Amid all the sound and fury of Brexit, we have forgotten that running concurrently to it are hugely disruptive economic trends that pose enormous challenges. Any Brexit deal will affect these only tangentially. However it will still have enormous indirect impact, either by distracting us entirely or by galvanising our society into desperately needed radical change.
In this first part of a two-part post, let’s imagine how things have turned out so bitterly from the perspective of a young and idealistic Leave activist – in the spirit of Brideshead Revisited, let’s call him Charles Ryder – who, rummaging through some old possessions one day fifteen years hence comes across an old “Vote Leave” poster……..
“Ah, Brexit! ‘Bliss was it that dawn to be alive!’ Little did we know that it would turn out so bitterly disappointing.
“I suppose when the Remainer Theresa May was elected Prime Minister we should have known it would all turn so very sour. She turned out to be the bloodless sphinx her detractors said she was: good at implementing a brief but lacking both the imagination and courage that visionary leadership requires.
“In the first few years things seemed to be going well enough. After much tough negotiation Brexit was achieved, with a free trade deal with Europe and the liberty to strike others with our friends abroad. Both food and energy prices fell, particularly helping those on low incomes. The flow of low-skilled European immigration was stemmed, lessening competition for working class jobs, and wages duly rose. The average person did indeed feel better off materially and less of a stranger in their own land.
“However, the bigger picture was less rosy, with one opportunity after another squandered and deep set problems ignored: lack of any kind of devolution crippled local government from building on Brexit according to their local strengths and opportunities. For instance, Westminster still jealously guarded control of fracking rights and revenues, which effectively meant that shale-rich Northern communities were locked out of this exciting energy revolution. It was a bit of damp squib: in the event, the North remained poor supplicants of Westminster, rather like Scotland during the era of the North Sea oil boom. In poor coastal areas, there was deep resentment of the betrayal of Britain’s fishing communities, with Britain’s waters and fish traded for continued tariff-free access to the European Single Market, and specifically the ‘passporting’ rights of Tory-supporting City banks.
“Most disastrous of all was the failure to prepare for the march of the machines. Britain has always been very poor at vocational education, and no one saw how vital this would be to give the less academic any kind of future. Jobs in construction and what was left of manufacturing rapidly started to disappear, and professional drivers became a dying breed. Because of the dearth in technical skills, the robots that replaced them were to a large extent designed and built abroad, proving a disaster for working class men, not to mention the country’s balance of payments. As men became useless as breadwinners, family disintegration got even worse, and single parenthood became almost the norm, condemning further generations to a spiral of decline. Nor were women immune: machines finally passed the Turing Test, which inevitably affected call centre work and other jobs where a degree of social interaction was required.
“Consequently, the long promised rebalancing of the economy failed – yet again – to appear. London, as usual, prospered, creating mighty tech hubs to add to its existing powerful service sector, sucking in talent from the rest of the country. Data scientists and those working in AI became almost as well renumerated as bankers – and just as hated.
“Meanwhile, the rest of the country fell further behind, not surprisingly reinforcing existing deeply held prejudices in many communities that capitalism is a rigged and exploitative system. When John McDonnell replaced Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader everyone laughed. With the rise of the ‘Red North’, they are certainly not laughing now.
“Though technically still one country, Britain is confused and divided, a nation in name only, all the more demoralised because the fleeting hope that Brexit provided has led to such bitter regrets.
“Bliss was it that dawn to be alive!’ None of us feel like that anymore.”
(Read part two of Andrew’s blog on TCW tomorrow to see how the future of Brexit Britain could be so much better…)
(Image: Mick Baker)