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This CEO Wanted a Debate About Brexit, so I Gave Him One

I was poor once. There are lots of downsides to being poor, and some of them get overlooked. When you are shivering during the middle of a bitter Winter, it hardly seems to matter if your opinions are fairly represented by the mainstream media. Poor people do not get to appear on television as much as rich people do, they are less often quoted in newspapers, they receive less attention on the internet, their opinions are easy to overlook. So when a public debate involves the diverging interests of the poor and the rich, it is easy for that ‘public’ debate to become horribly skewed. We end up disproportionately listening to the views of people who have succeeded in life, whilst taking little notice of those who are struggling. The debate over the UK’s membership of the European Union suffers this division. Polls show that poor people want to leave the EU, whilst the wealthy want to remain. We keep hearing plenty of views from those with wealth and power, and the people who represent them. In contrast the poor are not being listened to, and their insights are not being shared as widely as they should.

The European Union referendum polls show an overwhelming majority of poor people want to leave the EU. Yet our media is dominated by people who have succeeded in life – business people, scientists, actors – telling us we should remain in the EU. The bias should be plain to see. This imbalance is exacerbated because organizations that claim to represent the poor – the Labour Party, trade unions etc – have their own selfish reasons to oppose their wishes. However, many well-meaning successful people reinterpret this common bias as a problem relating to ‘education’ or ‘information’… and they make it very clear who needs to be on the receiving end of their lectures!

One medium for public debate is LinkedIn, the social network for business people. I often use it for professional reasons. It is a good place to engage with people with similar business interests, but it does not provide a representative mix of the general public. To say that the debate on LinkedIn is skewed would wrongly suggest that an actual debate is taking place. As far as EU membership is concerned, LinkedIn is just one selfish propaganda message after another. Posts with titles like “Why the EU Is Good for (My) Business” compete for attention with posts entitled “The EU Is Good for (My) Business (And That Is Good Enough for Me)” and the ever-popular “I Get a Grant from the EU so Obviously the EU Is in Everyone’s Best Interests”.

I joke, of course, but the truth about LinkedIn debate is not a lot better. Trivially selfish reasons to remain in the EU (‘I like holidays and I’m afraid of a future where I might need a visa to go to Spain!’) line up alongside absurdly apocalyptic messages (‘Without the EU there will be war!’), flooding the feed of what is happening on LinkedIn. Nobody in their right mind can think LinkedIn is a sensible place to hold a genuine debate about EU membership. A genuine debate has to involve both rich and poor, because we are all affected by the decision to remain or leave the EU. But poor people who do not like the EU are not users of LinkedIn. Regrettably, that did not discourage Ronan Dunne, the CEO of phone company O2, from using LinkedIn to call for a “properly informed debate” about the UK’s participation in the EU. So I gave him one. And I attempted to do something I am no longer well-qualified to do, by representing the wishes of all the poor people who Dunne will not find on LinkedIn.

Despite asserting the need for ‘information’, Dunne’s argument was drawn from the common litany of pro-EU talking points that have become the norm for wealthy successful people who are no longer conscious of how they talk down to everyone else. If you make assumptions about Dunne’s argument you will not go far wrong; he said the EU is good for (his) business and the economy. Dunne’s slight variations on a theme included a casual mention of the downsides of EU red tape, and he worried about relations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic if they were not both in the EU. But that was all Dunne argued; his lecture was neither informative, nor balanced. You can read Dunne’s argument here, but you will not find it illuminating. What stood out in my mind was two things: the comical absurdity of one assertion, and the failure to mention how the EU impacts Britain’s poor, even though some of them will be O2 customers.

…I certainly don’t think it’s for businesses to tell people how to vote.

Dunne actually wrote that. Does he think the same number of people would read his post if it did not come from the boss of a big business? I think this quote sums up the way successful people lose perspective when talking down to everybody else, so I responded to it.

“I certainly don’t think it’s for businesses to tell people how to vote,” writes the CEO of a business in an article telling people how to vote.

I could have written more, but why bother? I am not the CEO of a big business, nor a nobel scientist, nor a famous film star. I have only been moderately successful in life. All I bring to this debate is the memory of what life is like for those who do not succeed, and how hard it is to climb from the bottom rung of society’s ladder. I never expect many people will pay attention to what I write, even though I am keen on genuine public debate. To Dunne’s credit, he did respond. But he did not respond wisely.

Eric – I write as an individual with an opinion, keen for there to be a proper discussion on this a hugely important question. In no way inconsistent with the view that it’s not businesses role.

In short, Dunne doubled down on a disingenuous argument. He repeats his desire for a ‘proper discussion’ despite picking a terrible vehicle to host that discussion. Worse still, anyone who has been powerless understands how unlikely it is for the CEO of a big business to have a ‘proper discussion’ with anyone beneath them. I have spoken to a few CEOs of big businesses, and ‘proper discussions’ were the exception, not the norm, because they always had more power than me, and most CEOs are prepared to use that power. So what are the chances of Dunne engaging in a proper discussion that also appropriately includes the opinions and experiences of the poorest Brits? I tried to give Dunne the ‘proper discussion’ that he deserves.

People don’t read your post because you are an individual with an opinion; you can’t be so unintelligent that you think otherwise. If you were just an individual with an opinion you could have used a pseudonym and seen how few people would have noticed you then.

As for the discussion, you provided little, and encouraged none. You mostly focused on the ways a single EU market benefits your business. That is another reason to reject the pretense that you are just an individual giving an individual’s opinion.

If you want a proper discussion perhaps you would kindly explain why voters should prioritise the interests of wealthy successful educated people like you, who benefit greatly from the EU. I would rather we focus on the interests of poorly educated, low paid Brits who suffer terribly as a result of having fewer job opportunities, downward wage pressure, greater competition for housing, and all the social challenges resulting from immigration when we know immigrants tend to cluster in areas that are already prone to poverty.

Put simply, why should we follow your lead by only talking about the ways that EU membership makes rich people like you richer? Why don’t we talk more about the ways the EU has made many poor British people even poorer?

A properly informed debate would require us to recognize the pros and cons of each option. I don’t think you encouraged that. You listed some genuine benefits of EU membership, whilst neglecting to mention that individuals like you receive the lion’s share of those benefits. You mentioned some trivial downsides to EU membership, but none of the important ones. Now that I’ve mentioned the genuine and important reasons that lead millions of poor Brits to want to leave the EU, do you care to state an opinion on why those people’s views, and the quality of their lives, matters less than being able to cheaply recruit skilled European workers and thus save yourself the expense of training Brits to a higher standard?

I have drawn your attention to the fact that millions of your customers are quite probably worse off as a result of the EU’s influence over the UK. They are no worse ‘informed’ than you; their information comes from their actual experience of life, and you should not look down upon that. I have also questioned why it is of ‘benefit’ to Britain that businesses like yours choose to recruit skilled workers from overseas in preference to developing the skills of thousands of Brits who want good jobs but have never received the educational investment needed to realise their potential. Now that I have done this, do you care to engage in a real and proper discussion, or will you stick to vapid one-sided propaganda? Will you explain to all of us who intend to vote for Brexit why protecting the interests of the poor matters less than enriching you and your business? Or would that be the kind of genuine, unlimited, balanced and informed debate which is too risky for you to actually participate in, because of the potential damage to the reputation of your business?

Instead of allowing Dunne to talk down to me, I talked to him as an equal. There has been no reply, and of course there was never going to be a reply. ‘Discussion’ is a euphemism; it means the powerful speak, and everyone else listens.

This one-way conversation means I have listened to plenty of successful people repeating selfish arguments about foreign travel and EU grants. I have heard how British businesses prosper by selling to foreign markets whilst keeping wages low and hiring from abroad to avoid the cost of training British people for better jobs. I have heard all the silly arguments that Brexit will lead to unemployment for millions, a massive recession, huge government cuts, a collapse in housing prices, a crisis for the NHS, increased terrorism, a rise in illegal immigrants, the end of human rights in Britain, the secession of Scotland, and war with our European neighbours. After listening to all that, I will vote for Brexit. I believe many British people will ultimately benefit if we leave the European Union. And I believe this even though Brexit would be contrary to my personal interests.

Life is not just about making money, having holidays and consuming goods. And I do not live in perpetual fear of the scare stories promulgated by our society’s most powerful manipulators, especially when their selfish motives are so obvious. Freedom is important, and so is social cohesion. The EU has repeatedly demonstrated that it is an enemy to democracy. Just as importantly, the adverse social costs of unlimited migration of workers does most harm to the poorest individuals in our society. These are the reasons to leave the EU. We must trust ordinary people to choose their government, instead of preferring the supposedly benign dictatorship of unelected bureaucrats. And we must refocus our attention on developing the talents and improving the lives of all British people, instead of submitting to a bogus calculus which says GDP growth is paramount, even when most new jobs are going to immigrant workers.

Businessmen like Dunne say that it is in Britain’s interests to be in the EU. I say the interests of his business need to be realigned to support the interests of all the people who already live in our country. The elites that run this country should be made to listen to the millions of ordinary people who suffer because of the EU, and they should be forced to concentrate more resources on developing the talents of British workers instead of lauding the advantages of buying in skills from abroad. The only way to ensure both is to vote for the United Kingdom to leave the EU.

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