77. From That Dark Day To the Present

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

23 June 2022

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Six years on. Should we be proud of what we’ve done?

Is it six years today since the referendum destined to turn this country into a shadow of its former self. Is six years a long time? Yes, for those who thought that Brexit would be an event, would be over and done in no time and would be the instant harbinger of sunlit uplands. No, for the rest of us, i.e. for sane people, who realised that Brexit was never going to be an event but a process which would very possibly blight our lives and the lives of our children for generations to come.

So perhaps this is a good time to think about where we are now, and whether we can find any benefits.

Is that the best they can do?

In the search for benefits and opportunities, it is quite striking how desperate the proponents of Brexit have become. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the “Minister for Brexit Opportunities” (a very thin brief indeed), obviously struggling to think of any himself, carried out a public consultation exercise which produced some 2.000 suggestions, and he published the top nine. If I tell you that heading the list was the ability to use louder more power hungry vacuum cleaners, you may realise that, if truth be told, the larder was bare. And beyond the famous nine, if you tell me about the dropping of metric units, the return of the crown symbol on pint glasses and the introduction of “blue“ (albeit French-made) passports, then please forgive me if I question your sanity.

Yes, let’s have the latest in vacuum cleaners

I will, however, venture to suggest one possible benefit. Being myself an immigrant and a believer in multiculturalism, I would suggest we should welcome the greatly increased diversity in our society which Brexit is bringing. Before you raise your eyebrows, I will tell you that this was entirely predictable. The UK government has chosen to abolish free movement for its own citizens and, as far as the UK is concerned, for most EU Nationals. This has led to a drop in net inward migration from the EU from about 200,000 per annum to near zero. Net inward migration from outside the EU has increased by 2-3 fold to over 300,000 per annum, according to the ONS and to the right wing think tank Migration Watch. The estimated non-EU born population is about 6 million. The migration is mainly from South Asia and from Africa. It was to be expected that this would happen: the UK had a massive skills gap even before Brexit, and this has massively widened in the interim, something of which unaccountably our prime minister has repeatedly boasted as if it were an achievement. It was therefore always a given that one of the first Brexit promises to be abandoned would be that of “migration in the tens of thousands” (remember that?). And, strikingly, opinion polls in recent years seem to show the average voter is less preoccupied with migration than in 2016, despite the efforts of the gutter press. For me this demographic change is a positive, but it does leave me wondering what those people, be there many or few, who voted for Brexit purely for racist reasons, are now thinking.

If you remember the referendum, control of immigration was one of the three cardinal promises of the live campaign. The other two were a greater wealth and greater sovereignty.

The first is easily disposed of. I think everybody now knows that the piddling cost of EU membership subscriptions (the famous £350 million per week on the side of a bus) fades into insignificance in comparison to the extra economic costs of leaving, without even mentioning the added red tape associated with trading or even travelling. It was interesting watching Lord Frost squirming today at the annual conference of UK in a changing Europe. The best he could say (I paraphrase only slightly) was that things were not quite as bad as the worst predictions, that it was too soon to say and that the picture was clouded by the pandemic and Ukraine. As well of course that if the Government had followed his advice things would look better. That is what we hear from Brexiters all the time. And if they tell you that, contrary to expectations, London is still the largest financial centre in Europe, please remember that nobody ever predicted that it would be otherwise. That does not take away from the fact that there has been a haemorrhage of business to other financial centres. For those who doubt the financial costs of Brexit, I need only remind them of the Davis Downside Dossier, of the Government-sponsored OBR estimates (4% loss of GDP), and yesterday’s Resolution Foundation report, which makes it clear how much less open ‘global Britain’ now is.

From the Resolution Foundation Report

Then there is the question of sovereignty. Even some otherwise well informed and enlightened commentators, such as Anand Menon, tell us that there is some kind of trade-off between the obvious economic harms of Brexit and the achievement of greater sovereignty. The underlying assumption behind this kind of statement is that the UK as a member of the EU was in someway under the thumb of Brussels. At worst it was an equal member of a large club in which sovereignty was pooled for common benefit. At best, it was one of the three leading members of the club, and indeed in terms of drawing up the rules it was often the paramount member. Remember, after all, that it was the Thatcher government which led on the introduction of the single market. The idea that UK law was led from Brussels represents a misunderstanding of sovereignty and what it is about. What the UK has now ended up as, in Boris Johnson’s own words, is a “vassal state“. The present UK government finds it impossible to assert its “sovereignty” in regard to Northern Ireland without breaking international law and breaking the agreement which is has signed little more than 2 years ago. It seems either oblivious of or indifferent to the consequences. The government needs reminding that there is a difference between asserting sovereignty and becoming a rogue state.

Tony Blair warned that Brexit was bound to be either pointless or painful. It has turned out to be both. And as the inimitable Chris Grey tells us, it has left both sides equally unhappy: pro-Europeans for obvious reasons, Brexiters because they retain the fantasy that the perfect Brexit was possible but the government has let it slip through its fingers.

In short, we are a more divided, less respected country than we were on this day six years ago. A country whose nationals have lost many of their rights and are about to lose many more. And a country which is heading for a trade war with its bigger more powerful neighbour at a time of international crisis when unity is needed more than ever. If only we had known then what we know now. After all, nobody warned us, did they?

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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