Leaving the EU and Abandoning the “American” Dream – guest post by Neil Robertson

The UK leaving the EU risks giving up the same influence and Freedom of Movement (FoM) that Americans take for granted.

Having been lucky enough to visit America on a few occasions, one of the things I find most striking about it is its scale and openness. The fact that you can drive for thousands of miles and not get to the end of it, the huge range of different climates and landscapes that exist within its borders, the fact that Americans can choose to live and work in any of these radically different places. As a resident of Dominic Raab’s small peculiar geographic entity (or island as I have always preferred to call it) the great expanse of the North American continent feels liberating. The European continent is of course a similar land mass; you can get this same sense of space and freedom when visiting continental Europe, for example where signposts in Vienna give distances to Budapest, Prague etc. giving me a slight feeling of being in a cold-war era spy film!

The EU, whilst avoiding the europhobe’s bête noir of a “United States of Europe”, gives us a flavour of the freedom to roam that US citizens enjoy; I can currently (although apparently not for much longer) consider living in the glorious scenery of the Alps, the sunny climes of Southern Spain, or any number of vibrant European cities. This freedom is in addition to the opportunity to live in many fantastic places in the UK, in case someone was to suggest that I am a hater of my own country!

So, I consider FoM to be one of the big advantages of being in the EU, which I don’t appreciate being taken away from me. It would seem, despite Mrs May’s protestations, that a majority of people agree. In a recent survey commissioned for Channel 4, 63% of people agreed that “we should allow UK and EU citizens to live and work freely in each other’s countries in order to secure a deal with Brussels”. Nigel Farage expressed disbelief at this result on the accompanying program that discussed the results of the survey; it is however not surprising that a balanced question that presents the benefits as well as obligations of policy would produce a different result to the more typical one-sided question about FoM. Who for instance would want to sign up to an arrangement presented only as a requirement to spend 8-10 hours a day away from your nearest and dearest and be restricted in your freedom to do what you want during this time? But throw in the additional fact that you will in return get paid then the equation looks much more appealing!

The other aspect of the USA that their citizens take for granted is the power that their country wields. American exceptionalism is backed up (to an extent that isn’t true of the English kind) by economic facts. Their economic power is currently only seriously challenged by China and the EU. The UK in the EU can influence its economic direction and priorities to the UK’s advantage, whereas once out of it we will be a medium-sized fish in a sea of very large sharks. Brexit enthusiasts are keen to state that on some measures we are the 5th largest economy in the world, but in the context of the power needed to stand up to corporations and the largest economies in the world this is a bit like a flea arguing that it is the 5th largest animal in the elephant house (perhaps that is enough animal comparisons for one paragraph)!

The irony is that Brexit enthusiasts tend to have an affinity with the USA and a desire for a closer relationship/trade deals with it. This is probably based on their fondness for a supposed low-regulation utopia. But by supporting Brexit they are relegating the UK to an inferior relationship with the USA. This contrasts with the one that we currently enjoy with them through the EU – which is a relationship of near equals. It seems perverse for people to rail against the undoubted compromises required to be part of the EU whilst advocating that we re-align to what will be a series of far more subservient relationships with more remote (and uncaring) partners.

Power and influence can be seen negatively of course, as a way of bullying smaller countries. But I see the power of being in the EU as potentially enabling us to resist moves from other countries and corporations to imperil our working conditions and environmental protections. Over time this economic clout could (and should) be used to extend the protection of the environment and basic human dignity in the workplace out into supply chains outside of the EU (to the advantage of people inside and outside of the EU). There was some discussion of the EUs ability to project power beyond its borders in Sir Ivan Rogers recent speech – there is very little chance of the UK being able project power in this way on its own.

Despite all the above I can imagine that Brexit supporters would say “so what” – what is the point of economic power and influence if it doesn’t benefit me? What use is the freedom to move to different European countries if people are struggling just to make ends meet? I would agree that the benefits of being in the EU have seemingly been allowed to accrue to too limited a demographic. This has (in the main) been a failure of UK policy, for example by not enforcing the controls available on FoM; and insufficient investment in infrastructure, housing and training. That is why, if the fall-out from the likely parliamentary rejection of Theresa May’s deal results in a closer alignment with the EU/a 2nd referendum, there needs to be a radical new offer to the left-behind parts of the country to show how things will be different in future. This, rather than a slightly pathetic begging letter full of utter nonsense, is what is needed to bring the country together.


  1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

    I’ve never visited the US – although I have travelled across Eurasia as far as Irkutsk and Ulan Bator. I’ve lived in France, in Italy, in Germany – although all these sojourns took place before the UK joined the EU.

    What struck me, as a woman in my twenties, was the vibrancy and appetite for experiment that I discovered in my new friends. I then went to Kenya for three years with my husband, and again had the feeling that things were happening in a generally progressive direction.

    We came back to the UK – to a torpid, let’s-do-nothing-to help-ourselves-or-other-people society. Nothing seems to have changed in the time the UK has been part of the EU. Any vibrancy that has come with migrants from the EU has been, and is, resented. Any migration at all, from anywhere at all, seems to be resented. Yet all of us are descended from migrants. Were has all the hope, the enthusiasm that those migrants brought to this country gone?

    It seems to have been the you’ve-never-had-it-so-good years of the 1950s and the early 1960s that did the damage. Those, of course, were also the years that the British Empire faded out, and the years in which the European project took shape – without the UK. And the complacency that set into everyday life has never been shaken.

    Perhaps Brexit might shake it. But in what direction? And it’s the days of the British Empire which so many seem to hark back to and desire, without any understanding of the damage those days did to the countries involved in the Empire without their consent – and to the attitudes of the British people, who came to see themselves as superior, exceptional people, born to rule.

    I fear for the future of this country.

    1. Neil Robertson -

      Hi Jennifer, Agree with much of what you say. I think a lot of the torpor in the UK is as a result of it “rotting from the head”. The first-past-the-post voting system and the mostly rigid two-party system that it stifles engagement and political innovation.

      For the vast majority of people in the UK (my guess would be as high as 70% ?) the way they vote in general elections has absolutely no effect on the way the country is run.
      If people have new ideas/priorities for policies they have no option (in terms of direct participation rather than influence) than to join one of the established political parties and begin the soul (and principle) destroying process of trying to climb the hierarchy. By the time they have got to any level of influence they will have had their principles beaten out of them.

      Sitting atop this already rotten political system is the obscenity and affront to democracy that is the House of Lords (although note that I don’t necessarily think that an elected replacement is a good idea) – all things considered I am not surprised that people are apathetic – and might also go some way to explaining the fervor with which the referendum was embraced.

      On the subject of immigration I think people have to feel cared for themselves before they will care for others. This is where less inequality becomes important. There also needs to be a sense that immigration (if either desirable or the result of humanitarian imperatives) is going to happen then it is something that should be planned for properly and appropriate investment provided for it AND that it’s benefits and disadvantages are being shared as equally as possible. There is very little acknowledgement in progressive circles about the dividing line here between owners of capital/employers of labour on the one hand and those renting capital assets/working class (in it’s broadest sense) on the other.

      So a new offer to solve the brexit impasse needs to include many things at a political and economic level – the brexit situation is a symptom of a wider malaise.

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    Agree entirely with your argument on FoM, Neil. The same applies to Canada and Australia, of course. Some years ago I drove from Harwich to Vienna, via a small town to the north of Munich and another town on the border with Hungary and as you say, doing so gave one the same sense of space (vastness in fact) and freedom that US citizens enjoy within the USA.

    But in addition to the points you make we must never forget that the reason Brexiteers such as Farage, Javid, Johnson, McVey, Rees-Mogg et al see our break from the EU and realignment with the US as so important as that it’s fundamental to their dream of a libertarian, Randian, empire. Thus they are not in the slightest bit interested in the fact that the UK will simply become another state of the US (in fact less so as under the constitution US states have considerable power seperate from the federal government) because that’s unimportant when considering the ultimate goal. In any case, in such a relationship the UK’s importance can always be artificially enhanced, as indeed it has been for the entire duration of the so-called ‘special relationship (as an example think of Bush’s relationship with Blair, where despite Blair’s efforts to present himself as an equal it was glaringly obvious who the boss was).

    The intellectual and ideological links between the liberatarian/Randian right in the US and UK have been widely discussed, not least on this Blog (a good example being Liam Fox’s and others long time association with an entity called ‘Atlantic Bridge’). Indeed, Peter (May) had an excellent blog on these networks not long ago. These are of course, never mentioned by the Rees-Moggs and Fox’s of the Tory party, nor do they publicise the role of wealthy US individuals – such as the Mercer’s – in supporting their work and the promotion of their ideological project.

    In short, since long before the Brexit vote the ideological brother and sisters of the US and UK libertarian/Randian right have been ceaselessly seeking any means by which they could advance their ideological dream. Converting the EU into a primarily neoliberal project – a project which successive UK governments have spearheaded – was never enough for them. Brexit therefore provides the once in a lifetime device by which the necessary break with what they see as a still far too social democratic entity can finally be acheived. They will stop at nothing now to deliver that outcome and the devil can take those that suffer in the process. That is the kind of ‘red in tooth a claw’ capitalism and society they believe in anyway so a no deal Brexit and the suffering it will cause is simply an early lesson in the type of world they wish to create.

    1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

      You are quite correct, Ivan – that’s the foreseeable future, with a no-deal Brexit, which appears daily more probable. And those who voted for Brexit were a combination of those who believe in such a society and those who hark back to a rose-tinted Glorious Past which never existed. Together they make a formidable obstacle to the progressive society of which we dream.

      Surely we now need to think about how that society could be shaped, even after a no-deal Brexit? The Labour Party won’t – their dream of the future is a neo-liberal centrist best-of-all-possible-world which cannot exist in reality. Indeed, the future is one of climate change causing large-scale migrations of population and the likelihood of actual war, not just in trade, but in weapons. We have to work out our own answer to this massive problem – which last existed at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.

      And after all, where did the English come from? and when?

      1. Neil Robertson -

        Hi Jennifer,

        I still believe that a no-deal will not be allowed to happen. Conservative MPs will panic before then at the thought of being responsible for the resultant chaos.
        Only question is will they panic now and back May’s deal or panic later and have to bring down the government?

    2. Neil Robertson -

      Ivan, Absolutely agree with regard to JRM etc. They cannot reveal what their end game is because it would be so unpopular. They are trying to achieve their objectives by stealth.

      Exchanging the benefits of the EU for the “special relationship” with the US (which is mostly a fiction anyway) would be ridiculous. We currently get a seat in the Council of Ministers in the EU – aligning with the US would absolutely be a one-way street – their way or nothing.

  3. Soap Box -

    as I’ve mentioned in other posts I spent a large part of my PhD in the US – in the Harvard Smithsonian observatory at Mt Hopkins about 50 miles south of Tucson Az. This was when Carter was president.

    I saved up all my holidays and went on a 6 week road trip covering many of the US National Parks, Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite, Mt Rainer up into Canada. Return by the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde etc. I think I covered 6.5k miles. Definitely the open road!

    More generally the Irish are overwhelmingly in favour of FoM and see it as a tremendous opportunity to travel – The 2017 Eurobarometer had 93% in favour of FoM. It is seen exactly as you portray it – Europe Endless as in the Kraftwerk song. Why so few UK politicians praise FoM is difficult to understand – as is the unique blending of FoM and immigration which is unique to the UK as Sir Ivan Rogers noted in his Liverpool speech.

    1. Neil Robertson -

      Hi Sean,

      Pre-children my wife and I went on a road trip taking in California and parts of Arizona/Nevada. We could only afford this because she was attending a scientific conference in Reno related to her PhD and had her air fare paid. A particular highlight was visiting Yosemite, although we were camping (to save money) and spent an uneasy night or two woken up by the cold (it dropped to below freezing) and thinking about the possibility of encountering bears or mountain lions!

      Regarding the attitude to FoM in the UK I think the economic situation has played a huge part. The political class have failed to provide an optimistic narrative that the whole country can get behind. The effort to spread out the prosperity that definitely exists in London and the South East is just not there at all – in fact infrastructure investments seem determined to reinforce the weakness of private sector investment in this regard. No major project can exist unless it is related to transporting people as quickly as possible to/from London!

      As a result people have turned inwards and only see (or can only imagine themselves being impacted by) one side of the EU equation: Brussels does things to use rather than we influence what Brussels does across the whole EU. People are free to come here and take our jobs rather than we are free to go where we like in Europe.

      One of my friends works at an FE College north of Newcastle. The people that attend (from a very under-privileged area) regard a visit to Newcastle as exotic. Almost none of them have ever been to London or even any other major city in the North.Benefits related to being in the EU need to be proved to be reaching places like this. Also, investment in the regions is required to eliminate pockets of deprivation so that people can aspire to visit and work in different countries.
      What is curious is the effect that cultural traditions have in this regard. Ireland has at times been very poor (no doubt due in large part to the activities of its near neighbour) but the same defeatist attitude does not seem to be present.

      1. Sean Danaher -


        sorry I was logged in as “Soap Box” earlier. It’s been a busy day – sorry for any confusion.

        I live about half a mile away from a branch of Northumberland College – at Kirkley so am used to many FE students being around. Ashington is the main hub – like many of the industrial towns very deprived.

        When I first came to England in 1981 to Sheffield Uni. one of the academics said how lucky Ireland was not having a heavy steel, coal and other heavy industry. He thought it would all vanish in the UK within a decade leaving hundreds of thousands if not millions stranded and in need of massive retraining and unprecedented government input. Otherwise they would be a unprecedented drain on the UK for at least a generation.

        He was very prophetic. It’s strange how weaknesses become strengths – the only community in Ireland to suffer badly from industrial decline is the Loyalist community in Belfast and the extreme NE of Ireland.

  4. Charles Adams -

    “I would agree that the benefits of being in the EU have seemingly been allowed to accrue to too limited a demographic.”

    Completely agree with this point. The benefits of globalisation go disproportionately to the 1%.

    One oddity is that the standardly used measure of inequality – the Gini coefficient – completely fails to measure what is going on. When a country imports low paid workers the Gini coefficent falls suggesting better equality, even when the bosses get a pay rise.

    Even more important is that GDP per capita is not a good measure of individual experience, in particular if the gains are going disproportionately to the top. In purely economic terms, unless immigration raises median income it is not doing any good on average. Median incomes have not risen since 2008, while net migration has been over 2 million. We may guess that this might cause some discontent.

    I am in favour of free movement but we have to make sure that the benefits are shared in a way that everyone feels the advantages.

    1. Neil Robertson -


      Interesting points regarding the Gini coefficient. I think the measurement of median income is a simple and effective way of tracking economic progress that will benefit “the many”. Perhaps even better is median disposable income, since this highlights some of the other failures in policy in the UK, particularly lack of investment in housing.

      I think the tragedy of leaving the EU because of Eastern European migration is that it is almost certainly a problem with an expiry date on it. For example the Polish economy has improved to the extent that it is pulling more people back home (this would be happening to an extent even without the Brexit effect). It will also begin to be (if it isn’t already) a destination for migrant workers from other Eastern European countries.

      I confess myself to be rather suspicious of studies that have “proved” that migration hasn’t affected wages at the lower skill levels. I admit that I haven’t looked in detail at any of them, but wonder how they can model the way that the economy would have developed without the availability of plentiful supplies of cheap labour.

      It seems that the UK has created the conditions for a “perfect storm” with regard to the impacts of immigration: Low investment (in both capital and skills). Poor management. Destruction of collective labour representation. Insufficiently ambitious minimum wage legislation.

  5. Charles Adams -

    Yes exactly, median disposable income is my unit of choice. I wrote a piece on this about a year ago.


    Economic modelling is very tricky and my view is that it is almost impossible to prove anything at the confidence level we demand in physics. People sense this and so it is not sufficient for economists or politicians to tell people that immigration is good for them, they need to experience the benefits, i.e. immigration has to directly benefit all sections of the indigenous population. Otherwise when median disposable incomes are falling people will look for something to blame and break something (like the EU even though on balance it is advantagous to them).

  6. Graham -

    “median pay for a FTSE 100 CEO pay leapt by 11% to £3.9 million”…because they’re worth it. (stat from the High Pay Centre) The mess we’re in, the obscene levels of inequality, the open door for the rent seekers and wealth extractors, the untrammelled globalisation where the downsides of offshoring, of both employment and profits, are rarely mentioned and of course Brexit, are all the result of political decisions.

    It is politicians who have taken us there, like the useless, inept, culpable Cameron or the compulsive liar Johnson, while the ordinary citizen has virtually no voice, thanks to our political system which as a sop to prevent restlessness allows a FPTP vote every so often; a system which would allow a monkey to be voted in, or at least has enabled some of the most appallingly incompetent, dangerous and totally unsuitable people to be elected and to rise seamlessly into positions of power.

    We have this slow motion car-crash while the Tory party goes about saving itself from internal combustion and meanwhile the country and the people who will suffer are ignored. One thing is for sure, for those who have brought us to this abyss there will be no penalty – they will drink their “Belgian beer and French wine” and buy their courgettes and christmas strawberries as before.

    Nothing will change until everything changes and a new politics is created.

  7. Neil Robertson -


    Not much to disagree with there.

    Regarding the pay of executives and the overall consequences of inequality I found the following TED video very interesting – it proves that concepts of fairness and reactions to inequality are present in supposedly more primitive animals than us:


    The video is of an animal behaviour experiment – hopefully this doesn’t offend anyone.

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