Episode 707: Brexit : Planet Money What just happened in the UK? And what's coming next?
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Episode 707: Brexit

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Episode 707: Brexit

Episode 707: Brexit

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Quick warning - there is one curse word in this show.


Is it blimey?

SMITH: Not a curse word - not here at least. I did not get a lot of sleep last night because all through the night, the United Kingdom was counting votes, and I stayed up to watch it. And it's weirdly riveting, you know - Stoke-on-Trent votes leave, Trent-on-Stoke votes stay.

GOLDSTEIN: Which is not the same place.

SMITH: Not the same place. It's weird. It's weird. It wasn't until around 4 in the morning their time that they called it. The citizens of the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union.

GOLDSTEIN: So, Robert, we came into the office this morning, and we made a call to England. We called Tim Harford. He's an economist and an old friend of the show.

TIM HARFORD: How you doing, guys?

SMITH: We're doing great. How're you doing?

HARFORD: I've had better days. You know, I think we just need a hug.

SMITH: Oh, we would definitely give you a hug if we could.

GOLDSTEIN: Harford you're the most huggable economist I know.

HARFORD: OK. That's high praise, I think.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a low bar. Let's be honest.


SMITH: We talked to Tim at his house in England, but that's not where he was when he first heard what happened.

HARFORD: I woke up this morning in Paris.

SMITH: In Paris?

HARFORD: In Paris, hey, you know, where - we haven't left the European Union yet, so I'm allowed to be in Paris. That's how we roll in the European Union, or at least that is how we used to roll until the referendum result.

SMITH: So Tim was rushing to catch the train back to the U.K., reading all this news about what his fellow citizens had done. And how did you feel?

HARFORD: How did I feel as an economist, or how did I feel as a human being?

SMITH: As a human being.

HARFORD: As a human being - actually, you want to know the truth? As the taxi driver dropped me off, he said, monsieur, you will always be welcome back in France. And I wanted to cry. I really did. You know, it was just that moment of - what can you do? What can you do?

SMITH: How did you feel as an economist?

HARFORD: Oh, [expletive]. This is going to be bad.

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. It was a big morning for everybody on both sides of the referendum. The tabloids in London - they called it Independence Day. The value of the British pound fell to the lowest point in, like, 30 years.

SMITH: And by the time we got up here in New York, stock markets were diving around the world. The prime minister, David Cameron, said he would resign later this year.

GOLDSTEIN: Today on the show, we talk with Tim Harford about what just happened and what's coming next.


SMITH: The most amazing thing for me about the EU referendum is that it even happened at all. The U.K. almost never asks its citizens to vote on anything, but the EU referendum was designed to solve this really specific political problem for the prime minister, for David Cameron. He's a conservative, and like the Republicans here in the United States recently, he was facing this really divided party. Some conservatives in Britain hated Europe - always had. Some thought it was good for business. Cameron - personally, he had no problem with the EU.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, or at least he figured the U.K. would be better off inside the EU. But he knew politically he had to get this issue - in or out of the EU - off the table. He had to unite his Conservative Party. So back in 2013, he made this big speech.


DAVID CAMERON: We will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in-or-out choice - to stay in the European Union on these new terms or to come out all together. It will be an in-out referendum. It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe.

SMITH: And it worked. For years, it worked. The conservatives stopped bickering so much, and Cameron got to stay prime minister, stay the head of his party. The conservatives won re-election. Everything was going according to plan, except for that little promise - the promise of a vote. Eventually, he was going to have to have that referendum, and Tim Harford says he thought he had a shot.

HARFORD: Our prime minister, David Cameron, likes to gamble because that's backfired for him now.

GOLDSTEIN: Of course, this morning, David Cameron announced that he would resign later this year.


CAMERON: I do not think it will be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.

GOLDSTEIN: They do love a naval metaphor.

SMITH: What happened to going down with the ship?

GOLDSTEIN: Too far (laughter).

HARFORD: I mean, this is - this is the biggest humiliation for any British prime minister probably since the Suez crisis of the 1950s. I mean, this is a - this is big. And David Cameron has been prime minister since 2010. He's been prime minister a long time, and he will be remembered for this and probably nothing else. And he's got to live with that. He made the decision. He threw the dice. And he likes to gamble, but sometimes you don't win.

SMITH: What was this vote really about?

HARFORD: I think it's hard to say what it's really about because the different campaigns were making very different arguments. And even the leave campaign was actually acrimoniously split down the middle - a bunch of people being pretty xenophobic and saying this is all about controlling immigration and a bunch of other people saying this is all about freeing ourselves from Brussels regulation, European Union regulation and embracing global free trade. So the - I mean, these people are not in a situation to form a government together because this is a very, very different message coming.

GOLDSTEIN: They're almost opposite, right? One is saying like, oh, like, free trade, which typically goes with free movement of workers, which is just a variant of free trade. The other one is saying no, shut it down. That's kind of the opposite.

HARFORD: Yeah, yeah. But - it is, but I think the thing is the European Union has come to stand for all kinds of things, rightly or wrongly. It's come to stand for big government. It's come to stand for regulation and interference. And we don't get to make up our own mind. It's come to stand for an influx of people, and we can't control that. And I mean, the European Union maybe deserves the blame for some of that, but not for all of it. But because different people blame the European Union for different things and have a different view about what actually is the problem, if there is a problem, that - different people have voted to leave for very different reasons. And that makes this moment very uncertain because it's not clear who is now going to gain the upper hand and what they will actually want to do.

SMITH: Has there been a moment when you were frustrated with the EU, when you were, like - I don't know - reading a package of cheese or something and are just like - look at all - look at all the stuff in it. Contents - cheese. Or you know, that you've just raged against something that made your life seem bureaucratic and petty.

HARFORD: No, not really because a lot of this is entirely fictional. And we complain about European Union regulations. There's a great meme going around about how European Union cabbage regulations are 26,000 words long.

SMITH: The regulations for cabbage.

HARFORD: It's entirely made up. It doesn't exist.

SMITH: I heard that they worried the EU regulations were going to slow down your tea time by making the teakettle a lower wattage and that the toasters wouldn't toast as well.

HARFORD: I didn't look at that one in detail. I seem to remember that it was rather overblown. That's certainly not something that I'm concerned about. And it's certainly not something I'm willing to leave the European Union over.

GOLDSTEIN: So you - where you live? Oxford Town or you live in some shire or something? Where do you live?

HARFORD: You could just call it Oxford if you like. It's twee enough. You know, I pass J.R.R. Tolkien's house every morning when I take my kids to school.

GOLDSTEIN: No, no, should...

HARFORD: So, you know, that should be plenty twee enough for you guys.

GOLDSTEIN: You live actually in a hobbit house? Or...

HARFORD: Yeah. If it makes you happier to think that, go for it.

SMITH: So how did your, like - I don't know - neighborhood or whatever - how did they vote?

HARFORD: Oxford as a whole voted strongly for remain. I haven't seen the breakdown of my local district, but judging by the stickers on the cars and the - in people's front rooms, it's remain.

GOLDSTEIN: We asked him, you know, if he knew anyone who voted to leave, and he said he didn't really. And this actually surprised him because the way politics generally works in the U.K. is that you know a lot of people of different parties. Oh, he's a Labour person. He's a liberal person. He's a conservative. But in this particular case, the referendum did not break down on political lines. It broke down on real demographic lines. He said each group didn't even know the other one at all. It's like they were speaking different languages, talking past each other.

HARFORD: So you had the International Monetary Fund, you had the Bank of England, the London School of Economics - all the all the economic experts saying leaving the EU is going to be really, really bad for the British economy. And then a lot of people just said, well, hang on. Weren't you the guys who screwed up the financial crisis, so why should we believe you now? But they have a point right?

GOLDSTEIN: But, Tim, you are one of those experts. I mean, you're an economist. Your entire life is saying here are facts. Here's studies. This is how the world works. And essentially part of this vote is saying we don't care about that. We don't care what the experts say.

HARFORD: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I fact-checked the referendum campaign for the BBC. We were just going through what all the different sides of the argument were saying. And I was struck by how little people seem to be interested in facts. And also by the fact that the the leave campaign - they were leading with a - with a alleged fact that was just demonstrably untrue about how much the EU cost the country. And we were going to spend all this money on health care instead.

And every independent expert said that's just not true, and it didn't matter. And that's alarming, as well. I mean, it's one thing to make an important decision, and I think the country's made the wrong decision. But British politicians used to be good at misleading people without actually lying. And that particular discipline appears to have been abandoned in this campaign, which is - it's hard to put the genie back in that bottle, either.

SMITH: Did you fact check the remain campaign, as well? And what did you find?

HARFORD: Oh, of course. And the remain campaign were big on taking economic forecasts that looked gloomy and presenting the forecasts as absolute fact.

SMITH: Is it possible that this is not a big deal? I mean, certainly this morning, it seems like a dramatic event, but these things pass.

HARFORD: I think it's very hard to make the case that this is not a big deal, but let me try to make the case. So the EU wants to minimize problems. Most British politicians think we should have stayed. So they sit down around a table, and they figure out some kind of deal - maybe a Norway style deal.

Now, Norway has a relationship with EU which is very close. It has to accept most EU rules. It has to pay EU membership fees. It has free movement of people, just like other EU countries, but it's not actually in the EU, so it's a very EU-like relationship. So maybe the no-big-deal camp says, OK, everyone sits down, and we stay as close to remaining in the EU as absolutely as is possible to be, which is the Norway model. I don't think that's going to happen, but that the case that this is no big deal.

SMITH: But you think it is a big deal, so why? What do you think is going to happen? Or why do you think this is a big deal?

HARFORD: Purely from the point of view of the U.K., we now have political chaos. We've got parties in Ireland saying they want to merge with Northern Ireland. You've got parties in Scotland saying you want to leave the U.K. You've got the Spanish government saying it would like to take ownership of Gibraltar, which is a British overseas territory. The prime minister's leaving. We don't know who's going to replace him. We've got a weak opposition. So just the politics of this is a mess.

Economically, you can just look at the markets. This morning, the pound was down 10 percent. The stock markets were down 10 percent. And a lot of international companies invest in the U.K. as a base for doing business with the rest of the European Union. It's hard to see what a foreign investor - say, a Japanese car company wants to build a factory to make cars. Historically, the U.K. would've been a great place to do that - good infrastructure, political stability (laughter) and access to the European market. And now it's not clear that they - they're going to have access to the European market.

So most economists think this is going to be bad for the U.K. immediately - it may provoke a recession - and also bad for the U.K. economy in the long run. Opinion's divided. Maybe it's 4 percent of GDP. Maybe it's 6. Maybe it's 10 percent of GDP. But we're likely to be poorer in the long run.

SMITH: Any chance for a do-over? Two out of three?

HARFORD: I think it's unlikely. I'd like one, but I think it's unlikely.

GOLDSTEIN: Good luck, Harford. Thanks for talking to us.

SMITH: Yeah, thanks.

HARFORD: Thank you very much.

SMITH: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org at npr.org or tweet at us at @planetmoney. We cranked the show out today in just a few hours, so extra special thanks to our producers. Nick Fountain did most of the heavy lifting. He got an assist from Sally Helm and Jess Jiang.

GOLDSTEIN: Special thanks to Tim Harford. He has a regular column at The Financial Times. His latest book, like many of his books, starts with the words "Undercover Economist." It is "The Undercover Economist Strikes Back." If you're looking for something else to listen to, you can try the NPR politics podcast. This week, their show also is about Brexit.

SMITH: Brexit is the thing that brings us all together.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm Jacob Goldstein.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.


HARFORD: It's all about the pasta.

SMITH: It's about the what?

GOLDSTEIN: Pasta. That's what they call - it they call it pasta in England.

SMITH: OK (laughter).

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