Response to Gove’s BrExit support statement

This is a response to Michael Gove’s statement in support of BrExit.  His premise seems to be that the UK uniquely has not been subject to tyranny whereas the other EU countries have been.It’s a narrow minded parody of what the EU is and does. One would think he’d never held high office in the UK! Given his determination that restoration of absolute sovereignty is his priority, then we can presume he no longer wants the UK to be part of the EU Single Market: it simply won’t be possible to have both.If Gove is happy to ignore the opinions of those who do trade and engage with the EU on the likely impact, then fine but he (and Boris Johnson) should at least be honest and not promise a nirvana that can’t be delivered.

“My starting point is simple. I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and Governments at election time.”

Fine principles. [note I wrote this before reading Niall Ferguson’s excellent piece in the Sunday Times of 21st Feb 2016]. But this is a rather quaint, 19th Century, view of the world. In a globally connected world where trade, environment, security, crime, and many other areas are interconnected we are unable to take unilateral action. Acting, for example, in our own selfish interest that has unwelcome consequences for other nations, including our neighbours, will result in consequences to us. Such problems cannot be dealt with unilaterally and must be dealt with in a collaborative manner. Abstract notions of sovereignty are irrelevant and it is irresponsible and misleading to the public to claim we can make our own laws and act in our own self interest without regard for the interests of other nations and the inhabitants of those nations. ANY and all international law is an infringement of national sovereignty. Whilst parliament can technically abrogate treaties constraining its actions, it cannot do so without consequences. Does Gove advocate leaving the UN and its institutions like the ICC, NATO, WHO etc? These all impose constraints on our national sovereignty. What about the at least 13,200 international agreements the UK has signed upto since 1834 (plus quite a few that are even older)?

In Gove and others’ black and white view of sovereignty, you have it or you don’t have it. Outside the EU, being subject to vast amounts of international law and treaties, we won’t have it either, so why make special complaints about the EU? Membership of international organisations are a way of ensuring our sovereignty is enhanced because a theoretical sovereignty is unable to do so on its own. Just as membership of a golf club ensures you have the ability to play golf on reasonable terms for someone that does not have the land to make their own course and finds turning up at private golf courses on the offchance they can have a game is more than likely to be disappointed.

“But our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives.”

Large swathes? Really? The House of Common Library estimates about 13% of our laws are made, or derived from, the EU. The vast majority are in technical areas to do with product specifications that were, prior to the EU, set by [unelected and unaccountable] national standards bodies. Moreover, the impact on people is very different. Which has greater impact on the people of the UK: safety regulations on oven gloves or the tripling of university fees? Rules on the imports of ferrets or [Gove’s] introduction of “free” schools and other education reforms?

“ Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out. “

This presumes a nonsense: that the EU imposes laws on an unwilling and impotent UK. In fact, the UK government is represented on the EU Council of Ministers which must approve ALL EU Commission proposals. The EU parliament must approve the proposals and the UK parliament has the right to review commission proposals. If our MEPs and MPs do not avail themselves of the opportunity to review, revise or even block EU Commission proposals, whose fault is that? Moreover almost all rights and obligations are reciprocal.

“We can take out our anger on elected representatives in Westminster but whoever is in Government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT”

I’m pretty certain that had Cameron asked the EU to abolish VAT on (say) tampons they would have agreed without much ado. Let’s remember that Gove was a member of the government that INCREASED VAT to 20%.

“cannot support a steel plant through troubled times”

Let’s remember which party and which nation was most insistent on the EU having rules constraining  member state subsidies for industries: that’s right, the Tories and the UK. Maybe other EU countries are smarter at circumventing these rules, but there’s no evidence that any party in government since 1979 would intervene in protecting unviable businesses. It really is disingenuous of Gove (or the libertarians in UKIP for that matter) to blame the EU for our failure to intervene in protecting our steel industry.

“cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed”

Really? UK planning policy is a much greater determinant. Plus the Tory tendency to pander to NIMBYism.

“and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country”

Yawn: nothing to do with the EU. We can deport or refuse to admit EU criminals. Indeed, if you want to do that it really does help to be part of the EU so that police services can share information. Isn’t Gove Justice Secretary? Is he confusing the ECHR with the EU?

“The ability to choose who governs us, and the freedom to change laws we do not like, were secured for us in the past by radicals and liberals who took power from unaccountable elites and placed it in the hands of the people. “

So do other countries. Has he heard of the French Revolution? Has he heard of the Europe wide revolutions of 1848 that overthrew some tyrannies and gave others a shock and, eventually, brought constitutional government to many of the peoples of Europe? Let’s remember universal suffrage was only granted in the UK in 1928!

However, the reality of the past 6 years with the EuroCrisis, the migrant crisis and even the UK renegotiations, national sovereignty is alive and well in the EU in 2016. The EU’s (and the much overstated German) ability to impose its will on its members is extremely limited. Many actually regard that as a good thing and the reason for its success.

“As a result of their efforts we developed, and exported to nations like the US,

Who showed their gratitude by rebelling and defeating Britain.

“India, “

Where we inflicted famine, massacres and imposed trade protectionism such that it went from the most prosperous country in the world in 1750 to one of the poorest at independence.

“… a system of democratic self-government which has brought prosperity and peace to millions.”

“Our democracy stood the test of time. We showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves.”

But so did many other countries.

“In Britain we established trial by jury in the modern world, “

But other countries established robust and fair justice systems too. Just because they’re different to ours doesn’t make them worse. Indeed, over the past 40 years I have seen many injustices resulting from trial by jury: the Birmingham 6, Guildford 4, Maguire 7 etc etc. Gove probably has insight into many more as Justice secretary.

“We set up the first free parliament, “

Whilst this may be a definitional issue, I suspect the people of Iceland would disagree. When the supremacy of parliament was established in 1688, only a tiny proportion of the “free people” had any say over the election of parliament and took another 2 centuries before the electoral system was reasonably fair and even then the franchise excluded many working class men and all women. Universal franchise was only introduced in 1928 after quite a few of our EU partners.

“we ensured no-one could be arbitrarily detained at the behest of the Government,”

Fair enough. We also ensured Europe adopted these principles in the ECHR around 1950.

“we forced our rulers to recognise they ruled by consent not by right,”

True. And this too has been adopted widely in the world. But that means we have shared values with them, not some exceptional difference that separates us from them.

 “we led the world in abolishing slavery,”

True. But what’s that got to do with the EU?

“we established free education for all, national insurance, “

Actually these were innovations first widely introduced by Bismarck in Germany. The UK had to quickly introduce free education for all as Germany was outpacing Britain in the late 19C in the skills of its workforce. As for National Insurance, remind us which party opposed its introduction? Yes, that’s right, the Tory Party who used their (then) majority in the House of Lords to block its introduction. Some commitment to democracy!

“the National Health Service”

Which many of Gove’s BrExit Fellow Travellers inside the Tory party and in UKIP wish to privatise.

“and a national broadcaster respected across the world.”


“By way of contrast, the European Union, despite the undoubted idealism of its founders and the good intentions of so many leaders, has proved a failure on so many fronts. “

When we joined the EEC in 1973, we were one of the poorest members. We had low growth, high inflation, a collapsing currency, poor quality manufactures, lousy industrial relations. We looked at the EEC and saw confidence and prosperity. If the EU is having problems now then we cannot assume it is destined always to be like that. It is a point in time. Joining when it was having a good time and leaving when it’s having a bad time is extremely cynical and opportunistic.

“The euro has created economic misery for Europe’s poorest people. “

Hang on. Greece and  Italy agreed to abide by a set of rules for the Euro. They didn’t abide by them and borrowed too much. Whose fault was that?

“ European Union regulation has entrenched mass unemployment. “

Hang on. Don’t Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and many other EU countries have very good employment and are subject to the exact same EU regulation?

“EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders.”

Wrong. Civil wars and unwise interventions by Western powers have brought about mass migrations. They head to the nearest safe havens and ones where they can more likely prosper, which happen to be the EU.

“Far from providing security in an uncertain world, the EU’s policies have become a source of instability and insecurity. Razor wire once more criss-crosses the continent, historic tensions between nations such as Greece and Germany have resurfaced in ugly ways and the EU is proving incapable of dealing with the current crises in Libya and Syria.”

It wasn’t the EU that destabilised Libya and Syria.

“The former head of Interpol says the EU’s internal borders policy is “like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe” and Scandinavian nations which once prided themselves on their openness are now turning in on themselves.  All of these factors, combined with popular anger at the lack of political accountability, has encouraged extremism, to the extent that far-right parties are stronger across the continent than at any time since the 1930s.”

Maybe. But let’s remember that the causes of World War 1 and its successor were not the result of too little national sovereignty but by great powers concerned only with their narrow self interest and not the broader interests of the people of Europe. Removing ourselves from the EU will do absolutely nothing to solve the problems of mass migration nor protect us from it.

“The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date. The EU tries to standardise and regulate rather than encourage diversity and innovation. It is an analogue union in a digital age.”

That’s an opinion. How’s leaving it going to change it? We have just had 70 years of peace between the European Great Powers. In the previous 250 years there were great power conflicts, most involving Britain, about every 20 years. The EU has been a key enabler of that peace and the expansion of democracy.  It may well warrant reform, but Gove’s solution is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

“EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).”

Wow. Such tyranny. Some of these are debated here. Measures such as tripling of student fees, the 3000 pages of the last NHS reform Act, Gove’s “free schools”, raising of pension ages, bedroom tax, benefits caps, to reduce police levels, to intervene in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, to introduce the “bedroom tax”, subsidised home loans and a whole host of high impact legislative acts that the EU has no say in whatsoever are trivial in comparison with such dictates. Whether you approve of these or not, which has by far the greater impact on the UK and its citizens: tripling of student fees or common processes for importing ferrets; Which has greatest impact on UK citizens: the “bedroom tax” or being forced to accept common rules on olive and tobacco cultivation? Those are rhetorical questions, by the way.

“Individually these rules may be comical. Collectively, and there are tens of thousands of them, they are inimical to creativity, growth and progress.”

That’s a matter of opinion. Once car makers are forced to adhere to a common set of safety and environmental standards, they are then able to innovate and compete in the performance and functions of the cars. There is also the alternative which is proliferate national standards meaning non-tariff barriers to trade, lower production volumes, higher prices and less competition. I think the views of businesses is more compelling on this point, not politicians who’ve never held a job in the real world. In general rules and laws emerge to address a real or perceived problem that impacts on society. The EU does this in a number of areas: to ensure the Single Market functions well; to improve the health and safety of citizens; to improve the environment; to ensure EU states don’t engage in a “race to the bottom” in any of these domains. Whilst those of a libertarian bent might argue the free market is a better determinant of these issues, history shows they are wrong. Regulation of safety and environmental standards is usually a spur to innovate, not an inhibitor. Rules on car engine emissions have resulted  in manufacturers innovating to improve engine performance and reduce emissions. Rules on vacuum cleaner power are driving manufacturers to improve both efficiency and effectiveness (so we don’t ahve to spend longer hoovering). Rules on oven glove safety ensure that something I buy at a street market in Bergerac (a real life example) are fit for purpose when used back home.

“Rules like the EU clinical trials directive have slowed down the creation of new drugs to cure terrible diseases”

That’s a matter of debate. The public need to be sure new drugs meet exacting standards. If we left the EU our Pharmaceuticals would still have to obey these (and equally onerous US FDA regulations)  directives or they could not sell drugs in these geographies. If Gove wants to get them changed they’ll only be changed within the EU, not if we left. If the UK implemented what to pharmas is a more benign regulatory regime would that bring new drugs to market faster? Of course not. Why would pharmas spend billions developing new drugs for a market of just 60 millions because it was slightly cheaper to do so? Especially if they risked personal injury suits in court for selling drugs that would not be permitted in other jurisdictions.

“and ECJ judgements on data protection issues hobble the growth of internet companies.”

Heard of Apple’s response to the FBI on the San Bernadino iphones?

“As a minister I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer.”

That’s nonsense. Gove must know that the UK government does request EU rules and has the capacity to revise or even block proposals. In many cases it’ll conveniently say the EU imposed something so they can pass the buck on something they either want or know they would have to do anyway.

“It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country.”

No, it’s not hard to overstate it: you’ve just done that.

“ Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules’. I know it. My colleagues in government know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter.”

Nonsense. That’s laziness by ministers or civil servants. Most EU rules are to ensure the single market functions efficiently or to protect consumers, workers or the environment. Gove clearly doesn’t care about these things. Is Gove also conflating the ECHR with the EU? Leaving the latter still leaves us subject to the former unless Gove wishes to join that bastion of freedom and democracy, Belarus, outside the ECHR.


“We can take back the billions we give to the EU, the money which is squandered on grand parliamentary buildings and bureaucratic follies, and invest it in science and technology, schools and apprenticeships. “

Really? The 0.5% of GDP the net contributions cost us. That’s close to noise level in the national accounts.

“We can get rid of the regulations which big business uses to crush competition and instead support new start-up businesses and creative talent. “

What specific regulations? Does Gove want to make products such as cars, toys and electrical equipment less safe? Does he want to make working conditions for employees less safe? What regulations is business asking us to remove? Would voters accept them? Would cars we make to a less safe specification be saleable in the UK?

“We can forge trade deals and partnerships with nations across the globe, helping developing countries to grow and benefiting from faster and better access to new markets.”

Germany seems to export well across the world subject to the exact same rules were are subject to. Why is that? Why would a market of 60 million consumers get a better trade deal with these countries than a market of 500 millions?

“We are the world’s fifth largest economy,

with the best armed forces of any nation, “

I think the US Armed forces would dispute that. Maybe the French would too.

“more Nobel Prizes than any European country and more world-leading universities than any European country. “

In which case you would expect to find UK Universities advocating  BrExit. Are they? No, they most certainly are not.

“Our economy is more dynamic than the Eurozone,”

When we joined in 1973 the EEC was much more dynamic. This is a point in time debate.

“we have the most attractive capital city on the globe, “

I think the French, Italians and most likely Germans, Spaniards, Dutch and many other countries would dispute that. It’s neither a reason to leave the EU nor stay in it. Irrelevant in fact. However, London is a rich and diverse city partly because of the EU. Is it not one of the largest cities of French speakers in the world?

“the greatest “soft power” and global influence of any state and a leadership role in NATO and the UN. “

All amplified and reinforced by our leading membership of the EU.

“Are we really too small, too weak and too powerless to make a success of self-rule? On the contrary, the reason the EU’s bureaucrats oppose us leaving is they fear that our success outside will only underline the scale of their failure.”

If we (as BrExiters claim) we keep being isolated in a club of similar scale, similar democracies right on our doorstep, why on earth would we fare better in global groups of a hundred or two hundred countries? It really is a perverse argument.

“This chance may never come again in our lifetimes, which is why I will be true to my principles and take the opportunity this referendum provides to leave an EU mired in the past and embrace a better future.”

True. And be very careful what you wish for. You might get it and not like it. Nowhere does Gove actually say what relationship with the EU he advocated post-Brexit. It is an honourable position to argue that absolute national sovereignty is much more important than prosperity. But at least admit to it.

See also:

Geo-Strategic Reasons for EU Membership

Geo-Political Considerations

What is meant by “Leave” the EU?

Analyses of Brexit Options

EU Laws: Are they really “pointless rules and regulation”?

Reciprocity: a glass half full or half empty?

Is the EU really undemocratic?

EU Cost of Membership

Implications for exPat Brits

Will we save money by leaving? The cost of EU Membership

Some tiresome arguments from BrExit advocates

It’s such an easy decision to leave, right?

Was Cameron shafted in the renegotiations?

Commentary on Gove’s BrExit statement

Does BrExit solve the migration crisis for the UK?

Boris at the Treasury Select Committee

Is it really Project Fear?

The Trade Embargo Strawman

The Government’s pro-Remain Leaflet

Summary of Brexit Alternatives