The Dismal Debate: would a “Brexit” mean more power for the UK?

MFlinders-new-smallBy Matthew Flinders

“Money, money money. Must be funny. In a rich man’s world.” As an academic I’m highly unlikely to ever have either “money, money, money” or live in a “rich man’s world.” But as a long-time student of politics I’ve been struck by how the debate in the UK about the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union has been framed around just two issues – money and power. The political calculation being peddled in the UK is therefore embarrassingly simple: leaving the EU would mean that the UK had more money and more power.

This really has been a dismal debate. Those in favour of “Brexit” or “Bremain” have both engaged in an almost hysterical game of chasing shadows and creating phantoms. Shadows in the sense of making largely spurious claims about the impact of leaving the EU (i.e. “It would be very very bad!” or “It would be very very good”) when the truth of the matter is that no one really knows what would happen if the UK left the Union. Predictions must try to grapple with so many variables and uncertainties that the only way anyone would ever really know what would happen would be by the UK actually leaving. And yet part of this rather childish playground-like debate has been an automatic default to simplistic zero-sum games that are of little value in the real world. Would the UK really save any money if it stopped paying in to the EU budget? Well at a simplistic level it would but at a more sophisticated level it may not because the UK would then no longer receive funding back from the EU or have a seat at the table in major decisions concerning large infrastructure projects.

Would the UK really have more power, and the EU therefore “less” power, if the UK walked away? There seems to be no understanding of either positive-sum conceptions of power (i.e. by pooling some powers with other actors we overall actually gain more power and influence in some policy areas than we could ever have on our own) or the real world of global governance or international affairs. Does the UK really think that a small island just nine hundred miles long off the coast of continental Europe really still remains a global heavyweight with the capacity to “go it alone?” The seas of contemporary international politics rage like a storm: there is great value in setting sail in flotillas rather than in single small boats, and far better to have safe and secure anchorage points in the middle of a tornado. (And recent years have sent us political and economic storms, tornadoes and hurricanes that really should make the UK think twice.)

In this context, President Obama’s recent intervention was a beautiful mixture of charm laced with menace. The UK, was for him, taking a huge step into the unknown and caution was being urged. But Obama’s intervention also raised two issues that have simply not received the attention they deserve, issues that could transform a dismal debate into something quite different. The first is a shift away from a simplistic focus on power and money and back to a more basic focus on war and terror. To make such a point is not to engage in ‘the politics of fearmongering’ that is ripe in the UK at the moment but to make the simple point that the EU was from its very inception framed around the need to ensure peace through collective efforts. From the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 the underpinning ideal of the EU knew the value of international co-operation and not just its price. In terms of fostering peace and co-operation across an ever-larger union of countries the EU can only be seen as a success.

This leads me to the second (‘Obama-esque’) issue: national confidence. I can’t help wondering if what is actually driving the Brexit campaign in the UK is a lack of confidence and national belief. This might seem odd in light of the desire to ‘go-it-alone’ but there is a lot of huff and puff behind the UK’s constant position as an “awkward partner” within the EU. The missing component – the political ‘X-Factor’ – of the current debate about the UK and the EU is not about leaving but about recommitting to the ideals and vision of the EU in a different but positive way. This is not the same as adopting a federal vision or embracing ‘ever closure union’ but it is about adopting a more positive ‘Yes We Can!’ attitude to re-shaping the EU with the UK at its core and not dragging its feet like a recalcitrant teenager on its periphery. Now wouldn’t that make for a more refreshing debate?

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield and is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom. He has just launched a major research and public engagement project called ‘Designing for Democracy’ which is focused on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster in London and uses this multi-billion pound infrastructure project to re-think the nature of democracy “in theory” and democracy “in practice.”

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Depoliticization, governance and the state by Matthew Flinders and Matt Wood.

Reposted with kind permission from, where this article first appeared on 1 May 2016

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