Neil Kinnock, Margaret Beckett, Hilary Benn, David Blunkett and Jack Straw all campaigned against British membership of the Common Market in the 1975 referendum. And last week all five signed a letter repenting their sins.
Well, maybe that’s overstating it, but they did say they’d be supporting the Remain campaign this time. And one of the key arguments was that our membership of what is now the EU ‘has brought three million jobs linked to our trade in Europe’.1
Three million jobs. That’s what we’re risking if we choose to leave. You have to take that kind of consideration seriously.
Just as we had to take seriously the warning from the Institute of Management in 1999 that: ‘More than three million jobs could be under threat if Britain stays out of the euro.’2
Or the warning that same year from Tony Blair that ‘Not to vote [in the Euro-elections] would put at risk three million jobs in Britain.’3
Where did this figure of three million come from? That was never entirely clear, though apparently it was quite correct, for it received academic approval, albeit after the fact. In 2000 Stephen Byers, the trade and industry secretary, ‘said new research from South Bank University showed that more than three million British jobs depended on EU membership.’4
At this stage, though, there was one man prepared to buck the trend. Back in 1997, when he was still merely the shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown wrote an article claiming that ‘3.5 million Scottish and British jobs depend on our membership of Europe.’5 These would, obviously, come under threat if we returned a Conservative government in the coming election.
But he didn’t see this as a static figure. Two years later, he was explaining that it was on the rise: ‘When trade with Europe was around 40 per cent, the CBI produced evidence that 2.5 million jobs depended upon it. Now at over 50 per cent, up to 3.5 million jobs are directly affected.’6
Given his self-proclaimed triumphs in steering the national economy, it might reasonably be assumed that the numbers were going to rise still further. And yet, in 2001, Brown himself was to be found scaling down his estimates: ‘over three quarters of a million UK companies trade with the rest of the European Union – half our total trade – with three million jobs affected’.7
Once Brown had accepted the three million figure, everyone banged the same drum. ‘Well over half of Britain’s exports go to the EU, supporting well over three million jobs,’ said Europe minister Peter Hain in 2002.8 Tony Blair, in 2004, ‘said the EU provided the market for 60 per cent of UK goods and more than three million jobs depended on it.’9 And in 2006 the Labour MEPs Glenys Kinnock and Eluned Morgan wrote a letter to the papers insisting that ‘more than three million jobs in 800,000 companies depend on the EU’.10
And yet, and yet. There was something that didn’t quite ring true. In 2008 Gordon Brown – now prime minister – was on his feet in the House of Commons asserting ‘that 60 per cent of our trade is with the EU, that three million jobs depend on the EU’.11
To be clear, then: back when 40 per cent of our trade was with Europe, it had generated 2.5 million jobs; when it went up to 50 per cent, the jobs rose to 3 million; but now, with 60 per cent, it was still 3 million. In employment terms, this didn’t sound like a particularly good deal.
Meanwhile, Brown was boasting that over the decade of New Labour government, ‘three million jobs had been created’.12 Which was terrific news. But there was no net increase, it would appear, in the number of jobs associated with the EU. All that growth in employment had nothing whatsoever to do with Europe.
Last year, Gordon Brown was back on the same theme: ‘We must tell the truth about the three million jobs, 25,000 companies, £200 billion of annual exports and £450 billion of inward investment linked to Europe.’13 (That mention of ‘25,000 companies’, incidentally, was a little worrisome. In 2001, remember, Brown had claimed ‘three quarters of a million UK companies’ – that’s a hell of a steep fall-off.)
And the figure of three million is still with us. Yesterday’s Daily Mirror ran an editorial that spoke of ‘the three million or more jobs that are linked to our trade with Europe.’14
It’s self-evident nonsense, of course. The figure was flawed from the outset, since it assumed that all trade with Europe would cease should we leave the EU, but its stubborn survival is truly a thing of wonder.
No matter what’s happened to the economy – from the end of boom-and-bust all the way through to the return of boom-and-bust – it’s still three million jobs. In 1997 we had around 26 million people employed in Britain. Now it’s over 31 million. But only three million are ever because of Europe. Proportionally, the EU is becoming less and less important.
So, just a word of friendly advice for those who want to argue that withdrawal from the EU would be an economic catastrophe: it might at least be worth coming up with another figure every now and then. Just for the sake of credibility.
If in doubt, adopt the tactic identified by the greatest European advocate, Roy Jenkins, during the 1975 referendum campaign as belonging to Hilary’s dad: ‘I’m afraid I find it increasingly difficult to take Mr Benn seriously as an economic minister, with this technique in which you just think of a number and double it.’
1 Observer 14 February 2016
2 Express 23 February 1999
3 Daily Mirror 10 June 1999
4 Western Daily Press 22 February 2000
5 Daily Record 30 January 1997
6 Evening Mail 1 November 1999
7 Daily Mirror 21 June 2001
8 Newsletter 28 February 2002
9 Daily Mirror 11 May 2004
10 Western Mail 24 October 2006
11 Guardian 19 June 2008
12 Birmingham Post 6 March 2008
13 Independent 9 March 2015
14 Daily Mirror 22 February 2016