer work. But, he might have. He then mentioned workers’ rights and dirty beaches. It is silly to suppose, he said, that Britain outside of the EU would unleash filth upon all its beaches and bring back slavery. Such “mundane” issues can perfectly well be sorted out locally.

And finally, there is the “absolute nonsense of David Cameron’s renegotiation”. “What a fiasco.” “Apparently the issue that detained our Prime Minister … was whether he would be granted the right to disperse about thirty million pounds a year worth of child benefit, in a different way to the one that was prescribed by EU rules.” Cameron got this concession! All thirty million pounds of it. “Chump change. Absolute chump change. … I question the Prime Minister’s ability to add up.”

Are we really to believe that had Cameron not got this concession, he would have lead Britain out of the EU, a process he now describes as being catastrophic for the future of Western Civilisation and “the sort of outcome that Islamic State would warmly welcome”? This episode reveals a political elite is detached from reality. This referendum is turning into: Do you like the political establishment? Yes, or No? And if it continues to do that, said Littlewood, then Leave will win. And if that happens, there could be a domino effect, with Sweden, for instance, now already inclined to leave if Britain does. And if that happens, a libertarian nirvana is not guaranteed, but it at least gives us a chance.

During the Q&A, Littlewood made further points:

He said that the Leavers are probably right not to be too specific about what the alternative should be. “We should take it quite slowly.” We should “slowly and methodically work out what to do next”. Not least because the impact of Brexit on the EU as a whole is so hard to predict.

There might be that domino effect, but there might not. In general, when asked about what might happen after Brexit, Littlewood tended to say: I don’t know. He said that this referendum is not automatically going to be the end of this argument. If Leave is only rather narrowly defeated, the Leave argument will hang around. If big EU changes then happen, of the sort that the Remainers have not even argued for let alone argued for successfully, changes which most Brits regard as bad, then the argument for Leave will be strengthened. See also: the Scottish referendum. But whether we Leave now or not, he said, we will be leaving soon, within about a decade. I can’t help interrupting this report by pointing out that this contradicts lots of commentary from both sides to the effect that this is a “once in a lifetime decision”. It’s actually only a once in a lifetime decision if the decision is Leave. As my fellow Samizdata writer Perry de Havilland recently put it, Remain has to keep winning, but Leave only has to win once. And one way or another, Leave will win, said Littlewood. He even gave us a date: 2025.

Someone asked if, in the meantime, Leave will really mean Leave, given that the EU has form in ignoring referendum answers it doesn’t like.  Littlewood’s answer was that a country just saying that it doesn’t like, say, the Maastricht Treaty, doesn’t include a vote about anything else.

Okay, so you hate the Maastricht Treaty. But, what do you propose we do about that? Voting for Leave is an actual vote for something else. That will not be so easy to ignore. We are not merely being asked if we like the EU. We are being asked if we wish to Leave it. If we say we do want to Leave, that will be far harder to ignore than a mere expression of disapproval, for some mere aspect of the EU.

Chris Mounsey asked about whether the EU was really the problem. For is there not another and globally inescapable layer of decision-makers, whom the EU are merely channelling. Well, said Littlewood, at least we’d be able to decide such things. And at this point, he did mention that EU-as-an-excuse-for-local-tyranny argument, neglected (see above) when he might have mentioned it earlier.

The order in which I have listed some of these points varies from the order in which Littlewood himself made them, not least because they all intermingled with and reinforced each other, and thus some of them got said several times. I’ll end this summary of what Littlewood said by repeating the point with which he ended his main talk, and which he also repeated several times. Voting Leave won’t bring a libertarian nirvana.

But, it will give us a far better chance of progress towards our nirvana than Remain.

London for Leave

Thank you to all the people who came together over the last four days to help us send a message. That fear and hatred will not win. That happiness, prosperity and fulfilment for everyone are to be found outside the European Union.

Vote Leave on June 23rd.

I’m writing this letter as I’ve felt strongly about sharing my reasons for voting the way I will on the EU. I hope it will help some of you who are still undecided.

We’ve heard arguments from both sides. Uncontrolled immigration, unfavorable EU policies and regulations, EU funding to some of our industries, the provision of the single market. I really can imagine how this may have confused voters and this thought has been expressed by many. On top of this, the  tragic killing one of our MPs has numbed the atmosphere making us very emotional.

But my mind has been clear from the very start. For me, it’s a simple decision. For me, the EU represents the notion of an unelected superpower. 

It’s this basic idea of having an unelected and unaccountable superpower that opposes my fundamental values. For some people, right now, the EU provides lots of benefits, but with the power that we and other countries are giving it, who is to say that the same body will not harm us in the future. By voting in, we agree to this undemocratic way of governance. That is a huge risk I am not willing to take.

Even in a democratic system, how many of us actually feel empowered to make changes in society. For some of us it’s a huge battle, but at least we battle with hope. With the EU, that hope is further diminished.

Some of us don’t want to live in isolation by voting out. But what is wrong with being an individual, having your own identity? Isn’t that what we teach our children? Isn’t that how the rest of the world works?

Britain could allow people to freely come from the EU without being in the EU as part of the European Economic Area (EEA). And there are lots of things that can be agreed without having an unelected body over us. 

After we vote out, we still have to choose where we want to go. But at least then we have choices. So why give in to something that opposes our basic right to have a say… isn’t that the highest form of uncertainty?

The IN campaigners tell us how damaging it would be for Britain to leave. But doesn’t that itself represent a fundamental issue, having a body that has to ability to harm us even when we are not in it. Isn’t that what we call a ‘bully’?

For this reason, on 23rd June, I will be voting for democracy, accountability, individuality and freedom, and voting no to an unelected supremacy.

Brexit will mean a new Hanseatic League

It is possible, if you choose to think like them, to see the world through the eyes of any politician. If you choose to see the world through the eyes of David Cameron then the EU referendum is a win-win scenario.

For Cameron a Remain vote is a straight win. He has achieved his preferred policy outcome. However, Tim Evans is confident that Cameron has a Plan B.

Five years ago the German elite were unified in their belief in the European Union and the Euro. However German industrial leaders and leadership insiders are now split 1:3. The new smaller faction now want there to be structural reform on the EU. They don’t want the blame for causing that reform, but they do favour it. The English are good at handling crisis moments, like a Brexit vote, and will strike a deal with this faction. Thanks to WTO rules and the terms of the Lisbon Treaty then the EU is bound to ensure a neighbourly approach to Britain with negotiation of exit terms being compulsory. In this period the Germans will not let Britain leave but will take the opportunity to get their strategic refresh.

Boris Johnson has form for negotiating trade deals. By performing well on an official visit, he forced George Osborne onto a plane to finalise a deal he negotiated with the Chinese (contrary to US interests). Professor Evans imagines that if Britain votes to leave, Boris will be on a plane to Berlin to handle the crisis. Instead of “Leave” meaning “Leave” Boris will be striking a fresh agreement for a new fudged arrangement with the EU.

There is historical precedent for a Hanseatic League involving the fiscally conservative northern European states, trading with Britain. There could be a new Anglo-German-plus collection of states with an agreement between themselves.

Tim Evans on the 2016 Budget

Tim Evan’s recent talk at the Two Chairmen was delivered in three sections: the strategy of the new Corbyn axis in left-wing politics, the budget and the EU “Brexit” referendum. This article summarises the section on the budget.

This country is now in debt to nearly £1.6 trillion. The deficit is approximately £70 billion. In 365 days that is £192 million per day of new debt.

The fact that Corbyn is leading the Labour to the left means that expert triangulators Osborne and Cameron will try to appeal to voters as diverse as classical liberals and social democrats.

Osborne’s view is that Britain has onerous debt levels and reducing the deficit is a huge struggle. His department are playing for time.

Osborne is seeking to rebalance and broaden trading relationships, for example, angering the US to do deals with China and entering into projects with Germany to trade Chinese bonds. He also wants to retain relationships with Europe and ramp up trading with India.

His target is 36.5% of GDP – lower than Thatcher – without looking like a right winger.

His advantages are that the UK is a strong  reputable state with good rule of law and a highly skilled workforce (an example of Tim being very much in the mind of No 10!). They are also good at triangulation. For example he was not accused of being especially right wing when he made the Lib Dem coalition ministers supervise the sale of Royal Mail. He also keeps right wingers like us whining.