"Brexit" Attacks President Obama...and Avoids the Issues

One might be surprised that a prominent British politician would begin a comment about US President Barack Obama with a historical lie. One might not foresee an ethnic slur against the American leader.

But that is exactly what happened last week when the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, used The Sun newspaper as a platform to denounce Obama's visit to Britain. Johnson opened with the long-running falsehood that the White House had returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy in Washington "on Day One of the Obama Administration".

Then he combined his tall tale with an ethnic swipe and an insinuation that Obama is viscerally anti-British: ‘Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender’.

Bashing Obama

Johnson's motive for the personal attack was to deny any legitimacy for Obama's comments about Britain's June 23 referendum on membership of the European Union. The Mayor had launched a pre-emptive assault in mid-March, declaring any remarks by the President would be a “piece of outrageous and exorbitant hypocrisy” with “wholly fallacious” arguments.

With Obama's trip a reality last week, Boris renewed his attack. Invoking an anti-democratic European Union that would horrify Churchill, he said: ‘for the United States to tell us in the UK that we must surrender control of so much of our democracy – it is a breath-taking example of the principle of do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do. It is incoherent. It is inconsistent, and yes it is downright hypocritical’.

But in the end, the significance of Johnson's pose is not in the appeal to sovereignty. No, the political story is in why Johnson chose not to engage with the issues in the referendum and Obama's remarks, but to avoid them.

Avoiding the Economic Debate

In The Sun article, Johnson never refers to the British economy, and thus the economic effects of a departure from the EU. He never talks about trade, investment, productivity, or the impact on London's financial sector. He never does so because that is difficult terrain for Brexit.

All the major studies of the economic consequences of the referendum draw this conclusion: Britain will suffer a significant loss in GDP if it leaves the EU, compared to where it would be in 2020 or 2030 if it remained in the Union.

A detailed study of academic literature carried out for the Confederation of British Industry, concluded that "the mid-range estimate" of the benefits of EU membership is 4% to 5% of GDP - £2,700 to £3,300 per household

An economic model from PriceWaterhouseCoopers projected Brexit's relative loss at 5% of GDP by 2020, costing £100 billion overall, leaving the average household up to £3,700 worse off, and losing 950,000 jobs.

The UK Treasury's model which was published this month, puts the relative cost of Brexit at up to 6.2% of GDP or £4,300 per household by 2030.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's report, issued this week, concluded that the loss would be £2,200, per household by 2020.

Angel Gurría, the OECD's Secretary-General, summarized, "There is no upside for the UK in Brexit."

No Good Brexit Answer

Brexit's proponents insist that they cannot directly respond to the reports because it is not possible to model a scenario, Britain out of the EU, which has not occurred.

That is a weak defence, as Brexit have not put out any economic assessment built upon the current situation. They have not explained how trade can expand, based on Britain's relations both with the European Union and with countries beyond it. They have not addressed how investment, including foreign direct investment, will be sustained. They have not looked at the cost of drafting myriad contracts, legal provisions, and regulations needed if Britain leaves the framework of EU membership.
The Brexit camp makes claims such as "the UK is the world's fifth-largest economy" and "everyone wants to trade with Britain". But those campaign sound-bites are no substitute for an engagement with the reality of commercial, financial, and trade relationships.

A glimpse of that reality was in Obama's statement last week: "Maybe at some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done. The UK is going to be at the back of the queue.”

Boris Johnson could have met that challenge with an economic explanation for Brexit. He didn't, probably because he couldn't. Instead, he reached for the historical lie and the jibe at a President's ethnicity.

Perhaps a quote from Churchill, whose bust is still in the White House, is in order: ‘the truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is’.

Professor Scott Lucas
Professor of US Politics and International Relations
Department of Political Science and International Studies