Here we are at the cliff edge: January 31st 2020, the day a long, tortuous time coming that is supposed to make over 17 million people joyous and under 17 million miserable. As of tomorrow, we ate all liberated or stuffed, depending on your stance on Brexit.
Actually, very little of the foregoing is true. Many of the 34 million who did vote and most of the 31 million who didn’t regret the embarrassment of this fankle we got into, irrespective how it pans out. Friends, forms and families have all been riven between Leavers and Reminers. This hour has not been Britain’s finest.
It is possible that, freed of restrictive EU regulations, Britain Redux may blaze a bright path across the economic firmament, dominating trade and enriching its citizens. But ah hae ma doots.
Why? Because most of the case made for Brexit is for a Land of Hope through Glorious Isolation. This reeks of rhetoric from a century ago, when it was deployed—along with gunboats—by nabobs of the Great Queen to exploit the rest of the planet. While Lancashire mills, Rhondda mines, Clyde shipyards and City counting houses minted the resulting moolah, it all worked like a dream. It’s little wonder we harbour folk memories of such heady history.
Those who endlessly cite the 2016 referendum result as “the will of the people” seem oblivious to those halcyon days being gone. Still less do they appreciate the degree to which two world wars, a profligacy with North Sea oil and regulatory “light touch” that led to the 2008 financial crisis have all left Britain in poor shape to sail the choppy economic seas of the 21st century alone. Cutting ties to the third-biggest economy bloc, we will be up against the BRICs and Asian tigers, not to mention China.
Dare we pin our hopes on a ‘special relationship’ with the USA to cut at least one good trade deal? That seems delusional.
Isolated larger countries can survive—Brasil, Australia and Russia all do well. But they exploit vast resources. Isolated smaller countries can also do well—Singapore, Gulf States, Switzerland do well. But they have small population to feed and profitable global USPs. The world may beat a path to Britain’s door to buy whisky and Rolls Royce engines. But what else? The country that invented railways now buys its trains from Hitachi and Siemens. Though there are hordes of good British SMEs, where are our answers to Apple, Facebook, Amazon or—dare we say it—Huawei. Small countries can survive without breeding such giants. But not 65 million who spent the last three decades living beyond their means.
Britain is handling a £2,000,000,000,000 public debt because interest rates are risible. Were rates to rise to ‘normal’ levels—say 2.5%—the £50bn to be paid in interest would exceed the entire UK defence budget. There are opportunities in global trade. But, as Britain runs a £48bn trade deficit, we don’t make enough of what the world wants. Singapore and Netherlands prosper as entrepots, trans-shipping goods bound for elsewhere. But neither has 65m mouths to feed.
The UK government has signalled that, from 2021 onward, it will not follow EU rules. That means our £291bn exports there will suffer bureaucratic or customs friction and decline. The EU’s £1,876bn with the RoW will not suffer that effect. UK trade flexibility could open markets elsewhere, primarily in the USA. But examines our ‘special relationship’ down the years. From Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump, Churchill at Tehran, Eden over Suez, Wilson over the IMF all got short shrift when British clashed with American interest. Anyone thinking they won’t play hard-ball with an isolated Britain shows a poor grasp of both Americans and their deal-making, and.
What the currently gleeful coteries around Downing Street, the ERG and the Brexit Party seem not to grasp is that Britain, far from being the heavyweight dispatching Edwardian gunboats to bring Johnny Foreigner to heel, has neither the influence, nor the heft to reassert it. The White Star Line, North British Locomotive and Leyland are all history…and we have no USP to replace them.
So, as we sever ties to friends across the water, and that 50% of trade with them that built our present prosperity, are we waving their rules for a tangible purpose? Or are we just waving shared prosperity goodbye?