This House Believes We Should Leave the European Union - LSE debate speech

I was proposing the motion alongside Dr Gerard Lyons (economic adviser to the Mayor of London), with journalist Hugo Dixon and Professor of Political Theory Katrin Flikschuh on the other side arguing against. Each panellist had seven minutes to speak, followed by questions from the other side and then questions from the audience.
Dr Gerard Lyons making his case for leaving the EU.

[This is an amalgam of what I had planned to say in my speech and what I did say – so I missed out some of this in actual delivery while adding some ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ and various other stuff]

The whole debate is now available to listen via a podcast here.

Hello everyone.

I want to start off by emphasising that I’m actually a pro-European. I always have been. I even like an idea of the EU (as an idea, albeit not the idea).

But on the balance I think we should leave the EU. I’m probably about 80-20 or 70-30 in favour, but this is the political choice I’ve made.

So, why? 

There are a lot of aspects to this debate but the one I’m going to focus on as probably the most important is borders and citizenship.

It’s surely fundamental to any nation and nation-state that it has control over who can come to live, work and own land within its borders. But Britain does not have this in the EU. You can see where accountability lies from David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’. Whether you agree with it or not, he had a proposal which he put to the people in a manifesto to restrict EU migrant in-work benefits. But he went off to Brussels and 27 other leaders said ‘no way’, so he couldn’t do it. This shows how accountability is working for us in our democracy at the moment: Cameron isn’t accountable to the British people but to these other EU leaders.

Britain is actually a pretty small and crowded piece of land but it is open to pretty much unlimited population growth as we stand in the EU. England is where almost all migrants come to settle and is now the most crowded country in Europe.

In a narrow sense the booming housing market this creates is good for people with assets and for the Exchequer in bringing in tax receipts from all the buying and selling. But for people who are not so fortunate, who are not asset owners and do not earn big wages, the chance of living in the place where you grew up and where your family and friends live is passing out of reach.

A lot of people especially on the liberal-left are in denial about this link, but it’s one of the most basic laws of economics – increased demand puts upward pressure on prices. There’s no way around it.

But it also costs us all, for this throws more and more people on to the mercy of the state. The housing benefit bill in particular has been ballooning recently. In 2015 it hit £25 billion. The places it has been increasing most are here in London and towns like Cambridge, Oxford, Bournemouth and Milton Keynes where population growth has been most pronounced.

This lack of control adds to the character of our politics as something that is done to us, that happens to us without any involvement on our part. It contributes to a general malaise in politics and democracy in which many people cannot be bothered to vote, and there is some reason for that, for what the political parties are dealing with are relatively marginal questions.

For me, the environment is very important. But continual mass immigration means continual expansion into our environment, treating our land as a resource to try and meet the needs of the growing population and economy: for more housing, more roads, more schools, more everything.

The Green and Pleasant Land is becoming progressively less green and more cramped. We are progressively losing the luxury of space and submitting ourselves to a world of urban sprawl, noise, congestion and pollution.

Now leaving the EU will not solve these problems. But it will give us and the people we elect the ability to do something about them. This is a crucial point about leaving. It does not commit us to a type of politics. It simply re-asserts the primacy of the relationship between electors and elected which being in the EU dilutes. This will make our politics and our democracy more meaningful. It would bring back essential political questions to us and to people we elect.

But if we’re going to do anything about these issues, I’m afraid we have to leave the EU.

Also, there is the cost. For ceding control of all this and more through the European Court of Justice and the European Commission, we pay £250 million a week, which breaks down to £480 per household per year. This is not a small amount and could prove useful at home.

Probably the best argument of those who want us to stay is that Britain will lose influence in the world. There is some truth in this, in that Britain’s elites and their allies like in America will have less influence on what the rest of Europe thinks and does. We have a 28th share or perhaps to be more generous and realistic an eighth or maybe even a fifth of a share of influence at the European ‘top table’.

So I think it might be right to call this referendum a choice between having control over our own country or our elites having a share of control over others.

Many thanks to the LSE Forum for Philosophy for the invite.


  1. Unusually, you seem very confused Ben. I often read your blog and find you have summarised my mesh of feelings with a pleasingly efficient form of words. Not so here. This feels bleak and nihilistic.

    Immigration has always been cited as a problem. Often the Jews proved to be a handy scapegoat. The current complaint is probably a direct result of the sudden influx of Easter Europeans (something the UK pushed for) in 2004. The UK was one of only a few countries to accept all new members. Your pessimistic objection seems to be arithmetical rather than cultural: too many people. But the population will grow. We need to deal with it. What is your plan?

    Your argument seems to suffer from the poverty of ambition that blights many of what we in the metropolitan elite* call 'the disenfranchised'. When there's ten places and twelve children, two of them immigrants, the cry goes up: throw out the immigrants rather than expand the school system; grow the economy.

    And what's your plan for reducing immigration? You simply side-stepped that. You know of course that non EU migration is larger now than EU; something this Tory government could control, but seemingly is reluctant to. Who will do the jobs that the British are so reluctant to take on? The Cleaning, picking, plucking, washing and caring?

    And what happens to the world when we all close down our borders. Or will you plead exceptionalism for the UK? As will every other state.

    I'm sure of this. As a collectivist; an old fashioned internationalist, I believe the only way we improve the world for the people of the world is through increasing cooperation, communication and a standardisation of rights and expectations. We cannot do that in isolation. We are setting a terrible example.

    *I'm from the South Wales Valleys but I have the audacity to live in that London.


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