Three days on and the enormity of what happened on June 23rd still has not registered in all its implications either with me or the population at large. The jubilation shown by Brexiteers at counting stations appears to have evaporated overnight. More importantly, the architects of this seismic shift in Britain’s future seemed equally overawed by what they have done. Boris and Gove are boys who laced school dinners with laxative—laying low, hoping their wheeze won’t have serious repercussions but realising only now they hadn’t thought things through.
Apart from a weak pound and markets, ructions at the top of both UK parties and considerable outrage among 16m people (plus a fair few among the other 17m), long-term effects are only now becoming clearer. Within the EU, the northern bloc of ‘reasonable’ countries who should have been our allies are peeved that we pulled out and left them to deal with what everyone agrees is a dis-functional Europe project. At the same time the southern reprobates realise there will be even less money than they thought to bale them out of their spendthrift ways .
Demanding to leave the EU instead of staying and throwing ourselves into making it better is myopic. Divorce is not the only viable solution to a marriage spat.
And yet, it is not as if Britain can really move to pastures new. Geography—give or take a continental nanometric drift or two—is not changed one whit by political decisions. Even Brexiteers concede that our biggest trading partner should still be there right across the Channel.
But how can it be as now?
By unilaterally throwing our collective toys out of the pram and abdicating any hope of influencing future EU decisions, Britain has just irritated the very people with whom we wish to negotiate. And this much is clear; if we want absolute control of immigration we cannot be part of the single market. And, as if that were not enough, by leaving, we undermine the stability of that bloc such that its economic future may become uncertain. Our best customer may now become poorer and so less able to buy our stuff—even with our now-discounted £.
And who will be doing the negotiating from this side? By siding with Cameron, the bulk of the Cabinet is disqualified. By siding with Corbyn, so is the Shadow Cabinet. The media are talking up Boris as a front-runner and you have to credit him with the nous to play the populist amiable idiot as if he were born to it. But if popular, folksy philosopher is all the qualification needed, Homer Simpson ought to make as good a PM as Boris.
The man has no depth. He has consciously cultivated popularity since he went to Eton. But he is a total weathervane on policy, failing to exhibit detectable backbone of principle within his ample body. As a Prime Minister, he would be a Sarkozy—a toom tabard living on charm, or Tsipras, Syriza’s pliant leader who looks good but is effectively disabled—buried under events beyond his control.
But, if not Boris, things go downhill even steeper. Gove is as credible as a shandy at a whisky-tasting. The other Brexit ‘leaders’ may make cogent arguments but are all non-starters because they come across as prats— Redwood? Fabricant? Rees-Mogg?—their mothers and their backwoods constituents may love them but they are as popular with the English public as a series of farts in a spacesuit. In Scotland, they are alien as Martians.
Whoever it winds up being, the PM’s job is now a poisoned chalice. As the Grauniad said over the weekend: “All that remains is for someone to have the guts to stand up and say that Brexit is unachievable in reality without an enormous amount of pain and destruction, that cannot be borne.” Because this is one doozy of an abyss Britain is now staring into. Consider these factors over the 2+ years it will take for Article 50 to be implemented:
- Minimum 28 months of market uncertainty when much of UK wealth comes from financial services in both London and Edinburgh
- Exodus of workers to EU as companies adjust to upcoming border restrictions (Barclays has already announced 1,000 staff moving from London to Paris so they can continue to operate within the EU
- Huge dislocation of 2m Britons currently resident in EU who will soon need work permits or different health provision or pension arrangements
- Difficult and public wrangling over terms of trade and co-operation because there was scant love left for British stroppiness within the EU even before they were dropped into this additional hassle.
- Undermining of NATO, especially if Trump gets anywhere near the White House, with a consequent rise in sabre-rattling from Putin et al.
- Backlash from the Hartlepools and Halesowens and Huddersfields whose blue-collar votes tipped the decision because they hoped funds would flow to them instead of Brussels when they find factors (see above) result in there being less.
- Backlash in London and other major cities when the flow of immigrants does not abate with the EU’s ‘free movement of labour’ because most of the UK’s 300,000 immigrants weren’t EU citizens in the first place.
- Major disruption to the NHS as free movement of labour that has allowed thousands of staff from the EU to be employed becomes blocked
- Serious disruption in farming, with knock-on to its supply side, as the entire CAP subsidy system disappears
- Difficulty maintaining the current standard of living because a weaker £ will make the 80% of manufactured goods we import (especially from China) dearer—and even make a holiday in the sun proportionally dearer.
- Perhaps most telling (given Tory thundering how Brexit would let us take charge of our future) a diminished role in the world because Britain will no longer have backing from 300m+ in the world’s biggest economic bloc.
Even assuming there isn’t an emergency budget declared this summer, all of Osbornes flawed calculations regarding turning the debt around are now out the window. There must be such a budget under whatever new PM emerges by October. It must cope with knock-on effects of Moodies down-rating the UK economy, not least of which will be a consequent rise in interest rates, loading even more of a burden onto interest payments, already at £30bn per annum, not to mention mortgage payments rising and property sagging.
By the New Year (except among Farage, his UKIP hardliners and the usual Tory Little Englander suspects) expect widespread regret at this huge self-inflicted wound in our welfare. And that’s when the wheels will really come off. With the English economy on its worst slide in years, the counsel of caution why Scotland cannot go it alone will weaken. And, as English Labour follows their Scottish brethren into the wilderness, voices against independence will be increasingly stilled and Nicola praised for her foresight in preparing for indyref2.
Most of the unionist arguments deployed in 2014 will then ring hollow amidst an economic downturn that will be austerity on steroids. Oil prices rising back towards former levels would be all the economic confirmation Scots would need to make their escape. With the October 2018-ish deadline for final Brexit looming, a Spring 2018 referendum YES decision could keep Scotland—long more popular abroad than our stand-offish English cousins—in the EU.
And, if that happened, the likelihood of a similarly discomfited Northern Ireland with its growing proportion of Catholic voters seizing similar opportunity moves from the fantastic to the possible. Joining with Eire they would stay in the EU, the Troubles would at last be over and the wrongs of 1922 righted a century late.
All of which might give tresolutely narrow-minded, living-in-the-past, almost-all-English Brexit politicians left looking at what they had wrought some food for thought—not least contemplating their sputtering, isolated English economy, surrounded by annoying affluent resilience of a revitalised EU.