Will Hutton: The Challenges We Face

The following is a full transcript of the keynote speech by Will Hutton, Political Economist, Writer, Journalist, held at the Remainers to Campaigners workshop on 21st October 2017 in Sevenoaks.

I’m delighted to be here, and delighted to see the two flags. I’m very keen that we should always fly the EU flag alongside the Union Jack. For me the EU flag stands for values that I really care about, and I know most Europeans and most British care about too. These are the values that we have inherited partly from our Christian tradition, and partly from the European Enlightenment. The Aquis Communitaire, the Four Freedoms, Europe’s collective commitment to democracy, the rule of law, evidence-based science, non-fake news, belief in objective reporting, tolerance of the Other, respect for argument, are essential conditions for our wonderful European civilisation.

I’ve been a lifelong European, I learned it on my father’s knee. He landed in Normandy on D-Day plus 8, and he had a few things to say to Nigel Farage about fighting Germans. He always told me when I was very young, that he was asked after fighting against them in the battle of Caen, to look after a thousand German prisoners of war. They had been fighting in tanks against the British, and had held Caen for five weeks. He really admired their martial spirit.

He told me that he was standing looking at these young men, who were indistinguishable from the young men he commanded and plainly not Nazis, but caught up like his men in terrible events, and promising himself that he would do whatever he could to make sure there would never, ever be another European war. That there was nothing to fight about, that he was lucky to have been born in Carlisle, he might just as well have been born in Dresden on the other side of the wire, and that we Europeans shared these core values, embodied in that flag.

The reason why I like to see it alongside the Union Jack is that I’m British too. I’m proud of Britain. I’m proud of the way we embodied the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and my view is driven by our being the first country to embrace it, to make it happen on the ground, that interplay between ideas and manufacture that drove the industrial revolution forward. And we were the first to establish a functioning democracy with proper checks and balances, as Montesquieu observed in Esprit des Lois. That is my Britain! A Britain of Darwin, a Britain of Shakespeare, a Britain of Wilberforce. And by associating it with the European flag I reclaim it, we reclaim it, from UKIP and the Tory Right!

And we also say that we want to be part of this extraordinary Enlightenment Project, this noble effort by fellow Europeans to come together and create a place where those values live, where we don’t fight, where we don’t competitively devalue, and where we don’t competitively have tariffs against each other, where we allow our companies and our young men and women to sell their products to each other and grow rich thereby. That’s why there is a Single Market, that’s why there’s a customs union, that’s why there’s a European Court to adjudicate disputes. It’s not there for the pure economics of it, it’s there because it does serve a noble cause. And I want to be part of it. I don’t want to leave it. I don’t want to be part of a so-called Soft Brexit, which anyway is an impossibility. I want to remain a proud member of the European Union and co-create my country and my continent’s future, and I hope you do too!

How do we interpret where we are? How do we interpret this vote to leave 52-48? I see it as the biggest protest vote yet mounted in a west European democracy. A lot of things came together: Yes, there was an element of anti-immigration. Yes, there was an element (brilliant catch-phrase) of taking back control. There was more darkly some less-than subterranean racism, and less-than subterranean suspicion of the foreigner. “Brussels is a conspiracy that is achieving today what Philip of Spain, Napoleon and Hitler never achieved!” You hear that from the likes of the great, vainglorious and supremely stupid Boris Johnson.

There was a time in my life when his career and mine intertwined briefly. I was the Economics editor of The Guardian and he was the Europe editor of The Daily Telegraph. We had to cover the great European conferences about the future of the ERM up to our leaving the ERM on so-called Black Wednesday. I would meet the finance ministers in the bar. My job was to look after the centrist and centre-left finance ministers from EU countries, and Boris would look after the centre-right ones. We’d meet in the bar to compare notes and discover what the story was. I was often stunned when I read the Telegraph the following morning and found what he wrote bore no resemblance to what we both knew had happened, but was what he wanted to have happened, and what he wanted his readers to read as part of his project of knocking the whole thing. He was quite a clever journalist though.

I do think we should understand this as a protest vote, and to look in the eye what is happening in contemporary Britain. Eight of North Europe’s poorest regions are in England. Not Scotland, England. Almost every town under 100,000 population, especially coastal communities, voted Brexit. It was the big metropolitan cities, even in the north of England, who voted to Remain. But everybody else felt marginalised and left out. And they felt that because, brutally, they are.

Real wages have been falling for the best part of a decade, and the conditions for many British are close to intolerable. Public services are under pressure, can’t make ends meet, parenting is no fun, kids at worst are feral and at best questioning what their identity is, worrying that there is no future for them. In many parts of the country there’s virtually no private sector employment apart from Mom and Pop convenience stores, a supermarket and a petrol station. All there is is gig economy work. That is the condition in South Yorkshire which voted 70% to leave the European Union. In the old mining villages round there they have firework displays, not to celebrate anything but to let you know a drugs cache has arrived in town.

I was cycling in Europe this summer with someone who lives there, and who captains a local football team. All the players are ex miners or ex steel workers, none of whom are in work, average age 57, and all of them looking forward to getting their pensions at 66. There is nothing for them in South Yorkshire. He said to me “It’s all very well talking about what’s going to be lost economically, and highfalutin arguments about European Enlightenment, or peace and prosperity, they’ve got no stake in any of that, none of it.” You can understand it as a “Stuff you southerners!” vote.
And there will be people in Sevenoaks who voted for similar reasons, but they will tend to be over 65. And this is another phenomenon: The 18-65 age group voted 51-49 to stay in the European Union. It was the over 65s who took us out, looking back to a world that has passed, to the 1950s, and imagining that it was possible to reinvent. You can correlate very closely the leave vote by the socio-economic characteristics of each ward. The fewer qualifications there were in a ward the more likely it was to vote Leave.

Now I want to stay in the European Union. And I want to win this argument. And I want to convert these people to share our view of the world. But we’re not going to do it if the conditions in which they live are as they are. And if we don’t contest the false promise that “Global Britain” (what the hell is that?) is going to offer them better than today.
We have to start making ground, and by the way it’s beginning. The latest poll evidence is that if a referendum was held today Remain would win – mind you that’s what the polls said before the referendum. There is some sign, said Peter Kellner of YouGov, writing in this month’s Prospect, that opinion has moved towards Remain. And even in South Yorkshire my spies tell me that people are moving towards Remain. Not because they have suddenly converted to the status quo, but because they don’t trust the Tories and Theresa May’s divided cabinet to bring us out on anything other than bad terms.

So this is an argument waiting to be won, and I think we have to do a number of things simultaneously. First of all we have to win the high-ground argument. We have to take on this notion of “Global Britain”, the idea that leaving the biggest free trade area in the world is somehow embracing globality, when in fact you’re turning your back on it. We need to contest the argument that there are sweetheart trade deals to be done with the Americans, the Indians and the Chinese that will compensate for what we are losing by leaving the European Union. Economists of any persuasion, except for Patrick Minford, knows that that’s nonsense. The cumulative loss of trade in goods and services could be a billion for each. And the multiplier effects of that means we confront a decade of low growth. Next year growth in Britain will be 1% or less in a world boom. Unprecedentedly, out of around 190 countries in the world, only a handful are not growing this and next year.

You’d have to be a monkey, or a blind nitwit to run an economy and get below-trend growth in 2018. And yet we are run by nitwits and blind monkeys. The impact of Brexit has produced precisely the calamity that we warned of in 2016. We were right. “Project Fear” was only too accurate. What is happening to the economy, what is happening to wages, what is happening to house prices, what is happening to commercial property, what is happening to disinvestment across all branches of the economy, is testimony to how correct Remainers were in their analysis of what’s going on, not how wrong!

We have to win these arguments. We have to win both the argument that the thing is going to go pear-shaped, win the argument that you were voting to be poorer, win the argument that being part of the European Union is to marry two brilliant flags.

To win the argument that being part of the European Union has brought you parental protection, employment protections, environmental protections, privacy standards that you wouldn’t have got by the British government alone. That being part of this great phenomenon is something very special. And what’s more, unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, the supreme nitwit of them all, welcomes Article 50 and Theresa May by saying: “You are a contemporary Gloriana”. Let me tell you Jacob, that no British monarch, no British leader, over the last 400 years, who understood balance-of-power politics in Europe, would ever leave a united political entity across the channel to play no part. To turn our back on it would not be what Gloriana did. She was dividing and ruling across the then councils of Europe as effectively as she could: that’s how she built the Elizabethan project. You are wholly wrong! Your history is rubbish! You misinterpret the past to mis-sell us the future! Yet we are invited to genuflect before such a person! How can you imagine that such a tortured human being could even begin to be the leader of a great national party like the Conservative party? What a phenomenon don’t you think?

So we have to win the high ground argument, we have to demonstrate why we are where we are. We have to persuade the business community, to start to have some cojones. I mean what a bunch! They take these “no regret” decisions to pull out of Britain. Thank you very much, but I wouldn’t mind you spelling out why you’re doing it. I don’t want the odd tweet. The director of the CBI needs to say it: “Leaving the European Union is economic disaster. We are going to become a depressed wasteland for decades. The prospect of Global Britain is not shared by the vast majority of British boardrooms. Jobs and growth depend on us staying in this Union.” That needs to be said. And by winning the intellectual high ground argument we might start to flush out British business.

We also have to win a cultural argument. I went to see Brexit the Musical. Every amateur dramatic society in every town ought to be rehearsing Brexit the Musical! It is the funniest, deadliest, take off of the Brexiteers, and mockery and satire is the British way. Jonathan Swift, an alumnus of Hertford College (that I lead) wrote A Modest Proposal that to solve hunger in Ireland the Irish should eat babies. It’s a wonderful satire. So horrifying was it that it actually turned policy at that time. We need to deploy satire.
Boris Johnson needs to be mocked. Rees-Mogg, with his references to Gloriana, needs to be mocked. The dreadful Michael Gove needs to be mocked, taken off, made fun of, ridiculed. Oh, and Lord Lawson. I’ve written a column about him in the Observer tomorrow that I think you might like. I got a few things off my chest. Self regarding bumbler. I don’t know if it’ll make the final copy but I compared him with Turner’s Fighting Temeraire. Like a non-fit for purpose ageing hulk he should be towed out to the broad sea and allowed to drift into the void. In his person he embodies every major cock-up of the last thirty years, including financial deregulation and privatisation of the water industry.

In his book, The View from Number Eleven, Lord Lawson quotes Willy Whitelaw says of water privatisation “If this bill passes it’ll be a huge mistake” and Lawson says “No, no, no, no”. But Whitelaw foresaw where we are now with Thames Water. It will take them 357 years to modernise their fifty miles of trunk drains at the current rate of investment, claims recent analysis. The deregulation of the labour market, the tax changes, the climate change denial, and this man is venerated. On the Today programme calling for Philip Hammond’s resignation. Spreadsheet Phil is not my closest mate, but when Lawson called for his resignation I thought “the man must be doing something right!”

So we have to win the cultural argument. I have my “B*llocks to Brexit” sticker on my laptop, I hope you have something similar. And I don’t take it off my laptop when I talk to the denizens of high finance, I let them read it. “This is where I stand guys, I can do no other!”
But ultimately this is an argument about who we are as a country, and its idea of democracy. Democracy is not about one poll on June 23rd 2016 being deified as the People’s Choice for all time, before which we must genuflect unquestioningly and get behind, even though it’s taking us over a cliff and a denial of what we stand for. To that I say, in echo of another politician I haven’t got much time for, “No, no, no!” Democracy is about what you’re doing in this room now. It’s about giving up a damp Saturday to talk, think, deliberate, get your arguments better, think about how you’re going to organise, think about how you’re going to turn public opinion in the community in which you live, and actually win votes. It’s an ongoing process. It doesn’t stop because there was a vote on June 23rd That’s not democratic, that’s despotism!

We’re just too nice and reasonable, we Remainers. We’re sweetie-pies. We allow ourselves to say “Oh, well you may have a point there, maybe we should get behind it.” No we mustn’t get behind it! I’m not going to get behind Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bernard Jenkin, Uncle Tom Cobley, Boris Johnson and all, come on! These guys are wrong. They were wrong in the 1980s, their policy framework is what’s brought our country to its current pass, they are why we have eight of the poorest regions in northern Europe. They’re why so many people live such awful lives. They’re why so many parts of our country are not very lovely to be in. That’s them. It was never the European Union’s fault!

It was never the European Union’s fault, and yet the European Union has got the blame. There are two substantive reasons why this happened: Firstly it is because it is unashamedly an Enlightenment project. The European Enlightenment is liberal. And there are liberal Tories, there are liberal Labour and Liberal Democrats, all of whom try to live out Enlightenment principles in their own political parties. But for the right of the Tory party and the Eurosceptics, that stands between them and the fulfillment of their Thatcherite vision.

Nigel Lawson wrote an article in The Financial Times on September 2nd 2016, “Now we can complete the Thatcherite revolution” was the title of his article, and that’s what they think they’re going to do. They’re going to walk away from the vast corpus of European law, as they describe it, and gradually, bit by bit, chip away at it and complete the universe that they couldn’t quite complete when she was in office in the 1980s. And so for them the European Union has become the next target to go for after the National Union of Mineworkers and the nationalised industries. And yes, they are supported by an overwhelmingly right wing press. The BBC tries to steer a path between the opinions of both sides, so we end up with Patrick Minford with his delusions being put up against one of a thousand economists with a different view. But if you’re a BBC editor or producer, you are obliged by the charter to reflect balance. We have to defend the BBC even while acknowledging its imperfections because it too is an Enlightenment institution. Like the National Health Service is an Enlightenment institution. That’s why we have to defend the rule of law, which is why the Daily Mail’s infamous “Enemies of the People” headline about the judges was an anti-enlightenment headline.

If we’re going to persuade lots of people, then whatever your politics we can rally behind the idea that Enlightenment values matter more than our particular party affiliation. And if we can do that we can start to bring people over and build a majority for actually staying in the European Union.
So, we have to push back, win the high ground argument, persuade business, win this culturally, have lots of satire, and you guys have got to organise on the ground. Yes, we will also need some indication from Europe that we can stay in the EU with more control of who crosses our borders – which they need to in order to counter the new populism everywhere. And we need to bring the various pro EU movements together. It’s unbelievable that Open Britain wouldn’t send anyone today. We are all on the same page, and part of winning the argument is also winning the argument between the various factions of people who one way or another want to object to the referendum result. We have to find a common position. Without a common position we are going to be screwed, and we are going to find ourselves not trying to stop the process but how we’re going to gather a majority to invoke Article 49 and get back in at some time in the future!

The last point I want to make, and arguably the most important one, is that this whole thing is conducted as if there are no risks in the world. This whole argument is conducted as if we can walk away from the European Union and it will remain there, able to handle its own problems, conflicts, tensions and dissentions. We were a crucial part of the alchemy that made the European Union work. We were allies of the Germans; we were allies of the Swedes; we were allies of the Northern Europeans. And at various times we were allies of Greece when they fought against the excesses of austerity.
We were part of the congress of Europe: doing the bargains, finding our way to some kind of resolution of the continent’s difficulties. We opted out of that. And by opting out of that we destabilise our continent. And we destabilise this great project of the European Union.

And we do it because we think the rest of the world is going to be as it has been over the last 30 years: seamlessly and peacefully carrying on with globalisation. Let me tell you, I don’t think that President Xi’s China is a bunch of sweetie-pies gagging to do us a sweetheart trade deal! This is the most mercantilist, most corrupt society on earth! I repeat: The most mercantilist, most corrupt society on earth! Their interest is to scalp us, not to give us booming markets for our goods. They see it exactly the other way round.

India, more friendly, are very, very clear, that if we can accept 180,000 immigrants each year from the European Union, we can certainly accept 180,000 immigrants from India! Control of our borders, we’re going to find, is a complete chimera. If we want any kind of trade deal with them they’re going to drive a hard bargain – and so I would do in their place!

And as for Donald Trump’s United States, you have to be as bird-brained as Liam Fox to believe that “America First” Donald Trump, representing a very strong strand in American politics (even the Democrats are pretty strongly “America First”, I must tell you), the idea that he will seize the opportunity to sell us not only chlorinated chicken, but anything else they can get rid of that we wouldn’t particularly want, to lower our product standards, and open up our public services to American multinationals to do what they will. That’s the nature of the deal.

We are going to be left to hang out to dry in a world in which the prospects for nearly all the people who voted to leave are going to be worse, not better. And we’re going to destabilise our own continent, and turn our back on the values we hold dear!

This is a deadly danger! We must contest it to the last!
Thank you so much for listening to me.