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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Brexit Vote Five Years On

Five years after the EU Referendum, the country is stuck because no one will lead an honest conversation about the future, says Mike Buckley

Boris Johnson during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

Between a Rock & a Hard PlaceThe Brexit Vote Five Years On

Five years after the EU Referendum, the country is stuck because no one will lead an honest conversation about the future, says Mike Buckley

Five years on from the Brexit vote we remain a nation divided. A poll to mark the anniversary of the EU Referendum this week found that 49% of those surveyed would vote to rejoin the EU; and 51% would vote to leave. Views are just as polarised on the outcome of Brexit, with 31% of those surveyed believing it to be a success; and 34% believing it to be a failure. 

What is startling about these numbers is that – the Coronavirus pandemic aside – the country seems to have talked of little else for five years, yet few minds have changed. If anything, Brexit identities have solidified. The National Centre for Social Research found that four out of five people would vote the same way in a re-run. Paula Surridge of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank believes that “Brexit’ identities [are] held by more people, and more strongly, than party identities”.

One of the few points of agreement is that Brexit is not done. Only one in five people describe Boris Johnson’s deal as ‘good’ – even among Leave voters only one-third approve. Most believe that there is more to be negotiated and that results matter for the UK economy and the country’s place in the world. 

What is just as startling is that only now – five years on from the referendum and almost 18 months since the UK left the EU – is the country beginning to have a conversation about the future of the economy, its relationship with the EU, and our place in the world. The fact this conversation is being forced by events, rather than led by our political leaders and national media, is an indictment on them and those who preceded them over the past five years. 

Brexit disrupted our economic, security, trade and cultural links with our largest trading partner and closest allies. It leaves the UK isolated on the world stage at the same moment as global issues take on unprecedented importance: the pandemic, the rise of China to superpower status, and climate change all require a collective response. If post-Joe Biden US democracy is weakened further, a strong Europe will become even more important. 

The economic model that underpinned UK growth and stability for 40 years is gone. Its economy was built on a surplus in services trade with the EU and European Economic Area countries. But services ended up with a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Media focus has been on the catastrophic fall in goods trade, but services are faring no better. Our political settlement, dependent as it was on common membership of the Single Market, is similarly challenged as Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Scotland are destabilised. 

Political leaders and the media should have used the past five years to build public consensus around a post-Brexit economic model and responses to the challenges the UK faces in the decades ahead. The costs of Brexit should have been made clear and solutions agreed. Instead, our leaders avoided discussion of these challenges at almost all costs. 

“Political decision-making,” argues former Archbishop Rowan Williams, “ought to be a matter of knowing how to identify real dysfunctions in social life and public policy, and then working out what can and can’t be changed, with what consequential costs or benefits in other areas of life and policy.” Yet Brexit was defined by “fluid vagueness”, with the result that the Government is focused on tomorrow’s headlines instead of a shared analysis of what’s wrong and how to mend it. “There can’t be intelligent disagreement without some convergence about what needs resolving.” 

The result has been politics as performance instead of deliberation, as both main parties have avoided hard truths. 

The Conservatives refuse to admit the costs of Brexit, instead offering incompatible visions of the future to their divided voter base. Trade deals of no economic value and aircraft carriers pointlessly patrolling the Pacific appeal to the globalist, free trade, right-wing half of their voter base; promises of levelling-up and investment to the left-wing, ‘left behind’ half. 

The limits of this strategy are finally becoming clear. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss’ trade deals will do nothing for the Midlands and north – both the Australia deal and entry to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), if agreed, would boost UK GDP by a meagre 0.08% over 15 years – a drop in the ocean compared to the 46% cost of Brexit. 

But her deals will cost jobs and decimate industries. The Australia deal will end small-scale UK farming due to the import of low-cost, low-quality meat. Industry leaders fear that future deals could destroy the UK steel industry and more. The globalist half of Johnson’s voter base may celebrate new trade deals; the left behind half will mourn lost industries and jobs. 

The tension is reversed by Johnson’s domestic policy. Planning reforms intended to enable infrastructure in the north and Midlands are toxic in the south of England and were a contributory factor in the Conservatives’ loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Yet, shelving the reforms and cancelling northern investment – both of which the Conservatives are doing in response to their defeat – will only make it harder to hold on to votes in the north. 

This ought to provide an opportunity for the Labour Party. It could expose the empty slogans of ‘Global Britain’ and levelling-up. It could highlight our diminished and isolated position on the world stage, plain for all to see at the G7. It could explain that levelling-up is dependent on a growing economy, but needless austerity made the 2010s a lost economic decade and that Brexit will lead to a second. 

Labour’s failure to do so does more than lets the Conservatives get away with their charade. It also prevents them from developing their own narrative of our nation’s challenges and proposed solutions. 

Keir Starmer’s party badly needs a national story into which it can place itself as a government-in-waiting. But the one available – one decade lost to austerity, a second to follow from Brexit – it finds itself unwilling to use. Without that starting point, Labour resorts to piecemeal attacks on Conservative mismanagement, corruption and day-to-day policy. No doubt these attacks are justified, but without a critique of the Government’s programme, past and present, Labour will get no hearing for its own. 

The irony is that Labour is afraid of shadows. On Brexit, its route to power is to unite the Remain vote, which its near silence allows to split between it, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, and to point to the Conservatives’ failure to deliver to win back lost Leave voters. 

Labour should make clear that the economic disparity which levelling-up is supposed to fix is largely the result of austerity and Conservative mismanagement, and that resolving it is incompatible with the lower standards and declining economy that are the inevitable consequence of Brexit. Its failure to do so allows the Conservatives to win by default. 

On culture too, Labour is on firmer ground than it believes. “Instead of running scared of the right’s culture warriors,” argues Sam Freedman, “Labour should acknowledge that the public is largely on their side. Progressive parties have the opportunity to build a popular counter-narrative about an out-of-touch, anti-science and intolerant right. Backing away from the fight is a terrible strategy; especially when you’re winning the war.”

The fear of taking any position that could be considered ‘metropolitan elite’ is one reason why Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet struggle to make any impact. It comes across as insincere in contrast to the perception that Johnson says what he believes.

Five years after the EU Referendum, public opinion has not changed because the conversation has not changed.

In 2021, Boris Johnson still sells Brexit as the beginning of national renewal; restored might on the world stage; and restored pride to northern towns. Instead of an honest conversation about our economy, security, defence and role in the world, the public is subjected to flags, slogans and gestures. 

But Johnson will not forever be able to disguise that his trade deals make us no richer and do little to compensate for lost EU trade. He will not forever be able to hide that, instead of making Britain stronger, he is negotiating away our industries, standards and values. He will struggle to level-up a struggling, indebted economy, while even attempts to do so weaken his fragile voter coalition. 

But the unravelling of Johnson’s lies will not save Britain. For that to happen, Labour and other opposition politicians need to lead an honest, frank conversation about the challenges the UK faces – both those imposed from outside and those of our own making. 

Only then can broad public consensus be built around a viable future economic model, redressing regional inequality, combatting climate change and Britain’s place in the world. Until then, we will remain stuck in 2016 with half the country believing national renewal is upon us; while the other half mourns lost hopes and opportunities. We have to move on.

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