30 March, 2016 - 10:32 By Tony Quested

Time for ‘Sure of Shoreditch’ not ‘Vague on The Hague’

It was former US businessman Bert Lance, a member of the Jimmy Carter administration, who is credited with coining the anti-activists’ mantra: ‘If it aint broke don’t fix it.’

The debate over whether Britain should quit the EU – Brexit – has been so inadequately argued that it must be tempting for the fence sitters to rest their case on Lance’s advice. It is hard to argue that the EU is not ‘broke’ – in many functional facets. Trouble is, no one lobby has provided a convincing enough argument to show that leaving the EU would either be good or bad for the British people and the UK economy.

The reason for that is simple – no-one can possibly know what the outcome of exit will be unless and until we quit. Trotting out another hoary old homily: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

The economy would appear to be in a precarious enough state without gambling on what may or may not happen if the June 23 referendum decides Britain should retract to isolated island status.
Many a maverick punter in countless scenarios has gambled on being dealt a metaphorical full house only to be left clutching a busted flush.

Having canvassed a number of senior local executives for their views, the business camp – certainly in this region – seems to be as split as the nation. What is clear is that views on whether to stay or quit are being blurred by personal distaste for EU bureaucracy rather than sound business arguments.

A lot of bosses I speak to resent the EU for strangling SMEs with red tape, late payment of invoices by Brussels to small businesses that have provided services and perceptions of joy riding around the globe by Eurocrats at the taxpayers’ expense.

One common business-based argument is that customers will buy the best value for money product whether or not the supplier is based in an EU member country. That is a naive and dangerous assumption bordering on arrogance.

Setting aside the reality of import and export tariffs, mainland European countries can supply one another by popping goods a few miles across the border rather than having to Fedex them across the Channel.

So if the product from Brexit Britain is roughly the same quality and price as that found in a fellow member state why incur extra time, trouble and expense by straying from the homeland? Britain’s reputational capital abroad isn’t high enough to counter that kind of understandable prejudice.

The potential risk to trade from Brexit is clearly real enough to warrant the most careful thought. In turn, that will require more reasoned arguments to be set before the people by the protagonists.
There is also a danger that we will end up by default with a ‘racist referendum’ – hijacked by those like UKIP who see such a move as a way of closing our borders to migrants.

As in any referendum, we narrow the ambit of argument at our peril. Reference the 2014 Scottish Independence vote. The question on the ballot paper was: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The dice was loaded.

Had the question been: “Do you want to exit the UK and fund your own Government, including infrastructure, education and welfare?” – do you think the vote would have been so close?

What a let-off the SNP and Scottish people have had, given the inexorable decline of the North Sea oil & gas industry which has just prompted demands from politicians and corporate worthies north of the border for massive State investment to try to reverse the slide.

Sadly, the lessons of the Scottish Independence poll have not been learned. The question facing UK voters on June 23 will be: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

Another dice loaded in favour of the ignorant. One can only hope that the Government does its job in the next two and a bit months and ensures that the nation enters the polling booths with the clearest possible understanding of the risks and opportunities.

Preferably those arguments will be presented by independent economists and business leaders rather than politicians whose rhetoric smacks of the grinding of exceptionally rusty axes.

There would appear to be too much at stake in terms of jobs and the wider wellbeing of the UK population to allow people to sleepwalk into an ill-informed and potentially damaging vote.

The country would appear to need ‘Sure of Shoreditch’ rather than ‘Vague on The Hague.’

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