26 November 2022
Opponents of Brexit have been given plenty of ammunition in recent weeks. Trade with the European Union has taken a big knock. Many British exporters say that owing to the excessive bureaucracy they can no longer sell to the Continent. The United Kingdom’s new trade deals have promised a lot but delivered little. There is worldwide inflation, but Britain is still expected to be the worst economic performer in Europe next year, by some margin.
Opinion polls suggest an ever-growing number of voters think it was a mistake to leave. This magazine is the only publication to have backed British independence in both the 1975 and 2016 referendums – arguing on both occasions that it was time to go ‘Out, and into the world’. That remains our view. Brexit has indeed exposed deep problems with our low-pay, high-welfare economy. That exposure can only be a good thing.
The 2016 referendum was a democratic shock which disorientated the political class and forced them to take stock. Both Labour and the Tories have since tried their best to listen to voters in small-town communities that had been overlooked and undervalued. Such communities value the nation state as a social entity, not just an economic one. They voted to dial back a particular model of globalisation that threatened to exclude them.
An adjustment is taking place. Where New Labour once prided itself on using cheap migrant labour to grow the economy, Keir Starmer talks about weaning the economy off the drug of mass immigration. The Tories must try to defend their new Red Wall voters against Starmer’s manoeuvres. That these long-neglected parts of the population are being taken more seriously is an achievement of Brexit.
The fact that both the Tories and Labour have had to sit up and take notice of a wider range of the electorate means that Britain is today the only European country with no populist party in parliament. We have no Le Pen, AfD, Sweden Democrats or similar fist-shaking insurgents.
Above all, Brexit was a call to abandon an economic model based on low wages and unskilled labour – and to start a painful but necessary adjustment to a better model. That does indeed mean that Simon Wolfson can no longer fill his Next warehouses by flying in Poles who are willing to work shifts starting at 5 a.m. for less than £10 an hour. It also means that care homes cannot find immigrants to do skilled work on very low wages.
This may slow the economy – at least at first. But this economic pain should force employers to offer higher wages, think more creatively about training British workers, and use automation more so that people can be more usefully employed.
At present, 20 per cent of the working-age population of our great cities – Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester – are on out-of-work benefits at a time of record job vacancies. Are we to ignore their plight and replace them with imported workers? Or should we fix the welfare system and economy so that they work for a greater share of the population? The latter course is more difficult. But it will create a stronger and fairer economy in the long run.
We have not yet had three years of Brexit: Britain left the EU in 2020, not 2016. Those years have been marked by a global pandemic and the hugely damaging measures taken to mitigate it. We will, in time, have a clearer idea of whether the lives saved by lockdown mean its negative aspects were justified. In any case, it is clear that the government’s response to the pandemic played a larger part than Brexit in derailing our economic progress. For now, as the former governor of the Bank of England Lord King said just this week, it’s ‘impossible to say’ what the economic impact of Brexit has been, because leaving has been ‘swamped by every-thing else’. Put simply, Brexit is a project that needs to be judged over decades – not in the first three years during which a pandemic also hit.
That said, the fact that a clear course for Brexit Britain has not been charted is a failure of historic portions. Boris Johnson’s headline-friendly soundbites boiled down to very little. Those who saw Britain’s future outside the EU as less regulated, less taxed, and more conducive to business have lost the argument to big-state Tories. Others naively thought that Brexit would exert a gravitational pull towards a lower-tax society. But Brexit was never, in and of itself, going to make Britain a stronger, fairer or lower-taxed country. It has simply provided new powers that can be used well, badly or – as demonstrated by this Tory government – barely at all.
This is not to say that there have been no successes already. Britain’s leadership in Ukraine and over the G7 in Cornwall have demonstrated a welcome internationalism. We rolled out the Covid vaccine earlier than others (although that advantage was squandered by further avoidable lockdowns). Overall, however, there is a shameful lack of anything that might be described as a post-Brexit agenda. Voters are entitled to ask what that might look like. Rishi Sunak needs to come up with a convincing answer before the next election.
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