The story of Honda leaving Swindon is another case-study in how Brexit is a political circus-mirror, warping and twisting perceptions on all sides. Basically, everyone is wrong and should shut up.
Honda isn’t leaving Swindon because of Brexit. We know that because Honda has said it, about as clearly as a company can. Ian Howells, senior vice-president for Honda in Europe, told the BBC: ‘This is not a Brexit-related issue for us.’
That, of course, is at odds with the account offered by several politicians and countless #FBPE people on Twitter. David Lammy and Sarah Wollaston are among the MPs who yesterday linked the closure to Brexit. At the time of writing, neither has said anything about the company’s comment.
And even if they did correct themselves, I suspect it wouldn’t make any difference. The confirmation-bias that drives Brexit narratives is just too strong for mere facts to change much. The committed Remain supporters who yesterday decided the Honda story proved them right on Brexit are unlikely to change their position now.
Facts still matter though, and the failure to accept them has consequences. This is something that some people on the Remain side still need to accept: when you present yourselves as a source of truth and your opponents as liars, you need to be scrupulously honest and painfully candid – especially about the things you get wrong. And it is wrong to say that Honda is closing its Swindon plant as a direct consequence of Brexit.
The failure to acknowledge that not all Brexit warnings were wholly accurate and that not all negative economic or commercial events are explained by Brexit is a serious weakness for those arguing against it. It is what allows Brexiteers to talk about ‘Project Fear’ and to get a hearing with voters. It also robs Remainers of moral force when they – quite reasonably – accuse some Brexiteers of dishonesty.
None of this is to say that Brexit is a good thing, and that all of those economic warnings are groundless. They’re not, which is why it’s all the more important that voters are accurately apprised here. Trying to score debating points with inaccurate claims over an event that will cost thousands of British jobs is bad for the anti-Brexit camp.
Is this a good day for the Brexiteers then? You would think so, from the jubilant tone of some pro-Leave media outlets and commentators chalking up debating points of their own.
In fact this is not good news for Brexit. Not at all. Not in the slightest. Any Brexiteer who takes heart from Honda’s statements today is misguided and proving they’re missing the big picture.
Narrowly, Honda’s decisions about Swindon are about technological and economic change, and the big-picture trend towards a world that wants electric cars that will be fewer in number than their petrol-burning predecessors.
But if you take an even wider view, the Honda decision is about scale. A global company has to focus its resources in the places where it can a) produce most cheaply, but more importantly b) sell most profitably.
For Honda and similar firms, that means the world can be seen as a handful of mega-markets, places where it is possible to make things and sell them to hundreds of millions of potential buyers. For Honda, that means a future focus on North America and Asia.
‘This is about investment in bigger markets,’ Mr Howells also told the BBC, in comments that Brexiteers appear less keen to highlight today.
The brutal truth of the footloose global economy of the early 21st Century is that size matters. Big countries and big markets attract big investment because investors can make bigger returns there. Big economies can also use their size to dictate terms to investors and trading partners: the rule-makers of global trade are the US, the EU and, arguably China.
And of course, Brexit is about smallness, about Britain’s economic and strategic footprint shrinking. As part of the EU, the UK is part of the world’s second-biggest consumer market (measured by household spending). Outside it, we fall to fifth or sixth and are likely to sink lower still as Indian and Brazilian growth continues.
In population terms, EU membership makes Britain part of a market that is home to 510 million people; only China and India have bigger populations. Alone, 65 million Brits still makes us the 21st most populous nation. But another way of expressing this, is that the UK population is less than one per cent of the world’s total.
Some Brexiteers like to argue that outside the EU, Britain will be able to embrace the opportunities of the global economy. The reality is that that global economy is about those ‘bigger markets’, yet we have chosen to leave one of them.