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Brexit was not really a neoliberal project, whatever that is

Summary:
Simon Wren Lewis argues in a recent post that Brexit was a ‘neoliberal project’.  That the driving force was a form of free-market utopianism. I have doubts about the project of diganosing Brexit as a neoliberal project. For starters, there are the Lexiters.  They see the EU as the neoliberal agent, strengthened by the agents of Europe’s companies ganging up on the workers.  They want to break free from the EU to intervene more, not less in markets. Then there are the nationalists and nativists. Nationalists want to break free because they have a preference for the sovereignty abstraction;  and a nostalgia for the UK’s imperial past as a great player on the world stage.  That was not about pursuing open markets, but about flexing muscles and imperial preference. Nativists want to

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Simon Wren Lewis argues in a recent post that Brexit was a ‘neoliberal project’.  That the driving force was a form of free-market utopianism.

I have doubts about the project of diganosing Brexit as a neoliberal project.

For starters, there are the Lexiters.  They see the EU as the neoliberal agent, strengthened by the agents of Europe’s companies ganging up on the workers.  They want to break free from the EU to intervene more, not less in markets.

Then there are the nationalists and nativists.

Nationalists want to break free because they have a preference for the sovereignty abstraction;  and a nostalgia for the UK’s imperial past as a great player on the world stage.  That was not about pursuing open markets, but about flexing muscles and imperial preference.

Nativists want to keep out foreigners, especially ones that don’t look like ‘us’.  This is an impediment to free markets.  They are happy to pay for that ‘privilege’.  And they will turn on business – which mostly favours open markets – if it tries to thwart them.  These strains of opinion are not usefully termed ‘neoliberal’, despite the legacy of a particularly elastic use of that term.

In follow up discussion of Simon’s post, ‘Property Spotter’ tweeted that even some of those advertising a preference for free markets are feigning it [the example of Dan Hannan was given].

One sense in which Simon’s headline may be right is this:  it was an accidental product of the behaviour of those in government who favoured something like the rough status quo before the referendum, in both the Labour and Conservative parties.

That is, in both governments, there was:  1) genuflection to anti-immigrant views in the UK, 2) common cause with those creating the archetype of the Brussels bureaucrat, (and it’s opposite, the failure to articulate the positive aspect of rule harmonisation), 3) more genuinely felt opposition to the labour market protections upheld by the EU.

The objective of this discourse was to try to make sufficient common cause with eurosceptic factions to sustain a governing coalition, but without threatening EU membership.  ‘We hate it all too but we can fight it from within’.

Of course the tactic, which included failing to articulate the business benefits of EU membership, backfired.

If you find it helpful to turn this argument into something involving the term ‘neoliberal’, then Brexit was a neoliberal project because UK neoliberals failed to articulate what EU did for neoliberalism.

All that said, because of the particular elasticity with which the term neoliberal is used, the debasing of the term by those on the left who seem to adopt it as a coalition building term to campaign against something bad in the status quo, I don’t see that we get farther by encoding our Brexit diagnoses using sematics like ‘neoliberal’.

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Tony Yates
Economist. Consulting, lecturing, a book. Ex Prof at Bham, Ex BoE staffer. Macro, policy, monetary econ, occasional nonsense.

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