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Simon Maxwell

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Five lessons regarding Brexit from the Book of Exodus

We were on holiday in Northern Greece when the Brexit Referendum took place, and discovered that the Greek for Exit, marked on every motorway slipway, is ΕΞΟΔΟΣ or Exodos. The signs led directly to reading the Bible Book of Exodus, St James' version, and, would you believe it, therein is to be found the entire story of Brexit. I'm not so sure about prescription, but we will come to that.

Probably everyone knows the story of Moses and the flight from Egypt: the hostile regime of the Pharaoh, the rescue of Moses from a coracle, the seven plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the tablets of stone, the forty years in the wilderness, and the arrival in the land of milk and honey. If not, Charlton Heston and others play more or (usually) less faithfully with the narrative. Christian Bale is the latest to do so.

One great leap is required to find the story of Brexit in the Book of Exodus, which is to realise that the story is not about the UK leaving the oppressive regime of Egypt, but the other way round. The EUEuropean Union are the Israelites, walking out on the UK. Personally, I am comfortable with that. My interpretation of the Brexit vote is that the EUEuropean Union failed (walked out on) the population of the UK (and of other countries) because of its collective failure to make globalisation work for the broad mass of people, not least in its handling of the euro crisis. Another book I re-read on holiday was Emile Zola’s J’Accuse. Anyway, bear with me.

In Exodus, we find Egypt facing large scale immigration and an expanding labour force, which drives down real wages. The Pharaoh complains incessantly about the fruitfulness and multiplication of the Israelites and continually raises work targets. The building trade faces special pressure, and we find the Poles and the Lithuanians, I mean the Israelites, being required not just to make bricks, but also to gather the straw needed for the purpose, and without any diminution in brick output targets.

In response to this, the workers complain quite a bit, as you might expect, and look to populist leaders who offer an alternative. Moses appears to fit the bill, though as a shy man without the gift of eloquence, he needs quite a bit of help from a higher authority (and from his more articulate brother, Aaron). The core proposition, the mission statement, the preamble to the (unwritten) treaty is that a better future will be found under a different and potentially multinational administration. As God observes, ‘I am come down to deliver them . . . unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites,  unto a land flowing with milk and honey.’

Eventually, the Israelites decide to leave, albeit with a sleight of hand involving jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, or, as we might say, budget transfers. And, of course, the leaving is not easy, what with having to cross the Red Sea: there are certainly shocks affecting both sides in the divorce, though sadly we are given little information about the impact of Israelite exit on the Egyptian economy.

We are then crossing the wilderness with the Israelites (= the EU, remember), on the journey to the promised land. There are some remarkable features. First, it takes forever: forty whole years. Second, there are times of real austerity along the way, with economic crises relieved only by injections of manna from heaven and occasional partridges, courtesy of the European Central Bank. Third, the Israelites are laden with rules and regulations, on everything from the treatment of servants to laws concerning the responsibility of owners. There is absolutely no room for subsidiarity in the specification of construction standards for arks, tables for showbread, golden candlesticks, tabernacles, altars, and holy garments. Fourth, there are constant demands for budget contributions, in the form of offerings. And finally, there are interesting procedures for handling dissent with respect to rules and offerings, which mainly involve eliminating dissenters, smashing the tablets of stone, and then, amazingly, acquiring another set of tablets, or, as we might say, holding another referendum to overturn the first one.

Exodus ends at that point, but there are plenty of adventures ahead, in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy: battles with Canaanites, fiery serpents, and the Og of Bashan; inappropriate behaviour with the daughters of Moab; vengeance on Midian. But it’s OK. Forty years on, and Europe delivers on its promise: rain in due season, and grass for the cattle, and even successful enlargement, from the wilderness and the river, even unto the uttermost sea. There is even a provision for debt relief, on a seven year cycle, which Greece will be pleased about. All provided Europe’s citizens keep to the rules.

Exodus is a great story, and needs a great cast in the next film. David Cameron as the Pharaoh. Jean Claude Juncker as Moses. Martin Schultz as his more extrovert and articulate brother, Aaron. I have found a role for myself, as Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, not a privileged insider, but retained as a trusted adviser after the split. I’m not sure about God, always a difficult role to fill. Probably a figure of mythical stature who inspires and informs. Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform?

What will the critics say when the film comes out? Will they draw lessons from Exodus for our common predicament? Perhaps there are five.

First, neglect workers at your peril. The SDG injunction to ‘leave no-one behind’ does not mean that worker incomes in developed countries ruled by Pharaohs can be sacrificed to raise incomes in emerging economies.

Second, speed up. The pace of change in the EUEuropean Union is too slow. Spending years in the wilderness, battered by economic and political shocks – not on.

Three, keep rules to a minimum. An overload of bureaucracy stretches the credibility of collective action and erodes the contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Four, reduce the costs of compliance. Too many offerings has the same impact as too many rules.

Finally, the Book of Exodus is silent about the impact of Israelite exit on Egypt, and the historical record is vague as to the timing of the ΕΞΟΔΟΣ. However, there is no reason to think that Egypt was condemned to penury for ever. Indeed, there were most likely many periods of great prosperity to follow.

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