Britain divided. Arguments in pubs and dining rooms across the land. Concern over the future of one of the greatest institutions the country has ever contributed to building. Members weighing up the huge financial implications of staying or leaving. Tears and anger and confusion and the endless arguments between public figures. Press speculation on the Queen’s position on the whole furore. I am talking, of course, about that fateful day in 1995 when Robbie Williams announced his intention to leave Take That.
Today Britain is facing an issue almost as serious: the potential break-up of the EU band that, whilst it may not have made us famous, certainly has been the vehicle through which we have in recent decades been at the top of the global charts. We have found ourselves in a similar position to many famous musicians over the years: having public disagreements with the other band members and carefully considering whether or not we should go our separate ways. The considerations and the fates of those musicians can help us to understand the issue that stands before us today, which will be helpful for people, like me, who before all this started definitely knew their Angels from their Back for Good better than they knew their Maastricht from their Schengen.
Finance and Friendships
First, our agents and managers are urging us to consider the financial implications, but they are divided on what the result will be. Will we be a Robbie Williams, setting up a record-breaking solo career, or will we be more of a Jason Orange, who I admit I had to Google to check I got his name right (sorry Jason)? This is an argument that has and will go on for years. On the one hand, we are a net contributor to the EU and we are therefore pouring money into political oddities such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and bloated central management, the inefficiency of which is nicely represented by the multiple meeting locations of the EU Parliament. On the other hand, both our manufacturing and financial services industries undoubtedly benefit substantially from both access to and – crucially – considerable clout in the decision making process of the Common Market. Since the UK joined the European Union the free movement of trade and labour and better bargaining powers for trade and defence have provided greater stability for the UK economy at a much needed time. The use of unified legislation between all member states has built a strong business base and being a part of this single market has contributed towards making London one of the leading business centres in the world.
Ultimately, however, I believe that focusing on whether we could negotiate better trade arrangements outside the Union or whether capital flight will undo the benefits of cutting our annual EU bill to zero is largely pointless. There are far, far too many moving parts to accurately predict the financial result and we won’t know our futures ahead of time any more than Gerri Halliwell did when she made the decision to quit the Spice Girls. All we can be sure of is the uncertainty, which has its own negative impact on markets both at home and abroad, and that the uncertainty will go on for some time. Even with a decision to leave the EU on June 23rd, we still have a minimum of two years of negotiations before we actually exit the EU, during which time uncertainty will continue. That much is clear.
We are also encouraged to think about the impact on our fellow band members. Even if we are a Robbie and not a Jason, what happens to Jason and the other lads? If the EU holds together without Britain, it would look substantially different. Britain carries a large portion of the more free-market voting bloc within the EU Parliament. Its loss would therefore mean an EU that is likely to be more protectionist, more economically left-wing, and potentially more Eastward-facing. Such a shift could be a serious problem for Britain. In turn, Europe may quickly come to miss access to Britain’s financial centres and holidaymakers.
Plus, what if it doesn’t hold together? The EU wouldn’t be the first band for which losing one key member signalled the beginning of the end. The EU could end up like the Sugababes, who have managed to lose six members over the years despite only ever having three in a given line-up! Pressure would be substantially increased on the other net contributors to the union, particularly Germany, which may give rise to more Euro-sceptic sentiment in their populations. States in more economic difficulty, such as Greece and Portugal, may be encouraged to leave for entirely different reasons – to regain independent control over their fiscal and monetary policy with a view to implementing extraordinary measures.
Ultimately, though, few of us believe our favourite stars have made their big decisions on going solo based on what it would do to the rest of the band, and I don’t think Britain will be any more outward looking during this process.
Emotion and Independence
Yet if there is one thing that the heart-ache of break-ups from Atomic Kitten to One Direction has taught us, it’s that when there are substantial creative and emotional differences, it isn’t the finances that lead the decision. The Remain campaign in particular should take note of this: for those who feel their independence is genuinely challenged, the financial risks are worth it if they can regain (or even feel like they have regained – perception is everything) the right of self-determination.
If you felt that my doom-and-gloom outlook on the uncertainty of a British exit above had outed me as a die-hard EU fan, this is where I muddy the waters again. Britain has for a long time been the belligerent band member that the others find it difficult to get on with, the one with a different outlook on the direction the band should be taking. That is what has led us to the current bust-up, after all. Our odd-one-out status does not necessarily mean, however, that we are wrong. The EU has an influence on many day to day aspects of life; matters such as immigration, employment, tax policies, and financial regulations are handled and decided through EU institutions to the detriment of British sovereignty. The refugee crisis has triggered the most recent flare-up of our historic ‘island mentality’, but actually its prominence in the recent debate has been something of a red herring. The swell of Euro-scepticism that led to the recent successes of UKIP in local and EU elections, the deep divisions within the Conservative Party, and David Cameron’s promise of a referendum all pre-date the migration crisis, and we would do well to remember that. A deep-seated suspicion of foreign and supra-national organisations is a very British thing to feel, and not just on the right of the political spectrum. I believe one of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn has not been a particularly outspoken supporter of the Remain campaign so far is that he recognises that outside of their Parliamentary Party, most of whom are pro-Europe, a very substantial portion of the party’s hard core, working class supporters are not all that keen on the EU.
It is true that even a post-Brexit Britain would still be constrained by EU decisions. How many musicians really break far away from their old band’s style in a big way, after all? A lot of our financial regulation, for example, would have to continue to follow the lead set by the EU in order to remain relevant. However, there would at least be greater room for divergence and self-determination in an independent Britain.
Access to the Common Market would be an important coup for a post-exit Britain, but it would also have all the usual problems that plague reunion tours. Whilst it may help pad our pockets, negotiations would be immensely difficult, marred by hostility at the break-up and the increasing divisions between our visions for the future and the right style of music/economics to go for (I had really hoped to sneak in a Eurovision pun here, but I just can’t bring myself to do it!). If Britain does get itself involved again in that market, it will not be entirely on our terms and we may be sucked back into agreements that we then don’t have any democratic involvement in forming. Whatever the other effects of Brexit, my feeling is that if we do leave and we want to be a Robbie and not a Jason then we need to focus on what we can achieve looking out to new horizons, and avoid relying too much on the inevitably disappointing reunion with our old colleagues, complete with significantly reduced dance routines and that one guy whose voice isn’t what it used to be.
I’m not here to lay down a definitive answer. I would of course like to think we could go on to launch a successful solo career. If you can do that, it’s definitely the best way to enjoy creative freedom and have the impact you want to have on the world – but that’s only if you have the necessary talent and solo appeal. If you don’t, the fade into obscurity is always a painful one for those who have long enjoyed the limelight and can lead to a serious downward spiral. Britain certainly doesn’t want to be that once-famous band member who occasionally pops up in the tabloids because he has a new drug-fuelled alien conspiracy theory.
Whilst I don’t have answers, I do have a suggestion for those on both sides of this debate. Political commentators often play the role of the agent or manager, focusing on the finances. Generally this falls down in favour of the status quo, urging financial caution, and sometimes that works – as it did with the last general election, the Scottish referendum, and probably dozens of famous band breakups that you never heard about because they were narrowly averted. What we should remember, however, is that there have been plenty of examples – both musical and political – of such decisions being made by people driven by more emotional and cultural concerns. This is how upsets to the status quo generally occur, and the mere fact that these are ‘softer’ issues does not mean they are necessarily not important, not valid, and not decisive. With such an open middle-ground in this debate of undecided voters, the future of the EU band may rest on more than just the ability to sell albums.