Proponents of EU Exit Should Stop Disparaging Institutions

Advocates of a British withdrawal from the EU are undermining the public’s trust in institutions.

View of the Houses of Parliament from Whitehall, London, England, March 31, 2004
View of the Houses of Parliament from Whitehall, London, England, March 31, 2004 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Financial Times is spot on when it warns today that Euroskeptics risks doing serious damage to Britain’s political institutions before the referendum campaign is over.

In the last few days alone, the Bank of England, the Treasury and the head of the National Health Service have all been derided for pointing out the dangers of leaving the European Union.

The former have provided detailed analyses of what an exit would mean for Britain’s economy. They are, of course, estimates and sensible people can disagree about what the future would hold. Open Europe, a mildly Euroskeptic thinktank, for example, argues that the Treasury may be overstating its case a little.

But that’s no excuse for the vitriol coming from hardened Euroskeptics, like Iain Duncan Smith, the former pensions secretary, who said the institution is “the worst thing we have in Britain.”

Or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who accused central bank chief Mark Carney of taking sides and acting “beneath the dignity of the Bank of England.”

Such assaults have been extended to other parts of the debate. The Financial Times:

Simon Stevens, the respected chief executive of the National Health Service, warned on Sunday that Brexit would damage the institution he leads, only to be accused of having made “a very considerable mess” of the NHS. When two former heads of the security services declared that Brexit would undermine the fight against terrorism, they were accused of being nobbled by Downing Street.

Cautionary tale

Earlier this month, I pointed out that proponents of an exit tend to find intrigue in every setback and are prone to questioning the motives of those who disagree with them. It seems impossible for some leavers to believe that anyone might sincerely think Britain is better off staying in the EU.

Their recriminations are not without consequence. When you attack the neutrality and professionalism of your public institutions for long, people will eventually start to believe what you’re saying.

Consider what the anti-elitism and obstructionism of the Republican Party in the United States has wrought. As the Financial Times notes (and also read Jonathan Bernstein’s latest at Bloomberg View on this topic), the party has for years “signaled to voters that institutions and traditions are things to be ignored and insulted. After such irreverence, the demagoguery — and appeal — of Donald Trump should come as no surprise.”


Institutions matter. And they should matter especially to the sovereignty fanatics who want to return power from Brussels to those same institutions.

“The Brexiters demand that Britain should leave the EU so that sovereignty is returned to the British people,” the Financial Times writes. “Yet they lose no opportunity to attack the credibility of the very public institutions which would exercise that sovereignty should the UK depart.”

It makes no sense and it should stop.

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