Thursday, February 07, 2013

Of weights and measures and a mess of pottage

Courier article - a couple of weeks old!

So the Prime Minister has introduced into the bloodstream of our body politic the virus of an 'In/Out' Referendum – and as with a virus, it will multiply and cause a fever. This is a very good thing, although, as with his strategy on changing marriage, I doubt that Mr Cameron will get where he expects to get with it. It is primarily a very good thing that we are going to be able to express our view as a nation on whether we wish to remain part of the 'ever-closer' EU. There are of course many things that have to fall into place before we get to being able to express our views, two of them major. Firstly, Mr Cameron will have to win the next election (and, clearly, he calculates that making this offer will enhance his prospects of doing so) – this is fairly unlikely. Second, the negotiations with our EU partners will have to proceed in such a way that Mr Cameron feels liberated enough to return to the UK waving his piece of paper from the runway saying that he has achieved the hackneyed 'good result for Britain' – this I regard as very unlikely. So Mr Cameron has, with a good speech, sought to increase the short-term prospects for the Conservative party at the next election, leaving the details and haggling for another day – and time will tell how wise his decision has been.

Our own local MP, Bernard Jenkin, released a very interesting paper recently, seeking to point out several elements of the 'mythology' associated with our EU membership, for example that '3 million jobs' depend on our being in the EU, or that the single market has reduced the cost of doing business in the EU. I recommend the paper for anyone interested in looking at the nuts and bolts of this question. It seems to me, though, that, as and when it comes to the referendum – which I do now see as inevitable – we need to do more than weigh up our economic interests. That is, the economic questions are indeed very important, but I do not believe that they are the most important – and it was viewing the question through this economic prism that misled us (or that enabled the political class to mislead us) in 1975.

To explain this, I want to take a detour around the question of weights and measures. This has received a fair amount of publicity through the years, not least when market traders are prosecuted for using Imperial measures (pounds and ounces) rather than the metric system (grams). What is at stake on a question like this? Clearly it is perfectly possible to live life using a metric system – to have a 500ml glass of beer rather than a pint. Rationally speaking, it makes little difference what label is attached to a particular quantity, so long as the system is easy to understand and everyone goes along with what is being used. More than this, there are some strong purely economic arguments in favour of our using the same systems of weights and measures as the rest of the EU. For those multi-national corporations that have driven the development of the single market (and have also driven the expansion of the Euro currency) it makes for better economies of scale if they can calibrate their factories purely to one set of measures rather than two. For those who are working on a continental scale it is a simple matter of efficiency that the continent is harmonised, and that local idiosyncracies are ironed out.

Which makes me want to ask the question: is making our country safe for Starbucks really what we have been reduced to? For so long as we are asking the question about whether to remain a member of the European Union in purely economic terms we are missing what I believe is the most fundamental element that needs to be discussed. We are also, of course, if we oppose the Starbucks of this world, placing ourselves in opposition to vested interests with extremely deep pockets. I think that they have enough of an institutional advantage without conceding the high ground to them as well.

What I mean is that there is far more of value to our national heritage and character than simply an ability to make money. I wouldn't for one moment wish to scorn the ability to make money, to earn a living, to generate employment for others through our own hard work – but the world has many opportunities in it (many of them likely to become much larger if we are not in the EU) and to reduce this question to economics is, I feel, to miss the central point. What is lost to our national conversation if – on the remote chance that our children will still be studying Shakespeare in the future – we have to explain to them that Shylock's 'pound of flesh' is referring to a measurement of weight and not to a matter of finance? Our weights and measures are knitted in to our history in all sorts of surprising ways, and by allowing alleged economic benefits to wipe away all these threads that connect us to our past, we are also becoming a people who have forgotten ourselves, who have forgotten the distinctive greatness that makes us who we are. We will be safe for Starbucks, simply another agglomeration of economic units, not a free people of unique and irreplaceable individuals, valuing the local, the eccentric, the uncoventional.

In the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, Esau is persuaded to relinquish his inheritance because he is unable to see past a temporary hunger – in the words of the King James Bible, Esau 'sold his birthright for a mess of pottage' (lentil soup). Our mess of pottage would seem to be a bundle of alleged economic benefits, which in our straitened economic times may well seem immensely attractive. Yet there is so much more to our national story than this! I hope to expand on this in future articles.

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