The departure of Britain from the European Union should be the moment when the country would at last be free to determine its own future and start to transform itself for the better. The damaging rupture with the world’s largest trading bloc – and the political traumas within the UK – can only be justified if the Brexiteer leadership has a cunning plan for significant change.
The outlines of such a plan were vague to the point of invisibility at the height of the Brexit crisis, with little revealed beyond assurances from Boris Johnson that, once the shackles of the EU were cast aside, the UK would have a splendid future.
The wall-to-wall coverage of Brexit by the British media over the past four years was so fixated on the process of leaving, along with the political dramas this provoked, that there was astonishingly little focus on what Britain will do with its new-found freedom. This makes one ask if anything like a post-Brexit strategy really exists? Did the talk of Britain becoming a Singapore-on-Thames and shifting towards a low wage, light regulation economy, ever have any reality? If no such secret strategy was in place, why on earth did the Conservative Party make such efforts to regain powers it never intended to use.
The EU itself evidently suspects that there must be such a plan which would explain why it has shown adamantine determination to protect the single market. It has done so with some success, going by Johnson’s concession last weekend on maintaining fair competition between Britain and the EU. On the other hand, what is the shelf life of a Johnson concession or promise, going by his trail of broken promises on the Irish border?
Cynics may say that such a climb-down on EU/UK trade was inevitable, given the skewed balance of power against Britain and towards Brussels. Some 43 per cent of British exports go to the EU and 52 per cent of its imports come from there. At this stage, it looks unlikely that Brexit Britain is going to diverge significantly from the present status quo with the EU, so jingoistic rhetoric to the contrary is simply a smokescreen designed for a domestic audience.
There are other cogent reasons why the broad-based pro-Brexit coalition would hesitate to shift sharply towards a smaller, less rule-based state. One is that such a leave-it-all-to the-market approach is totally against the spirit and experience of the age of Covid-19, when governments the world over are sparing no effort to prop up their economies. The 300,000 Americans killed by coronavirus, far more than anywhere else in the world, are evidence of the weakness of neo-liberalism when confronting a real crisis.
Another factor hobbling a shift to the right in economic policy was evident last year: the successful pro-Brexit axis was made up of potent but contradictory forces. A former Ukip member in Newcastle, who had later become a pro-Brexit campaigner for the Conservative Party, explained to me last year that the Brexit activists he had met were largely ultra-Thatcherites seeking to create a neo-liberal Britain similar to the US. But the majority of Leave voters whom he had encountered in Essex and Kent, as well as the northeast, saw themselves as the victims of Thatcherism and wanted more rather than less state intervention.
With the British economy drained of resources by the epidemic, little will be left for investment in infrastructure or anything else. This leaves Boris Johnson and his government with the mammoth job of preserving rather than re-orientating the economy.
Either task would strain the abilities of a leadership of genius, but the Johnson government’s fumbling error-strewn record during the epidemic showed – fatally for tens of thousands of infected people – that it is one of the least talented administrations in British history.
Johnson was slow in imposing the first lockdown in March and shambolic in administering it, spending no less than £22 billion on a test-and-trace system that has had only a marginal impact of on the infection rate according to a Sage report. His indecision and poor judgement in March ensured that the British death rate was among the highest in modern countries and he made almost precisely the same mistakes in September and October as he had earlier in the year.
Reforming an economy as complex as Britain’s would be extraordinarily difficult to do at the best of times and would requite leadership of the highest quality. The careerists, fanatics and plodders in Johnson’s cabinet have shown a common inability to cope with the coronavirus crisis and there is no reason to imagine that they would do any better introducing radical economic change. .
I always believed that Britain leaving the EU was a prime example of national self-harm, a reckless ill-considered venture quite contrary to the British traditions of pragmatism and caution. But there is nothing unique or even distinctive about disastrous errors being made through an exaggerated sense of national or communal superiority. In ancient times, the Athenians were tempted by such hubris into launching a doomed expedition to Sicily. In the modern history of Europe, national over-confidence led France to go to war in 1870 and Germany to do the same in 1914 and 1939, with uniformly calamitous results.
Of course, one should keep a sense of proportion about the negative consequences of Brexit. It is not the same as a lost war, though in terms of reduced British influence in the world it comes close. If Brexiteers had really aspired to make Britain a global power again, they would not have sawed through the European bough on which Britain has been comfortably sitting for 47 years.
Perhaps the French see this more clearly than the British. “The UK has built its power on two principles: keep the British Isles united and the European continent divided,” wrote the French journalist Adrien Jaulmes in Le Figaro in the summer of 2019. “Today it is close to succeeding in doing the opposite [in both cases].”
In the last 18 months, the divisions between the different parts of the UK have widened and become more toxic. The Ulster unionists, having spent a century-and-a-half denouncing those that they claimed were plotting to betray them, really did find themselves betrayed by Johnson when they no longer served his purpose. The new frontier between the EU and Britain runs down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the UK and no longer between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The English nationalists who have taken over the Conservative Party are easy to deride as proponents of magical thinking, but this approach is in the tradition of nationalist movements everywhere from Ireland to Indonesia. For nationalists, the pursuit of self-determination is an end in itself that does not have to be justified by economic gains. But those who are seeking national freedom have nonetheless usually claimed, regardless of truth, that these benefits are phoney.
“My mind almost explodes with rage,” says Sir Albert Bore, one of the chief political architects of the regeneration of Birmingham, when he hears the EU being blamed for problems caused by the UK government. He says that after the collapse of the west Midlands automotive industry in the 1970s and 1980s, EU investment was crucial for reconstruction when the home government was doing nothing.
Not everybody expresses such gratitude to the EU and with good reason. Birmingham has been a winner in the last 25 years with its attractive city centre, fine universities, financial district and a resurgent car industry. But, as elsewhere in Europe, beyond the core city the change for the better is more marginal or has scarcely happened at all.
Eddy Moreton, a musician and pub owner, who originally comes from Walsall in the west Midlands, told me that “Walsall has had no investment for 40 years since Thatcher destroyed the manufacturing industry. We are now a finance-based economy [in Britain], but there is nothing in it for them [the people of Walsall]. They don’t care if the GDP goes down because, as the man said, it is not their GDP.”
There is nostalgia for a vanished past, but not necessarily for imperial or Churchillian Britain. The wish today is rather for an era of well-paying industrial jobs that stalled and went in decline at the beginning of the 1980s, a period when marginalised cities, towns and villages found that they had to be plugged into the global economy to avoid inevitable decay.
“People say we did it before and we will do it again,” says David Hardman, a former Labour councillor in Newcastle. “But we are not competitive in terms of skills and education. The northeast’s economy will be massively hit [by Brexit]. We simply do not have a competitive edge.”
Some Remainers relish the moment when voters in moribund areas – such as Labour’s former Red Wall working-class constituencies – will discover that they have been bamboozled. But that day may never come. Alex Snowden, a left-wing Leave campaigner from Newcastle, told me last year that he thought that attitudes had hardened since the referendum because people’s sense of personal and national identity had become even more wrapped up with Brexit than it had been three years earlier.
I spent part of 2019 travelling around the UK talking to people about what they thought about Brexit. I asked if they had been for or against it and, if so, why had they and others favoured or opposed it. I looked at deprived districts, such as one, on the out skirts of Canterbury where I live, called Thanington, once known as Little Beirut because of its reputation for violence. It had been refurbished 20 years ago by a £2.5 million grant from the EU, but even so, its residents had largely voted Leave.
The same is true of all the de-industrialised areas from Dover, with its super-efficient port and moribund town, to the grassed over coal mines of the Welsh Valleys.
Everywhere I was struck by extreme inequality, and not just between north and south or between metropolitan cities and their periphery. Thanington is within sight of Canterbury Cathedral where one of the first schools in England was established 1,500 years ago. Yet community workers say that a significant proportion of local people cannot read or write.
The same inequality is being grimly highlighted by the second wave of the coronavirus epidemic, with six out of 10 of the worst infected districts in England in December on the north Kent coast. Names that feature at the top of the list of the most deprived places in the county, like Swale and Thanet, are the same as those where Covid-19 is most rife. These were also the districts that had voted most heavily Leave.
What could people in north Kent, who are just scraping a living, have in common with gentlemen farmers and well-heeled retirees in rural Herefordshire that persuaded both to vote Leave? They each had grievances, but the poor unsurprisingly had more to complain of. The motives of farmers grown rich on EU subsidies voting Leave were more baffling since they had a clear interest in an unchanging status quo.
Julian Whitmarsh, who owns a restaurant in the picture postcard village of Weobley, in Herefordshire, gave me a convincing explanation for the strong local vote against the EU. He said that people in the village were instinctively right-wing and drew their information exclusively from pro-Brexit newspapers. “The Daily Mail sells 50 copies every morning in Weobley and the Daily Telegraph almost as many, while there are about five who buy the Guardian and quite a few of us buy the i.”
A curious development since the referendum is how seldom the media refers to immigration as an issue. Yet a trade union leader in Dover, who did not want his name published, assured me that “the Leave vote was sold on one subject and one subject only, which was immigration.” The topic may have disappeared, particularly during the epidemic when so many NHS and care nurses are identifiably of immigrant origin, but I doubt if the issue has gone away or, if it has, that it has not gone very far.
It was the only subject about which I asked that produced subsequent phone calls from interviewees asking me not to publish their remarks. But it remains a potent energiser of animosities, with one immigrant in Cardiff remarking that “all you need to do to create racial hatred is to persuade people that those who are different from themselves are the reason they are poor”.
As Britain ends the transition period and finally exits the EU on 31 December, I try not to be too cataclysmic about the future. The crisis has shown that Britain is divided socially, economically, educationally, racially, by age and in every other way. But then it always was divided. It is almost two centuries since Benjamin Disraeli said that Britain was divided into two nations, the rich and the poor. Even so, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future of the country, which is like a leaky ship with a captain of proven incompetence in command, as it sails out of the EU and into unfamiliar seas.