Sweeping structural reform is needed to tackle malaise in society—whatever happens with Brexitby Guy de Jonquières / December 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
For me, as for many Remainers, the 2016 referendum result was a rude awakening. Not just because nobody, not even Brexiteers, had expected it. But because it opened my eyes to how little I knew about my own country and to how much had gone wrong in it. That feeling has only grown stronger with time.
As we know, people voted Leave for many different reasons: economic deprivation; stagnating incomes; job insecurity; deteriorating social services; housing shortages; lack of opportunity for self-betterment; fear of uncontrollable change; resentment at remote metropolitan elites who appeared untrustworthy and deaf to their concerns; and, of course, anxiety about immigration. The referendum turned muttered grievances into a deafening roar.
The EU, however, is to blame for almost none of them. Even the backlash over EU immigration could have been averted or mitigated if Britain had deployed the perfectly legal controls used by many other member states. In reality, if not in the popular imagination, almost all the problems exercising Leavers have been made here in Britain and are attributable to its own policy failures.
The main cause of depressed living standards is a decade of austerity policies since the financial crisis, itself partly the product of flawed national banking regulation. Problems in social services, notably the NHS, have festered for years and were made worse by the Cameron government’s bungled reform efforts; and housing shortages are largely the consequence of restrictive planning laws and failure to build enough affordable accommodation.
Uneven education quality, student achievement levels below international standards and inadequate vocational training have left many young people poorly equipped to compete in the labour market. Meanwhile, excessive centralisation of power in Whitehall at the expense of local authorities has bred a sense of alienation in much of the country. It is no coincidence that Scotland and Northern Ireland, where decision-making has been devolved, voted Remain, while England, still largely under the thumb of Westminster, voted Leave.
“Brussels” has long been a convenient whipping boy for successive British governments, which have preferred to blame the EU than to own up to their own mistakes. It is hardly surprising that 17m voters, many of whom (understandably) view the EU through the distorting lens of jingoistic mass media and misleading Leave campaigning, went along with those versions of the truth.
However, Brexit will not cure Britain’s ills. More likely, it will compound them. Every reputable study, including those by government economists, has found that it will make the country worse off. That means not only slower growth and lower individual living standards, but depleted fiscal resources out of which to fund remedial policies. It is unclear how many people will view the promised Brexit bonuses of enhanced democracy and sovereignty as enough to make up for those losses.
But simply staying in the EU, if it happened, would be no magic bullet. It would benefit the economy. But it would most likely require another referendum, the outcome of which looks uncertain. Even a decisive vote for Remain—say at least 60-40—could deepen still further the political and social divisions that are already wracking the country.
There is a bitter irony in all this. It took the referendum result to jolt me and other comfortably-off metropolitan types into realising how much had gone wrong with Britain. Yet the task of implementing that result is sucking up the political attention and energy needed to tackle the underlying malaise that produced it.
Soon after becoming prime minister, Theresa May acknowledged the need to help what she called the Jams, the people “just about managing.” But her promises of action were never kept. Instead, the labyrinthine complexities of dealing with Brexit have overwhelmed her government and parliament, shoving all other policy priorities aside.
Labour has proposed social and economic reforms that it claims will help disaffected sections of society. However, it is unclear that many of them, such as renationalisation of the railways, either address Britain’s most pressing problems or are affordable. That the party and Jeremy Corbyn persistently lag Theresa May and her deeply unpopular Conservative-DUP government in the opinion polls suggests many disaffected voters doubt Labour can deliver what they want.
In truth, Brexit has become a vast black hole, swallowing up political time and resources. Money needed to pay for schools, hospitals and social benefits is being spent instead on turning motorways into lorry parks, stockpiling food and medicines and hiring thousands of civil servants, while MPs’ waking hours are dominated by a massive workload of Brexit-related legislation and by plotting to advance, amend or reverse it.
No wonder the public is fed up and simply wants Brexit over and done with. Such demands, however, seem doomed to disappointment, whether Britain makes an orderly withdrawal or crashes out of the EU. Either way, years of difficult and all-consuming political decisions and negotiations lie ahead. The more parliamentary attention they consume, the more likely voters are to feel that the political establishment is divorced from their concerns.
That situation is unsustainable. Left unattended, the fundamental social and economic causes of Brexit will simply grow stronger. People need to be given hope of improvements in their lives. Neither leaving nor remaining in the EU is enough to provide it. What is required is a New Deal, an agenda for sweeping reforms that go to the heart of what ails Britain today.
How that will be achieved is hard to predict. But then so is everything in British politics right now. It might require a government of national unity. Or perhaps the breakup of existing parties and formation of a new one. Both seem more possible today than only a few months ago. What is clear is that there is an opportunity here to change Britain for the better. What is needed now are the politicians with the vision and courage to seize it.