Common Law and Common Sense: Legal Dynamics, Prosperity and Britain’s Future

Anthony Coombs

Friday 17th June: As the country joins her family in mourning the tragic killing of one of our most likeable and promising Parliamentarians, the proper suspension of the debate upon European Union membership has given all an opportunity to reflect upon the quality and conduct of the argument on one of the great issues of our time, writes Anthony Coombs.

When polling eventually takes place on Brexit on June 23rd, most people will be relieved that important issues for the country have been exhaustively considered, though concerned that on some occasions the rules of civilised democratic behaviour and debate forgotten. Like me, some will feel saddened that John Major, in whose administration I served, recently marred his reputation, by resorting to personalised, even vindictive attacks on the Vote Leave Team, in a way out of keeping with his stewardship of Britain’s highest office.

As we return our focus to the final week of the Brexit debate, I pose three questions.

First, is the European Union now or in the future, compatible with how we do things in Britain? In two crucial ways, it plainly isn’t.

On a legal level, Europeans rely upon constitutional law which having roots in Roman law is centralised and prescriptive. It therefore produces the tsunami of Regulations which now account for up to half of our own Parliament’s legislative workload. Britain, by contrast is grounded in Common Law and precedent. Both are inherently more flexible and pragmatic and therefore better suited to our exponentially changing world.

Further this legal dynamic has pushed the European Project, through the ‘Acquis Communautaire’, into ‘ever closer union’ and ultimately a European super state. That is the inevitable consequence of the march from the creation of the Euro and monetary union after 1992 to Fiscal Union. This will be necessary in order to facilitate the transfer of resources from Germany and richer northern European states to Greece and Italy in the South in order to compensate for the Euro which is over-valued for the poorer states and under-valued for richer ones. Ultimately this requires political union to make such transfers democratically palatable.

This is why President Hollande of France now advocates a ‘Euro Government’ and why other European elites, as in the Five Presidents’ Report, now propose a Euro Finance Ministry. Even George Osborne recognised this when he admitted that ‘we need constitutional reforms to protect the collective interests of Non-Eurozone member states. If not, we must choose between joining the Euro and leaving the European Union’. Sadly David Cameron never negotiated those reforms and that’s why we should be heading for the Exit.

My second question arises from the problematic insistence by the EU of the freedom of movement of labour, goods and services within Europe. This well-meaning principle was initially designed to facilitate commercial flows in normal times between countries of broadly the same educational and economic levels. Now with an EU of 28 countries free movement has become the most politically charged matter for some EU countries, from Scandanavia to central Europe as countries are unable to cope with the high and rapid population flows. There are concerns about the dislocation for public services posed by rapid demand, the difficulties for cities and for housing, often already in short supply. None of these matters was anticipated by the architects of the European Ideal. In Britain, a country with a long and noble tradition of welcoming people from the Commonwealth and refugees fleeing persecution there are also concerns at the level of rapid immigration, with net migration at 250,000-330,000 people per year. Such rapid population increases create the same difficulties for cities and communities here as they do in other countries, for housing, schools, healthcare. Indeed whether absorbing a new city larger than Birmingham every 4 years is considered sustainable is a question for consideration for a country of the UK’s size. The estimates are that by 2040 the estimated population will be 80 million people in a country dependent on a partly Victorian physical infrastructure.

The third question relates to life after the European Union. The former Conservative Chancellor, Nigel Lawson’s encouraging answer lies in the ultimate supremacy of micro over macroeconomics – or of Hayek over Keynes. Inside or out, Britain’s future prosperity depends, as it always has, not on its membership of trade blocs or access to the European single market, but upon the vibrancy of our industries and services, the roots of our productivity in education and intellectual capital, the simplicity and certainty of our regulations and, above all, on the growth potential of our international customers. America’s economic dominance, China’s recent emergence and indeed Britain’s 19thCentury economic origins never relied upon the kind of cosy, sclerotic and unregulated trading block which the European Union has become. Britain’s future thus depends on the 87 per cent of its exports which go outside the European Union and not upon its membership of a European market, in relative decline.

Without fundamental change on these three fronts, of necessity outside the European Union, the EU’s own story of decline and instability sadly will be the future for all.

*Anthony Coombs is Chairman of S&U Plc and a former MP for Wrye Forest (1987-97) when he served as a government whip.