Cruel Britannia & the ‘Global Britain’ Fallacy
The rhetoric and the reality of post-Brexit Britain are more distant than ever, notes Rachel Morris
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World-beating. Fastest-growing. All that’s missing is “bigly”, to whisk us back to the last US President’s superlative-laden Twitter feed. Dragging his feet about leaving office is not the only thing that Boris Johnson has in common with Donald Trump.
Johnson military verbosity has also been difficult to miss in recent times – but while his words and those of his ministers boast of the unparalleled greatness of strong ‘Global’ Britain, its actions reveal the lie.
Labour shortages are the most serious problem facing the internal economy. There are 1.3 million vacancies and, unusually, not nearly enough applicants. This is a UK-specific problem in comparison to other G7 countries. Those who could fill gaps are hardly attracted by falling wages relevant to living costs, lower worker protections, and the awareness that shortages mean they may end up performing multiple roles for one wage.
Since 2019, 450,000 have left the workforce, mainly people aged over 50. In an ONS survey, half said it was their choice, less than half wishing to return. Meanwhile, a combination of Brexit and the pandemic caused 200,000 EU citizens to leave our shores. There is also the influence of Long COVID, with 1.8 million experiencing symptoms.
This puts the Government in a bind; needing to retain and attract immigrants, yet with both the Conservative leadership candidates doubling down on harsh policies to keep the nation ring-fenced.
According to Skills for Care, care job vacancies in England have risen from 7.5% to more than 10% since 2019. Social sector jobs are ever more unpopular, more likely to be plagued by unsociable hours, zero hours contracts, lack of advancement, and unpleasant tasks. Wages in the sector have reduced relative to less stressful jobs such as factory work and retail. Care workers were added to the UK shortage occupations list for skilled worker visas in February.
The US State Department’s annual Trafficking Persons Report criticises the UK Government’s stance on modern slavery, as it could “hinder [trafficking] victim identification and protection efforts”. The Care Quality Commission has identified 14 possible cases of modern slavery in nursing homes so far this year. There were four in the whole of 2018, seven in 2019, three in 2020, and seven in 2021. Some are foreign students working longer hours than visas permit, in poor conditions.
Meanwhile, there has been a tsunami of investments by Gulf states in the UK in recent years. Qatar has pledged to invest £10 billion into the UK economy, while Saudi Arabia looks set to follow suit. International oligarchs make significant donations to universities and culture institutions, and one famous Russian party-boy owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, with the help of the Saudis. This process has been facilitated by the Government, which has provided billions in arms, and a laissez faire attitude to their human rights abuses, in return.
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No laws limit foreign purchase of UK assets. The UN Conference on Trade and Development notes in its 2021 World Investment Report that foreign direct investment (FDI) into the UK has declined for two years running, falling from 11th to 16th in the global list of recipients, partly attributable to the impact of Brexit.
Nonetheless, many British companies have been bought by foreign companies: Asda, Body Shop, Chivas Brothers, Jaguar Land Rover, and Paladin Resources are among those acquired by corporations in Canada, France, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
The number of properties in England and Wales owned abroad has almost tripled in the past decade, notably buyers from tax havens. Close to 250,000 properties in overseas hands means price hikes for Brits.
London is of course a hub, but Manchester and Liverpool are also affected, the latter seeing a fourfold increase since 2010. The Government pledged to create a public record of property registered via overseas companies in 2018 but it never happened. The idea was only revived earlier this year in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
For those fleeing war and persecution, or simply those from abroad seeking to work hard and pay taxes in the UK, there is a hostile environment. For autocratic states and their oligarchs, there is an open border.
Pulling up the Drawbridge
It can seem as if ministers believe that workers – nurses, police officers, train drivers – will magically appear. But the skills and qualifications for these jobs take time to acquire. All the while, Brexit continues to deliver its payload. We’ve cut international aid budgets, but it’s us desperate for help.
Also whispered is the plan for ‘freeports’ and charter cities. While these are hailed as a stimulant for employment, past evidence shows they’re more likely to move jobs already existing elsewhere, while incentivising money laundering and the erosion of workers’ rights.
The post-Brexit ‘freedoms’ talked about so avidly by Jacob Rees Mogg are not freedoms enjoyed by all.
The Government’s newly-introduced Financial Services and Markets Bill proposes to roll back capital adequacy rules and other post-2008 reforms, while imposing a duty of competitiveness on the regulator. This may be attractive to foreign investors seeking deregulated freedom, but it risks financial instability for the rest of us.
Capital and profits also run in the opposite direction: offshore. As one example, 9,000 HMRC staff will be relocated from London to a Newcastle office complex nominally owned by the Reuben brothers, who are big Conservative donors. Ownership can be traced to the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, although both the Government and the brothers insist that the deal will be subject to UK tax.
None of this sounds terribly like taking back control. Complaints of foreign workers “coming over here and taking our jobs” were a false panic: Schrödinger’s Brexit. We need them more than they need us, after all. But even the Labour Party focuses on investment, not employment, with Keir Starmer tweeting that, “Britain will be the best country in the world to start a new business”. Without a larger labour force, that seems highly unlikely.
The Government proclaims the country’s self-sufficient pre-eminence while quietly scrabbling for billionaire friends overseas to help keep the lights on and the trains running. Meanwhile, the drawbridge is pulled up to our European friends, and the queues at Dover keep getting longer.