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Britain’s Old Guard Tries to Rally the Faltering Brexit Troops

Sep 14, 2017

One of the most striking things about the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU last year was about the importance of age. In a referendum which split the country 52%-48%, those over 65 voted 64%-36% in favor of leaving, while those in the 18-24 age group voted 71%-29% to remain.

Many reasons were advanced for this: the old were more attached to the U.K.'s postwar myth, unable to move beyond a 1940 view of the world that cast Britain as the sole, heroic opponent to Nazi Germany; they paid more attention to newspapers that had traded on casting the EU as a slightly less malign version of the Third Reich; they were more hostile to mass immigration, an issue many conflated with the EU's principle of free movement; self-interest dictated they were more susceptible to the fallacy that the U.K.'s annual 10 billion euro contributions to the EU budget could be effortlessly redirected to the cash-strapped National Health Service; they failed to understand how deeply embedded the U.K. was in the EU's single market.

Such explanations all have a degree of merit. But none of them fully explains the phenomenon. Consider Exhibits A, B, and C, who have all rallied to the cause in the last 24 hours on national TV: inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson, 70; former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, 69; and the 77 year-old ex-Beatle (and sometime narrator of "Thomas the Tank Engine") Ringo Starr.

Read: The U.K. Is Too Busy Fighting With Itself to Negotiate a Brexit Deal With the EU

Dyson runs a hugely successful appliance business. His beef with the EU is that the rules that affect his business, on things like energy consumption, labelling, and certification, are stitched up in back rooms by his German competitors, to his detriment. Dyson's company has argued that German claims about their appliances' performances are only true in the testing lab, not when the vacuum cleaner bag starts to fill up. Its complaints didn't get very far until the Dieselgate scandal exposed similar issues. The EU courts, initially unsympathetic, are now taking another look.

Dyson epitomizes the "globalist" approach to Brexit, the idea that the U.K. is better off trying to cultivate faster-growing regions of the world than a stodgy, aging EU. As he told the BBC Thursday: "I think uncertainty is an opportunity, and the opportunity here is actually that the rest of the world is growing at a far greater rate than Europe, so the opportunity is to export to the rest of the world and to capitalise on that."

Read: With This Vote, Britain Can Now Move on With Brexit Talks

Starr was even more forthright, accusing an overwhelmingly anti-Brexit U.K. establishment of foot-dragging.

"The people voted and, you know, they have to get on with it," Starr said. "Suddenly it's, like, 'Oh well, we don't like that vote.' What do you mean, you don't like that vote? You had the vote, this is what won, let's get on with it."

Starr has more in common with Dyson than you might guess.

Even more than Dyson, Starr's career and wealth was founded on making something that the whole world wanted. Make your product good enough, and you can get it through an Iron Curtain, let alone a World Trade Organization tariff schedule. Make it bad enough, and not even the world's biggest single market will save you, as diesel-makers are finding out.

Noone would be in any danger of confusing Starr with Lord King of Lothbury, the gray-haired ex-central banker who oversaw the U.K.'s financial system before and after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. But King was singing from the same sheet last night, damning London's failure to negotiate effectively with the EU over future trading terms.

"In a negotiating process, it's important that the other side of the table know you have a fall-back position that you are capable of delivering," King told the BBC's Newsnight. "That requires you to make clear publicly what the fall-back position is. We've been waiting for over a year now and ... I'm not impressed by how much of that fall-back position has actually been stated, been implemented, and whether it's actually being managed properly within the civil service and the government."

(The problem comes from the fact that Prime Minister Theresa May's gamble of calling a general election to get a solid mandate for her "Hard Brexit" strategy blew up in her face, leaving her Conservatives without a majority in Parliament.)

King has said the U.K.'s long-term economic outlook won't be much different whether or not it stays in the EU, given broader global issues such as automation and population aging.

Read: Half of the UK’s Food Industry Might Bail Because of Brexit

Remainers were quick to throw shade at all three on Thursday. Social media was thick with reminders of how Dyson moved its manufacturing to south-east Asia, how King's stewardship of the BoE fostered the crisis, and how Starr, in comfortable semi-retirement in Los Angeles, won't have to live with the consequences of Brexit anyway.

But most such criticisms are unfair. Dyson, in particular, now employs three times as many people in the U.K. than it did when it still manufactured at home, overwhelmingly in well-paid technology and design positions. It's about to invest in a campus for developing new technology that will increase its U.K. footprint by a factor of 10. King knows better than most how Eurozone officials blamed an under-regulated U.K. for a euro crisis that was overwhelmingly of its own making. And The Beatles, arguably, created more global goodwill towards Britain than anyone, before or since.

None of their life experiences fit the caricature of the geriatric Brexiteer xenophobe wrapped in a warm blanket of nostalgia for an imagined past, and none can be blamed for thinking that Brexit Britain — if you'll pardon the phrase — will get by (with a little help from its friends).

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