Despite the rather pathetic efforts of the English Nationals, who now populate the former Conservative and Unionist Party, I see little sign of large numbers preparing to celebrate at 11pm on 31st January. A combination of Brexit fatigue and an unelectable Labour Party leader delivered a significant victory to Boris Johnson. Having split the country asunder – e.g. Leave verses Remain, north verses south, young verses old – he now opines, with breath taking audacity, that a line be drawn under the divisions and corrosive politics of recent years allowing the country to move forward. But to what? Even now the government is unable to articulate a clear vision let alone a plan regarding the economic, constitutional and social uncertainties arising from Brexit.
In reality, the significance of Brexit day is that it represents a leap in the dark, all we know for certain is that it marks the start of a ticking clock for business. Business leaders have no idea what awaits them at the end of this year. The UK and EU have yet to negotiate a trade deal and whatever is finally agreed, there will be a hard border for trade in goods between Britain and the continent that has not existed for decades. That will put pressure on those many businesses – particularly manufacturing which employs many millions – who have orientated to a close trading relationship with the EU – e.g. cars, aircraft, chemicals and food. In the short-term they will suffer higher costs but in the medium term it is likely that many operations and jobs will be relocated to the continent. Given the continued uncertainty it is perhaps appropriate, that we will leave the EU with a whimper.
If few notice any difference on 1st February, the position will change in the coming the realities of Brexit come increasingly into focus as the clock ticks down to the end of this year. It is however, not the coming months but the following years that will transform Great Britain’s (less so Northern Ireland’s) relationship with Europe. English Nationals will discover that the ‘past is another country’ and the idea of turning the clock back to 1972 is for the birds. All thinking people know that in the forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU, Britain will fail to retain the advantages of frictionless trade. Indeed, despite past claims to the contrary, Boris appears ready to accept a ‘bare-bones’ trade deal apparently in full knowledge of the economic damage it will inflict on the country and in particular the northern regions that returned Tory MPs for the first time in the post war period. The Tory government’s own analysis suggests that GDP per head in northern regions is likely to be about 10 per cent smaller than it would otherwise be, over the next decade.
As for global political influence, in a world in which political power is shifting decisively to the Chinese and Russians, while America, having destabilised the Middle East, retreats to a fortress mindset, it is delusional to believe that Britain will retain the influence it had in international affairs as a member of the EU. As demonstrated by the Huawei indecision, the Iran debacle and the chancellor’s taxation plans for big tech companies, far from ‘taking back control’ Britain is a bystander, a supplicant of more powerful countries struggling for supremacy. The implications, however, go beyond economic damage and a loss of global influence. Trust in politicians; indeed, in our political system has been much diminished by Brexit. How will voters react when they realise that they have been grievously misled as to the economic benefits and global influence of Britain outside the EU? It may take a year or two but statements such as ‘great opportunities’ and ‘global Britain’ will be revealed as vacuous.
Perhaps the cruellest deception was the Brexiters’ claim that, freed from EU rules and regulations, the UK will thrive. But the UK’s failings — an ultra-low rate of business investment rate, weak productivity growth, poor infrastructure, failing public services and high regional inequality — have nothing to do with EU membership. Compared to EU members, the UK labour market is already highly deregulated. Surely not even the hard line Brexiters believe that reducing food regulations or environmental standards will mitigate the UK’s failings. All that Brexit will achieve in the coming years is to eliminate membership of the EU as a cause of the economy’s lacklustre performance.
Already the hard questions are crowding in. How will a bare-bones trade deal prevent slowing economic growth and thereby reduced government revenue and funds for public expenditure? What are the implications for business of the animosity towards EU migrants, including the higher skilled, that is now discouraging many from building a life here? Is the break-up of the UK now inevitable? Northern Ireland has been pointed in the direction of unity with the South and the likelihood of Scotland’s secession will surely increase as the costs of Brexit mount. Having won by dividing, Mr Johnson now hopes that by adopting an interventionist economic agenda involving heavy investment in public services and infrastructure he can revert to One Nation Conservatism. How ironic that a Tory Party critical of the EUs penchant for state intervention is now adopting Corbyn-lite socialism.
The UK is entering a new world. The individual rights its people gained since joining Europe are under threat. The English Nationals seem determined to force people to abandon the individual rights they have gained as members of the EU. In their xenophobia they appear to rejoice in standing aside from the European project of structured and peaceful co-operation. Choosing to be an independent island next door to what seems likely to remain an integrated European giant, is little short of madness. In a world dominated by rivalrous superpowers we have taken a decision that in effect will insure we have less, not more control over our destiny. I doubt that even today a majority actually support the government’s headlong rush towards greater isolation. Of one thing I am certainty, Mr Johnson is acting against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of younger people who will have to deal with this tragedy in the coming years