A Capital Mistake: Evidence and Defence in the Brexit Debates

Professor Matthew Uttley & Dr. Benedict Wilkinson

In one of his more exasperated moments, Sherlock Holmes turns to his long-term companion, Dr. Watson and chides him for his impatience, saying ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.’ Strong words they may be, but wise ones too. And yet, those who watch defence matters will have noticed that we are approaching a Brexit referendum in much the same position that Holmes warns Watson to avoid: lots of arguments and theories and ideas, but little evidence to back any of it up.

Over the last few weeks, the national security and foreign policy implications of a Brexit have become a key battleground. Everyone seems to have an opinion, even US President Barack Obama, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that ‘[t]his kind of cooperation – from intelligence sharing and counterterrorism to forging agreements to create jobs and economic growth – will be far more effective if it extends across Europe’. The arguments on both sides are well-rehearsed: those in the ‘Remain’ campaign repeatedly claim that leaving the EU would ‘threaten’ the UK’s national security and global influence. They point to ‘grave security challenges’ and existential threats, including the rise of so-called Islamic State (DAISH) and resurgent Russian nationalism, and assert that the UK is in a ‘stronger’ position to deal with them from inside the EU. Those in the ‘Leave’ campaign have responded by accusing their opponents of exaggeration, egregious scaremongering and ‘Project Fear’ tactics.

Amongst the op eds, the interviews and the speeches, there is little evidence or rigorous analysis to substantiate claims made by either side. In our view, this is worrying: in the first place, it means that key elements of national security have been overlooked in what has been described as a ‘blizzard’ of sweeping claims and counter-claims over whether Britain’s defence and international status would be undermined by departure from the EU. Indeed, as we have argued in the International Affairs journal published by Chatham House and elsewhere, one of the most important omissions in debates thus far has been any consideration of what a Brexit might mean for Britain’s defence procurement and domestic defence industries.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of evidence and analysis raises the spectre of UK voters being forced to make their referendum choices without key information on the possible Brexit implications for a vital sector that provides secure military supply chains, ‘technology advantage’, and a domestic industry with an annual turnover of £30 billion and employs 215,000 predominantly skilled personnel as well as supporting a further 150,000 jobs in supply chains.

Without the data and evidence, it is difficult to understand what a Brexit might mean for defence procurement and defence industries. This is worrying because the Brexit debate is highly partisan and ideological, so there is the real possibility that long-term choices will be coloured by the politics of sovereignty versus the politics of integration, rather than evidence relating to the defence-industrial base and defence acquisition.

As things stand, the debate is being played out between four factions. On the one hand, there are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that emphasise the importance of national sovereignty, but disagree on the implications of a British exit. On the other, there are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that subscribe to the goal of integration through ‘ever closer union’, but disagree on whether the UK is essential for, or an impediment to, that goal.

The domestic British political debate is likely to be dominated by cases presented by two pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that emphasise the ‘so what?’ for national sovereignty and independence. These factions are likely to rehearse the predictable and well-worn claims and counter-claims characterising the Brexit debate as a whole. The argument of the ‘pro-UK, pro-Brexit’ camp will be that ‘leaving will not undermine the national defence procurement options or industrial capabilities’ because EU integration in this sector has thus far been limited, so Britain would remain free to pursue a ‘sovereign’ defence procurement policy. Set against this, the ‘pro-UK, pro-Remain’ camp would argue that ‘there’s nothing to lose by staying in, but there are plenty of risks for the UK in leaving’. It would also argue that if the UK would be no worse off in leaving, then it would be no worse off in staying. Correspondingly, it is likely to reiterate the broader mantra that a Brexit might deter future foreign direct investment, and that Britain would have to comply with EU regulations when trading with Europe, but without influence on the future content and direction of those regulations.

The two pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ subscribing to the goal of ‘ever closer union’ are likely to produce narratives premised on assumed benefits from integration. A ‘pro-EU, pro-Remain’ faction is likely to argue that ‘leaving will undermine the EU’s defence industry so that the EU and UK will rely on the US to an even greater extent’. It follows well-worn assumptions in Brussels that the reluctance of EU member states to relinquish sovereignty has created protectionism and fragmentation in Europe’s defence procurement and industrial spheres. The solution to the ‘costs of non-Europe’ is a strategically independent European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) able to compete with large US defence contractors. On this basis, a Brexit will undermine the emergence of a genuinely competitive and strategically autonomous EDTIB, which, in turn, risks undermining the future of ‘security of supply’ of defence equipment sourced from within Europe, leading, in turn, to greater EU reliance on US-sourced defence systems. Against this and as we argue in the IA article, we envisage a pro-Brexit faction that argues that ‘a British exit will remove a barrier to other member states’ desire for “ever closer union” and a European Defence Union’. This perspective is likely to emanate from frustrations in European member states among those who feel that the UK is an impediment to EU integration.

Nonetheless, all of this is difficult to prove – not least, because of the dearth of data, the paucity of evidence and the absence of analysis. The real threat, amongst all this, is that British voters will be forced to chose between partisan and ideologically motivated claims and counter-claims. The risk is that they end up like Dr. Watson – making judgments without all the evidence and, perhaps, coming to regret those judgments.

 

Image: 47th Munich Security Conference 2011: David Cameron (le), Prime Minister, Great Britain, Dr. Angela Merkel (ri), Federal Chancellor, Germany, and Kevin Rudd, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia.. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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