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Brexit is Britain’s gift to the world

Simon Kuper, Financial Times
22 de septiembre de 2017

The UK is now experimenting on itself for the benefit of humanity

The British chemist Sir Humphry Davy (born 1778) liked dangerous experiments. He was fired from his job as an apothecary for causing constant explosions. Later, as a chemist, he enjoyed inhaling the gases he worked with. This helped him discover that nitrous oxide (laughing gas) was a potent anaesthetic. “Unfortunately,” notes a short guide to his career from Oxford University Press, “the same habit led him to nearly kill himself on many occasions and the frequent poisonings left him an invalid for the last two decades of his life.” It was probably worth it: Davy isolated substances including calcium and strontium, identified the element iodine and made the first electric light.

Much like Davy, the UK is now experimenting on itself for the benefit of humanity. Advanced societies rarely do anything so reckless, which is why the Brexit experiment is so valuable. In between self-poisonings, Brexit keeps producing discoveries that surprise both Leavers and Remainers. Here are some early lessons for other countries:

When you focus on a wedge issue, you divide society. The Brexit vote has introduced unprecedented rancour into a traditionally apolitical country. Insults such as “enemies of the people”, “saboteurs”, “racists” and “go home to where you came from” are now daily British fare. Brexit rows split generations at family weddings and Christmas. All this was avoidable: until the referendum, few Britons had strong views on the EU, just as few Americans thought about transgender bathroom habits until their politicians discovered the issue. If you have to address wedge issues, best to aim for compromise rather than a winner-take-all solution such as a referendum.

All countries need real-time election regulators. There have always been people who lied to win votes. But now they have social media. Every slow, understaffed, 20th-century election regulator must therefore retool itself into a kind of courtroom judge who can call out falsehoods instantly. The model is the UK Statistics Authority’s reprimand of Boris Johnson last Sunday, after he repeated the nonsense that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the National Health Service.

Revolutionaries invariably underestimate transition costs. Maybe if you have a blank slate, being out of the EU is better than being in it. But the calculation changes once you’ve been in the EU for 43 years. All your arrangements are then predicated on being in, and suddenly they become redundant. The cost of change is a classic conservative insight, though it’s been forgotten by the Conservative party.

Almost every system is more complex than it looks. Most people can’t describe the workings of a toilet, writes Steven Sloman, cognitive scientist at Brown University. The EU is even more complicated, and so leaving it has countless unforeseen ramifications. Most Britons had no idea last year that voting Leave could mean closing the Irish border, or giving ministers dictatorial powers to rewrite law. Because of complexity, so-called common sense is a bad guide to policy making. Complexity is also an argument against direct democracy.

Immigrants fulfil a role. Any society in which they live comes to depend on them. Britain’s NHS and the City of London would buckle without them. You may calculate that your distaste for immigrants is worth some lost functioning, but you have to acknowledge the trade-off.

You have to choose who to surrender your sovereignty to. Brexiters are right to say that the EU has usurped some of British sovereignty. But as John Major, former British prime minister, remarks, in a connected world the only fully sovereign state is North Korea. All other countries are forever trading away bits of sovereignty. For instance, the trade deal that the UK hopes to sign one day with the EU will entail adopting the EU’s standards on everything from cars to toys. You can decide to give away your sovereignty in new ways but, in practice, you can’t decide to keep it.

A government can only handle one massive project at a time. This is at best, and only if the whole government agrees on it. There simply isn’t the staff or head space to do much more. Carrying out Brexit means not fixing what Johnson in February 2016 called “the real problems of this country — low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc — that have nothing to do with Europe”. (See my colleague Martin Sandbu’s recent demolition of Johnson’s inconsistencies.)

Negotiations get harder when you lose your counter-party’s trust. That’s what Greece discovered during its negotiations with the EU, says Greek economic analyst Paris Mantzavras of Pantelakis Securities. Mocking the other side in public — as Greece’s Yanis Varoufakis did, and as British politicians now do regularly — is therefore a losing tactic.

There is no reset button in human affairs. The UK cannot return to its imagined pre-EU idyll, because the world has changed since 1973. Nor can Britons simply discard the Brexit experiment if it goes wrong, and revert to June 22 2016. The past is over, so it’s a poor guide to policymaking. These lessons come too late for the UK itself, so please consider them our selfless gift to the world, like football.

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