Leaders of Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union seem to have momentarily forgotten their liberal principles to argue that an exit will enable them to nationalize industries and keep immigrants out.
Michael Gove, the justice secretary, Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, and Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, have all argued that leaving the EU would unshackle Britain’s economy from centripetal forces that stifle growth. Their vision is of a free-trading Singapore on the Thames: cosmopolitan, nimble and proud.
So why have they spent the last few weeks deriding Brussels for blocking state aid for the Port Talbot Steelworks in Wales and talking about reducing immigration?
Change of heart
The answer, of course, is that most Euroskeptic voters aren’t interested in a free-market utopia.
So the same Michael Gove who once said “the debate on immigration has been poisoned by those who say we should pull up the barriers” now says Britain should pull up the barriers.
The same Boris Johnson who once said “I am the only British politician who will admit to being pro-immigration” now warns that the British population will rise “inexorably” unless the country exits the EU.
And the same Boris Johnson who once supported Turkish membership of the EU now mentions the possibility of Turkey joining as a reason for Britain to leave.
On Sunday, the former mayor justified his change of heart, telling the BBC, “The EU has changed out of all recognition.”
In just the last few years, really?
More likely Gove and Johnson “know their policy of pulling up the immigration drawbridge will serve no purpose other than their own,” as Dan Hodges writes in the Daily Mail.
Providing the keys to Downing Street in the case of Boris Johnson — and the key to rescuing a faltering campaign in the case of Michael Gove.
If the leavers prevail, David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader and prime minister who wants Britain to stay in the EU, would come under enormous pressure to resign. Johnson, as figurehead of the leave campaign, would seem the most likely candidate to succeed him.
The likes of Gove, Hannan and Johnson should be careful what they wish for, though, warns Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.
He doesn’t particularly mind their cynicism; pretending to be little Englanders when their dreams are global. “Politics is what it is.”
The problem with their pact of convenience is that it only makes strategic sense for the other signatories, the illiberal leavers. In a sovereign Britain, they would have the electoral numbers.
There is no majority for an even more globalized economy under a nightwatchman state, writes Ganesh.
Perhaps Britain can do better trade deals outside the EU. Perhaps it can breathe new life into the Commonwealth. Perhaps voters can be persuaded that workers from Eastern Europe are worth trading for immigrants from East Asia.
But if Britain votes to leave, it is more likely to find itself with fewer friends, a smaller market — and an alliance between paternalistic Tories and a protectionist Labour Party to keep it that way. What will Gove, Hannan and Johnson do then?