Like a rather surprising number of Remainers, Brexit has been like a bereavement for me. Before the referendum in 2016 few people would admit to an emotional attachment to the European Union (indeed this was one of the reasons Leave won), but I was among them. I can date that attachment to attendance at a rally in Westminster Hall in 1975, when the keynote speaker was Ted Heath, my first political hero, when I was 17. Or perhaps it was before then, when I identified as “European” when living in Jamaica, in order to distinguish myself from the many Americans I was at school with (while doubtless trying to stay ay arms length from Britain’s colonial legacy). Whatever the origins, I have been following the classic five steps of bereavement since the referendum.
Compared to many Remainers I went through Denial and Anger pretty quickly, but then I got stuck for years on Negotiation. This partly revolved around pressing for a new referendum, and thinking about how that should be conducted – though as time went by I became more sceptical that this was the right way to go. But mainly I got drawn into discussion about the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship. This was a furious paddling to try and stave off the inevitable next stage: Depression, which duly struck with the December 2019 General Election result. I turned away from the whole subject and busied myself with other things. But I can now confidently say that I have reached Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that the pain has stopped: there will be pangs every time I get stuck in a passport queue when ravelling in the EU, and with every young friend or relative that complains that their opportunities are blighted as they can only find work into Union with difficulty. But I can than talk or think about the EU without trying to roll back time.
The breakthrough moment came last summer, when the EU agreed a post-pandemic aid programme which involved the creation of shared debt. This was a massive breakthrough in the evolution of the union. The deal itself, as usual, will not live up to the hopes placed on it, but the union is now better placed to deal with the challenges facing it. I quickly realised that this deal would have been much harder to reach if Britain had been a member. We had become paranoid about taking on debt from other EU countries – the idea of EU solidarity had so little currency. Whether or not a small majority of Britons were now in favour of British membership at any time, the country was irretrievably divided and it became increasingly difficult for the country to be a constructive member. Both John Major and Tony Blair found this, after starting their premierships wishing for Britain “to be at the heart of Europe”; they failed and subsequent premiers did not even try. The EU is actually better off without us, even though our departure has weakened it in many ways. If Britain is to rejoin, it has to be wholeheartedly, with a referendum majority of much more than 52%, and with prospective membership of the Euro agreed and understood. That will not happen in my lifetime, or not without some catastrophe changing people’s outlook, which I do not wish on my fellow countrymen. I have got over it.
So how does an ardent Remainer like me cope with Britain’s new status? I think there are two key rules. The first is to look to the future, and not to refight the battles of the past. It is very tempting to say “told-you so” as one promise after another of Leave campaigners comes to naught. But it doesn’t help; we can’t turn the clock back. And anyway, we need to understand that Remain campaigners got things wrong too, if not quite so egregiously. The second key rule is to be more realistic and critical of the European Union itself. It is useless to try and sell it to the British public, and we must understand what opportunities Brexit presents, even when we are acutely aware of the costs. In fact if Britain does things better than the EU, it will provide healthy competition that might guide it to a better place.
In this spirit, one of the most important things to understand is that the Union, and especially the Single Market, is a neoliberal project. It is based on the promotion of free trade and competition, and it aims to limit government interference in commerce. It is ironic that many Conservative Brexiteers are ardent neoliberals, and think that Brexit opens up opportunities for Britain to pursue more neoliberal policies. I differ from most people on the political left in thinking that neoliberalism is not necessarily a bad thing. This week’s Economist has an article which suggests that Britain’s economic progress in the 1980s up to the Great Financial Crisis was more down to EU membership than the liberalisation pursued by Mrs Thatcher’s government. It makes the case by tracking total factor productivity of the three countries that joined the EU (or European Common Market as we then called it) in 1973, i.e. Britain, Denmark and Ireland, compared the original six members (France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries). This had been in steady decline until 1970, flattened in the 1970s and then rose steadily until the mid 2000s. Mrs Thatcher did not rule Denmark or Ireland, so but the county’s economic performance was no better. This is false dichotomy. A large part of the economic benefit of joining the union arose from the Single Market reforms, which were Mrs Thatcher’s gift to the EU, and probably her most enduring political achievement. The Single Market was not a conspiracy to inflict pointless bureaucracy on British industry – it was in fact the opposite: to free intra-union trade (and movement of people and capital) from unproductive bureaucracy. We are learning this the hard way. It is a neoliberal project par excellence.
The Economist suggests that outside the EU, Britain might again suffer from “British Disease”, as our markets become less competitive. But where I agree with the left is that neoliberalism has little to offer most developed world economies in 2021, and certainly not Britain’s. Our future economic wellbeing is much less dependent on free trade with other countries, and state intervention is going to be much more important. Free markets are still critical, but they are not enough. Furthermore, conventional economic measurements, such as gross income (i.e. such measures as GDP) and productivity, are an unreliable guide to wellbeing.
The Conservative plan to use Brexit to drive through neoliberal reforms is doomed. If they succeed in implementing them, which they will find hard, they will deliver disappointing results with Britain outside the Single Market. There will doubtless be opportunities in some industrial sectors, but for each these there will be other sectors ruined by Brexit. Last month the Economist painted a depressing picture for the outlook for the British chemical industry. Brexit may not be as dire for Britain’s short-term economy as many predicted (though the jury is still out on that one), but medium term the outlook for GDP and other conventional economic measures is poor. But I have just said that does not matter so much. Instead we should be focusing on national wellbeing, and here there are possibilities that may be improved by Brexit, or at least not harmed. To get this sort of thinking started I will suggest three.
The first is environmentally sustainable agriculture and fisheries. We need to look at these industries not from the old-fashioned point of view of extracting the maximum quantitive output from our land and sea, but to restore those natural resources to health. Marginal agricultural land should be rewarded; alternatives need to be found to the mass use of environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilisers. We need more marine conservation zones and a war on destructive industrial fisheries. We can do this much more easily outside the EU’s management structures.
The second, and more economically significant, area for development should be the health economy. The overall importance of health to the economy is growing, but it is not an industry that takes well to conventional economic measurements. Often less is more (healthier people require fewer medical interventions; more effective medical interventions often require more economic inputs a balance that is often seems to lead to reduced productivity). We need to develop better ways of managing public health, as well as more effective interventions. Britain has advantages here, especially those that arise from a single national health service, and the way it can draw medical data together. Covid-19 has shown the good and the bad of British health services. The country has led the world in developing vaccines and other medical interventions, but public health services have been chaotic, and central government interventions ineffective – though the country’s armed services have shown some rare organisational effectiveness. The country has palpable strengths, but the whole area needs to be rethought.
And the third area for focus is developing of opportunities for people with weak paper qualifications. This should be easier now that access to our labour markets from less developed corners of the EU (and the rest of the world) is being reduced. As a good liberal I support freedom of movement, especially within Europe, but the main benefits are for those with good qualifications. But keeping foreign labour out is far from sufficient for improving the prospects for people already here. This needs much more focus than it is getting – pushing more people in badly-paid and insecure jobs is not the answer, but it is where neoliberal policies will take us. One idea on the left that I would like to be given more time and thought is a government job guarantee. I think this has more promise for national wellbeing than the much more fashionable Universal Basic Income.
I need to make one further point. These ideas, and others which make wellbeing their focus rather than aggregate income, require a much higher level of government competence than we have ever seen in this country (except maybe in the days of Victorian metropolitan development). The British government is far too centralised to be effective (a criticism I would lay against the French one too, also shown up by the pandemic response), and it is made worse by excessive faith in management consultants and outsourcers. There are pockets of excellence in British public life (much of the education system, aspects of the NHS, and the operational side of the armed forces, though not its procurement side). But something big needs to change.
The current government is ill-equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that now present themselves. They should be challenged not for promoting Brexit, but for mismanaging it.