So would Brexit solve Cambridge’s problems?

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Marcus Johnson, Chief Executive of NW Brown, explains why he is against Brexit, as seductive as UKIP's arguments might be.Marcus Johnson

Those same middle class intellectuals who like to look down their noses at the UKIP campaign to close us off from the outside world and get rid of immigrants are actually often the first to complain about the traffic, the relentless growth in population and the continued construction boom in Cambridge.

And yet the single action which would at a stroke make house prices fall, end the labour shortage and reverse the population growth we have seen in recent years would be success for the Brexit movement in taking us out of Europe.  For Cambridge, in particular, the problems  caused by our economic success are to be seen everywhere – whether it is the two dozen cranes active in the immediate surroundings, the daily queues on the A14 or the huge difficulties all employers have in recruiting staff (both because of full employment and the difficulty in buying houses).

There is something hugely attractive about Nigel Farage’s vision of a Britannic idyll where we sit around in the sunshine drinking beer and watching cricket. And many of us would welcome fewer commuters on our roads and increasingly crowded railways.  Over a few years, probably quite quickly, we could have this with UKIP (and the loony right of the Tory party) in charge – a Brexit would remove the incentive for other Europeans to queue up to move here – it would, without the need for extra border patrols, remove the lure of well paid jobs in a prosperous country as the benefits of separation proved illusory.  But despite these attractive side effects, I would not welcome a Brexit.

This is not because of the effects on my clients as an investment manager – severe as these would most likely be. The fact that most companies we invest in for our clients get about 50% of their earnings from overseas trade is undeniable, as is the fact that our largest overseas market is the rest of the EU.  Economically I have no doubt that all our clients would be worth a lot less as the stock market fell and that the companies that they invest in would make lower profits or, if property related, probably go out of business,  but it is not on economic  grounds I oppose Brexit. We can live with higher interest rates, inflation and falling GDP.

It is not even that as an international investor with investments, friends and family in the rest of Europe I particularly fear the extra taxes and barriers to trade which would inevitably result, or even that I fear the lower living standards in the UK would have a big impact on social stability and the lifestyle choices the prosperity we have within Europe allows us.

It is simply that isolationism á la UKIP just does not work. History is littered with examples of countries which tried to avoid the rest of the world only to find ultimately they could not.  From large to small the unilateral declaration of independence is a recipe for impending disaster, whether it is the neutrality of Belgium or the refusal of the USA to join the League of Nations. Only Switzerland surrounded by the Alps and strategically unimportant can claim to have made a success of isolation – and even they are now effectively in the EU – they just do not get to vote on decisions.

Those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them – and very few of those who will be voting on June 23rd have actually lived through the last European war – none through all of the four major and countless smaller wars which were the rule rather than the exception for the 100 years which preceded the Treaty of Rome and its predecessors. Historians can argue whether these wars were essentially extensions of the Balkan wars with ethnic and religious tension at their heart or whether it was German and French competitive behaviour but in the late 1940’s there was a determination among European leaders (including Churchill) that institutions must be established to resolve the conflicts which inevitably arise between  nation states.  Almost all of us voting on June 23rd have benefitted from an unprecedented 75 years without a major European war - …..this is the first such period of near universal peace since the fall of the Roman Empire.

So the reason I shall vote to remain in the EU is absolutely clear. My grandson – and much as I would support him if he wants to join the army and fight for his country, I would really prefer he did not have to. I would like, if at all possible, for him to grow up in as peaceful a Europe as Robert Schuman and the other architects of the European institutions created for us. Anyone who believes that the forces which drive nations to war are less strong today than before has not looked at the Ukraine – or Georgia, Moldova, Armenia or a string of other conflict zones around the eastern borders of the EU. What has changed is that the major European powers are no longer able to take different sides. Now we have endless debates and all night sessions of the Council of Ministers and as often as not fail to agree or act but at least we do not fight. In Churchill’s words “Jaw Jaw is better than War War”. No-one, to the best of my knowledge, thinks that the bureaucracy in Brussels is wonderful – or that the over-regulation in detail which we all suffer adds to our enjoyment of life. Perhaps UKIP is right – perhaps we can escape all of this and become an island paradise. Maybe in practice we would become another Norway with all the regulations applying to us but with no voice in making them. But to my mind the worst excesses of regulation pale into insignificance when I look at the estimated annual death rate from political violence. The average number of conflict related deaths per year in Europe between 1900 and 1945 was over 1 million and the average number since is under 10,000. That this is a direct result of the rapprochement between Germany and France is not seriously doubted by anyone. It is not inevitable that France and Germany would fight again without the EU to keep them together – nor is it inevitable that the EU would fall apart if we left. It is not inevitable we would become involved in European wars, although we always have. It is just if I felt I had not done everything I could to preserve a peaceful and safe future for my grandchildren to grow up in I would not want to have to explain to them why I had failed to do so. When, in the early 1950’s, Spaak, Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer sat down to design what became the treaty of Rome it was the ghosts of those millions who had died because of European disunity who inspired them, and the fear that unless they could find a better way their children and grandchildren would die horrible deaths in the same way as two generations just had.

So seductive as the UKIP arguments might be – as beguiling as the thought of a Cambridge which is traffic free and not building on every spare plot is, it is  fear of the consequences which will keep me voting to preserve the unloved and uninspiring Europe of today. I am afraid of leaving – I am afraid of destroying the institution which, more than any other, has brought peace and prosperity to our corner of the world. 

 This article was published in the Cambridge Business Magazine - April 2016 Issue 52