(This was written before the Corona virus fully struck. That will have the effect of totally masking the economic effects of Brexit, but my point remains, indeed is more important. Now is not the time to be vandalising our international trade relationships and imperilling our companies. I truly hope those Brexiteers who said they were prepared to eat grass in the quest for real independence don’t have to).
The storm of the Brexit debate has passed. From the leaver side, there is a desire to ‘move on’, for everyone to be friends again as long as they enthusiastically support their policies. This is unlikely to be successful. Remainers came to their views, after all, because they believed that remaining in the EU was the best choice for the prosperity and development of the UK. There’s no reason to change your mind just because others disagree: as Keynes once enquired when asked to fall in line on another issue – “You mean, because they won’t listen to sense, you want me to talk nonsense ?”. Of course, there are different views within those that voted to stay. On one wing, some people were exaggeratedly enthusiastic followers, praising the EU for preserving peace – no, that was NATO – or who feeling that all EU policies were beyond criticism, or believing that EU policy was made by the European Parliament, and so on. Most, I guess (and I include me) were not at that extreme: just people who felt that, for all its faults, the EU offered the safest prospect for the future of the country. Both groups on the Remainer side, however, expect that Brexit will not turn out well. There are already indications of slower growth, or companies shifting plants and finding trade barriers to be, well, barriers.
This has created a sense of schadenfreude, a feeling that public opinion will turn against the Brexit decision as the adverse effects become ever more evident. The Leaver side are crowing at the moment that there are no lorry jams at Dover, no shortage of medicines or problems in the food chain. It’s true that nothing has substantively changed, apart from Anne Widdicombe and Nigel Farage losing their pay as MEPs (the only consequence that is an unmistakeable plus). However, we are in a transition period. Just wait. Economic growth will stall (by 5% according to the Treasury), prices will rise, government receipts will slow, our overseas links will become fewer and more difficult. Michael Gove is already telling us that his assurances of friction free trade are not going to be secured. Cock-ups will happen, often unexpectedly. The day-to-day advantages of EU membership – cheaper mobile phones, light travel controls, common health entitlements, no pet passports and so on – will slip away. And when that happens, we are assured, the populace will realise they were conned and will rise against their oppressors.
Sadly, they won’t. Don’t get me wrong. The Brexiteers were not right. The country will be less prosperous than it would have been under EU membership, because of trade disruptions. Companies will move activity elsewhere, and invest less in the UK. This will lead to a reduction in the resources available for wages, or for government services. Money will be wasted in border bureaucracy. In addition, though less important in the bigger picture, the common inconveniences will be a pain. It’s already happening, as this recent – hilarious and not parody- tweets shows. Friends on holiday in Spain report that husband (Irish passport) is getting easier admission to tourist sites than wife (English passport). Attitudes to foreigners, to refugees and migrants will be sourer. The people returned to power by the 2019 election will take miserable decisions, like refusing child refugees.
My reservation is that the bad things will not be blamed on Brexit, for four big reasons. First of all, because it is extremely difficult to attribute reductions in GDP growth to specific causes, and even more difficult to link individual or family prosperity to changes in the trend growth of national income. A recent example: austerity is acknowledged by most economists to have reduced the nation’s living standards. The Resolution Foundation’s estimate, quoted by the BBC, is that the average wage earner is £141 a week worse off than they would have been had growth continued at its pre-2008 rate. But few lay people have noticed that their family is £1,000 a year down; even fewer that it was conscious government policy that caused them to miss an annual rise, to lack a promotion opportunity.
What’s more, when Brexit-related problems arise, we’ll be told – and many will believe – that they have other causes, or none. The coronavirus will become the sole cause of slower GDP growth, and in no way associated with the idiocy of tearing up trading relationships just as a worldwide recession hits. It will turn out, as now, that falling motor jobs are due to a world recession, or the decline in diesel cars. Lack of nurses or fruit pickers will be attributed to the idleness of the young and social security claimants. Transport difficulties will be due to companies failing to plan ahead. Governments have always been good at evading responsibility. Oldsters like me will recall when the trebling of unemployment from 1979-81 was due to world factors, not Thatcherism (though the later recovery was due to Thatcherism, not world factors).
Secondly, even if they had noticed that Brexit is costing us an arm and a leg, we’ll be told it will be a price worth paying for our independence. In reality, of course, we have less control and less independence outside the bodies that make the decisions and set the standards about international matters, but even if they saw that, it would make no odds. It’s almost as if a damaging policy, like a nasty medicine, must be doing us good. There is a masochism in the voter that is hard to eradicate. Again, remember austerity – the idea that we had to put up with pain to pay for debt, a notion which had few expert supporters at the time, and which has lost such academic support as it had, yet still carries extraordinary weight with the voter. The cuts they voted for have led to more deaths amongst the poor, to catastrophic floods. Nevertheless, it seems, it was a price worth paying. It’ll be the same with Brexit.
Thirdly, confirmation bias. Once they have taken a stance, people reject evidence that they got it wrong, and snatch at straws that might say they got it right. They rarely change their mind; to do so is seen as a sign of weakness rather than rationality. Some leavers have switched, but pitifully few, given the obvious problems, costs, risks and inconveniences of Brexit.
Lastly, and supporting that, any bad things that do happen, and are obviously linked to Brexit, will be the fault of the wicked EU, not any inherent flaws in the leaver argument. Those assurances that we’ll be able to stay in the single market will have been frustrated because the EU is being needlessly restrictive in its negotiating stance. Why else can’t we stay in the single market without obeying the rules of the single market, obdurate foreigners, that’s why. Dominic Raab has already told us that is the explanation. All the more reason to have nothing to do with foreigners and their machinations. And, tell you what, problems are also the fault of the Remainers. If only they’d accepted Theresa May’s deal, none of this would be happening. Don’t laugh, that’s already doing the rounds. Yes, that’s it, the problems found in leaving the EU are not due to the ERG’s intransigence, but down to those who told us not to leave the EU.
And voters have short memories. Three years after Suez, the previous holder of the UK’s Worst Foreign Policy Decision, the Tories romped home in a massive win. So, as ever, the guilty will be exonerated and the innocent will be punished. ‘Twas ever, sadly, thus.