Of scaremongers and Panglossians

Iain Duncan Smith has been in the headlines today, following a piece in the Daily Mail in which he made the all too familiar accusation that those campaigning to stay in the EU are guilty of scaremongering.

The “acrimonious” conduct of the UK’s EU Remain campaign risks damaging the government beyond the June referendum, Iain Duncan Smith has warned.

He said those making “desperate and unsubstantiated” claims about EU exit risked damaging their own integrity.

To be fair, Duncan Smith is well qualified to comment on this subject, having a great deal of experience of making desperate and unsubstantiated claims which damage the speaker’s integrity. Still, his comments did cause my eyebrows to rise somewhat given that Eurosceptics have hardly been averse to scaremongering themselves in the past. Remember those stories about how we were going to be swamped by Romanians and Bulgarians, which turned out to be nonsense? Or numerous reports of how dastardly EU regulations were outlawing insufficiently straight cucumbers, banning children from blowing up balloons or preventing us from composting tea bags, etc. ad nauseam?

On last night’s Question Time justice minister Dominic Raab called for rational debate whilst making the highly dubious claim that half of our laws are made by the EU, whilst UKIP’s Louise Bours denounced scaremongering whilst warning of us that if we stay in the EU we could soon have 75 million Turks on our doorsteps, causing any dogs in the vicinity of viewers’ TV sets to prick up their ears at the whistling sound.

This is not to say that the Remain side hasn’t employed hyperbole and made exaggerated claims about the risk of leaving on occasions, and it’s no more acceptable when they do it than when Leave campaigners do. In fact it would be very easy to simply shrug our shoulders and say “well they’re all guilty, they should concentrate on the facts, make positive arguments and forget the scare stories”. And up to a point that’s a reasonable argument, but it misses the fact that the two competing arguments are not symmetrical. The fact is we know what the outcome of a Remain vote would look like – things would be pretty much the same as they are now. The natural optimist in me thinks that a decisive Remain vote might even engender some goodwill from our EU partners which we could use as leverage to get some positive reforms which would benefit all countries, as opposed to the largely cosmetic concessions aimed at appeasing peculiar British prejudices obtained by David Cameron. But even in the worst case it would be business as usual and we’d be no worse off than now. That’s not  exactly an inspiring argument, but “better the devil you know” can be quite persuasive in politics.

By contrast, the outcome of a Leave vote is highly uncertain. We don’t know what the short term economic impact would be, but there is a good chance it will be negative. We don’t know what kind of agreement for access to the single market would subsequently be reached with the EU or how long it would take to achieve it, but it could take a long time and would almost certainly be less favourable than the arrangement we have at the moment. We don’t know how trade with the rest of the world would be affected, given that the UK currently benefits from a number of trade agreements between the EU and other nations which would no longer apply to us once we were outside the EU. We don’t know how inward investment from abroad would be affected – would foreign companies still want to invest in this country without the benefit of direct access to the single market?

These are all genuine, serious questions and there is a real risk that the answers will not be favourable. Maybe they won’t be so bad, maybe there would be mitigating positive outcomes, but those of us who favour staying within the EU are right to ask these questions, and the Leave campaigners need to find more convincing answers than they have so far. Panglossian statements about Britain being a great country and the fifth biggest economy in the world are not a substitute for serious arguments which address the actual practicalities of a future for the UK outside the EU. It’s not “scaremongering” to point this out, and I can’t help thinking that much of the talk about “project fear” from the Leave side is designed to distract attention from the flimsiness of their own arguments. They should remember that things didn’t turn out too well for Dr. Pangloss.

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