This year my decision to vote for Brexit will be vindicated

The British people deserve the opportunity to have an informed choice and to try to heal the wounds these last few months have caused. For now, though, there are reasons to be cheerful as well as some unpalatable truths to be assimilated

Sean O'Grady
Sunday 31 December 2017 17:06 GMT
What is Article 50?

Sometimes, in polite Europhiliac company, sipping chianti over tapas on the Eurostar, I don’t like to admit I voted Brexit. Sometimes I don’t like to admit it to myself. Like many on either side of the debate during the European referendum campaign I found some arguments from both camps persuasive, and some nonsensical. The debate was more balanced than many seemed willing to admit then, or now (possibly Boris Johnson included, given that he wrote two articles, for Remain and Leave, when weighing up his options, though I concede base ambition was also no doubt playing on that fabulous mind of his).

Never much given to starry optimism, since the morning of 24 June 2016 I’ve seen remarkably little that would make me, or any rational person, feel confident about the future and the wisdom of my vote. I’ll level with you reader: for most of the past 18 months or so I’ve been by turns terrified, regretful and despairing as our “team” messed up the talks, playing a weak hand badly. Now though, for just about the first time, I am starting to feel my vote to Leave was vindicated, and that Brexit might even work.

What’s changed? That unexpected breakthrough in the talks and the mutual agreement to make more progress. Simply that. There’s an awful lot of fudge baked into that particular cake; the kind of “ambiguous” political verbiage that is commonplace in European and Irish peace process diplomatic communiques is stuffed into every paragraph – inconsistent, vague, rubbery. It will be difficult to turn that stuff into hard laws. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental truth here to be acknowledged as fact: without that sign-off about the first phase of the talks there could be no start to the crucial second phase trade talks in time for anything to be agreed. We would have been stuffed. We’re not stuffed now, necessarily. That counts as a diplomatic triumph; and, yes, a cause for optimism.

Maybe, just maybe, events in recent weeks, albeit at times farcical, signal a more grown-up approach among all the participants, from Arlene Foster to Michel Barnier.

Let me stress that I am extremely sympathetic to the so-called Remoaners’ feelings. As it happens, I do want my say in a final vote – a referendum – on the terms we’re likely to get. Waiting for a general election as Michael Gove suggests is just a ploy – it is no use at all because by then I won’t have the opportunity to reject the deal and vote Remain – it will obviously be too late as we will have left the EU, and general elections can turn on many issues, as we all know. It’s another con, and not an especially clever one.

The British people deserve the opportunity to have an informed choice and to try to heal the wounds these last few months have caused.

For now, though, there are reasons to be cheerful about how events might pan out over 2018, as well as, I’m afraid, some unpalatable truths to be assimilated.

First, we could save a lot of time, money and energy just by agreeing to the equivalent of the UK-Canada trade treaty in the morning, as a basis for the talks. Both Barnier and the Brexit Secretary David Davis have said it is a good model for dialogue. That done, we could move on to what Davis calls, in his typically precise, forensic manner, “Canada plus plus plus”. Roughly translated that means adding in services, including legal services, insurance and banking plus some especially cosy terms for the automotive industry, air travel, medicines, nuclear energy, broadcasting and, while we’re at it, the European City of Culture scheme, and all that sort of thing. There are lots of trivial, uncontroversial issues that can be settled easily with some goodwill, and which would cost neither side anything except some dented pride.

The UK Government and EU leaders having signed-off the first phase of talks counts as a diplomatic triumph, and, yes, a cause for optimism (AFP/Getty)
The UK Government and EU leaders having signed-off the first phase of talks counts as a diplomatic triumph, and, yes, a cause for optimism (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

Now, no one thinks this will be easy and it is perfectly possible the EU side will simply declare that this – “Canada plus plus plus” – is another “cake-and-eat-it” proposition from the UK.

Maybe, but the main reason for optimism is that trade is not a zero-sum game: both sides have a strong, grown-up mutual interest in making this work.

It is often said, for example, that while 44 per cent of the UK’s exports go to the rest of the EU, only 8 per cent of theirs travel to the UK (figures, by the way from Theresa May’s sole Remain speech from 2016).

Sure; but there are many European-based companies, especially among our closest neighbours, who have lucrative interests in the UK, where the percentage of their profits derived from this little treasure island exceeds the simple numbers on volumes or the value of turnover. We are, in other words, a more valuable market for European entities in a tough world that might be imagined – from makers of executive cars through the European owners of UK rail franchises, power and water companies through to professional partnerships working in the UK. All have their expat staff’s professional qualifications mutually and reciprocally recognised. Some of the East European states such as Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia also have a clear interest in having the British take a generous view on permitting their energetic and skilled young people to come to the UK in future to make a living and perhaps also a home. Europe would also prize access to UK fisheries and the resources and liquidity of the City. There is plenty to barter with.

Trade barriers on the Channel would especially cost jobs and profits in the old “Six” – the original 1957 members of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and France – plus Ireland, but the likes of Spain and Poland also have deep economic and security interests in having the UK in a proper partnership that is sustainable for both sides. The UK won’t be able to divide and rule among the EU’s remaining 27 states, but we should also be reassured that no single nation will want to have its vital interests damaged by an unnecessarily truculent EU negotiating team exceeding their brief. Ironically, the EU’s determination to protect Ireland’s interest proved that point – given that the UK has an opposite and equal interest in protecting the Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island.

The British notoriously believe that the planet revolves around them but the truth is that the EU has even bigger challenges than Brexit to sort out, and it wants to get on with those and not get bogged down over Brexit. That seems to be what was happening at the time of the “breakthrough”. Again that could conceivably make the next round of the talks run more smoothly and at a faster pace than hitherto. Well, I am being optimistic.

Less cheerful is my second tentative prediction for 2018. It may prove the year when the British as a whole face up to what they are; a deeply divided nation, and not always a very nice lot. That is, by the way, why a final referendum vote would be such a valuable solution to these divisions, even though there will be some on both sides who are irreconcilable whatever happens.

In any case, the soft Brexiters and the Remainers will have to face up to, if not reconcile themselves to, an ugly fact about Britain, which is that there are large numbers of their fellow citizens with a quite different vision of Britain, if I may dignify it with such a term. They simply cannot abide migration, to put it politely. I’ve no doubt some are racist and would “send me home” if they got the chance (that’d be Leicester, then).

Yet I’ve no doubt, also, many are not racists or anything like it. They’re confused, dazed by what globalisation has done to their communities, and the politicians’ seeming indifference to their plight. All they saw from Westminster for decades was disdain for them, and that too was perplexing.

These disaffected voters are not devout Brexiteers, or racist or anything so specific; they are protesting, protesting, protesting about their lot, looking for someone to give them some answers. They moved from Cleggmania and a substantial vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010, to helping give the Tories their first and only majority at a general election for 30 years in the 2015 contest, through to Brexit in 2016 and then towards Corbynism in 2017. You can exaggerate things, but this does look like an electorate and a nation desperately uneasy with itself.

I realise that I may be the only person who voted for Brexit to get more but fairer immigration. I never understood, for example, why someone from Bulgaria has more of a right to work in the UK than someone from Bangladesh, or why all Austrians rank ahead of all Australians. Brexit, in principle at any rate, does mean an opportunity to bring in an immigration policy that is fairer and which commands public support. That might soothe the anger that seems to be out there. That way we might avoid those same “left behind” communities turning to still more extremist groups.

Brexit had to happen because the EU was plainly unreformable. Maybe after the referendum Cameron or May or Boris could have gone to Brussels and made a last push for a restriction on freedom of movement on labour, which isn’t popular anywhere in Europe. Then in traditional EU fashion the British could have been asked to vote again, this time the “right” way. We’ll never know.

A Union Jack flies outside the entrance of the European Parliament in Brussels
A Union Jack flies outside the entrance of the European Parliament in Brussels (Reuters)

Third, you have to look to the big picture. Globalisation isn’t going to go away and if anything Brexit will hook Britain into the process even further (and, in due course, hit many of the poorer communities who voted Brexit especially hard). We have to make the best of that, too, and we need politicians who will tell the voters the truth about Brexit – and not the nonsense that was on the side of the bus (see How to Lose a Referendum by Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith to learn about the true cynicism behind the £350m for the NHS tactic).

The EU was and is a large single market – but it is a protectionist one. Thus, like all such insular blocs, it is not sustainable in a dynamic world economy. It protects bureaucrats and the middle classes and big companies and small farms – but not Europeans as a whole as consumers. EU consumers should have the opportunity to buy on world markets at the most competitive rates for price and quality. If the EU just wants to keep the Chinese, Indians and the rest out of the single market then it is simply making its own citizens poorer.

There are other reasons to believe that the EU project isn’t worth persevering with. There is the inherent destructive effect of a single currency, the euro, on such a large part of our economic future. The euro, as Joseph Stiglitz forensically analyses it in his recent book, is permanently prone to crises because it isn’t backed by “a fiscal union”, which is to say the richer countries in the North won’t subsidise the poorer ones in the South. The constant push for political integration, partly under some pressure from president Macron to “fix” the euro’s fundamental flaw will also continue to alienate Europe’s people from the ideals of the EU. So will the ceaseless desire to close down opt-outs and national vetoes and, simultaneously, to expand the EU’s frontiers eastwards towards poorer states and a substantial land frontier with Russia. All these trends will continue to strain the EU in 2018 and beyond.

Who could be entirely confident that the EU would still be around in its current form in a decade or so? It will still be growing uncompetitive in world markets, prone to banking crises and social unrest as the euro inflicts austerity on the least well-off in the weakest countries. Now may be the moment to find the exit.

The year 2018, like 2017, could be an unexpectedly fruitful one for some sort of EU-UK deal. I am more concerned about the decade or two after that, though. For the British will find economic life much tougher outside the EU in the short to medium term. This is something the Brexiteers never admit. Only the Governor of the Bank of England, the neutral Mark Carney, has come close to telling the unavoidable truth about this. As trade patterns shift, so will the demand for jobs in different industries and in different cities and regions move with them. Some will contract, some expand. It is unpredictable. This time it might be the very well-paid jobs in the City that disappear, rather than coal miners in Barnsley. By contrast there may be more jobs in higher education, say, if suitable deals for Chinese and Indian student visas can be concluded.

In the later 2020s, Brexit might well start to be a net benefit to the overall UK economy – but no one should now overdo the rhetoric about “taking control”, “global Britain” and “exciting opportunities”. There will not be a bonanza in NHS funding. There will be a recession and lower living standards as the tectonic plates of the UK economy grind and adjust to new realities. Whole communities and whole industries will be destroyed in that process, frankly, but new industries and jobs will appear.

In 2018 we should be getting psychologically ready for the most traumatic industrial change since the 1980s and the greatest agricultural dislocations since the 1930s. If the Brexiteers don’t start telling the truth about it, and, better still, allow the nation to vote on the grim realities of this process, they will never be forgiven for their ultimate deceptions, and rightly so. It will be a hell of a reckoning.

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