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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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HomeBrexit WatchFour years on

Four years on

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FOUR years after Brexit, many still regard it as a mistake. Much at fault here are Conservative ministers, who rarely if ever contradict the falsely negative ‘Rejoiner’ claims. A refreshing exception is Kemi Badenoch, whose Department for Business and Trade has just published an optimistic report on where we stand. We hope that she will continue to make Brexit succeed.

A surprising moment came in last week’s University Challenge on TV. Both the clever and highly knowledgeable teams seemed to think that Britain was a member of the EU, prompting presenter Amol Rajan to joke that they had missed the most important political event of the recent past. 

Perhaps we should not mock the students’ ignorance, for the silence of members of the government over the last four years might suggest that they too have forgotten Brexit, or perhaps that they hope the electorate has. I have never been able to understand the timidity of Conservative ministers on defending their own major policy. Labour certainly won’t forget. I was on a platform a few months ago debating Brexit with Stella Creasy MP, a dynamic rising star of the Labour Party, who said (as I recall her words): ‘We have to force the Tories to accept that Brexit was a disaster, and that it was their fault.’ One can easily imagine that a Labour government in the not-too-distant future will be eager to blame their own failures and difficulties on Brexit and the Conservatives. So the willingness of senior ministers to acquiesce by near-silence in a negative portrayal of Brexit seems to me to be endorsing their own political extinction.

Even if Brexit was causing difficulties, one would expect Tories to look for silver linings. The very least that can be said of Brexit is that it has not caused any of the catastrophes that its opponents so gloatingly predicted, so one might expect ministers at least to contradict the constant drip of negative statements the appear in the usual places such as the Guardian, the Financial Times and the BBC.

Why don’t they? It’s a mystery to me. Could it be because some of them and their friends were responsible for the ‘Project Fear’ that came close to defeating Brexit in the 2016 referendum? Could it be that Lord Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, George Osborne and many others are too proud to eat their words and admit that they got it wrong? Could it be vanity that makes them so reluctant to admit that Brexit is doing vastly better than they predicted? Or could they be hoping for lucrative directorships with anti-Brexit corporations? Surely not!

The consequence of their flaccidity, whatever its cause, is that the lazy repetition of false bad news – which can largely be traced back to George Osborne’s Treasury – is rarely if ever firmly and authoritatively contradicted by senior members of the government. Over and over again one hears or reads the garbled statement that ‘we have lost 4 per cent of GDP’ – long ago disproved and debunked as a misunderstood scare story, but not disavowed by ministers. Over and over again one hears or reads some unrepentant Remainer saying that ‘everyone knows that Brexit is a disaster – it’s even in the government’s own figures’. Again, when do ministers ever refute this?

All those years ago during the Brexit debate, some of us got used to debates with hard-line Remainers in which they showed little knowledge of or interest in the EU, its policies, or its likely future. The best they could manage was that it was ‘our nearest neighbour’ or ‘our biggest market’. I admit that I was too optimistic in thinking that once Brexit had happened and the foretold disasters had proved fictitious, Remainers would accept the democratic decision, and even admit that things had turned out not too badly. And observing what is happening today in the EU itself – the rise of political extremism, the social conflicts, the corruption scandals in the European Parliament, the divisions between member states, the failures in foreign policy, the economic stagnation – they might even accept that Brexit was not such a bad idea after all.

But the diehards remain blissfully unaware of the reality of the EU. An academic study by Adam Fagan and Stijn van Kessel has confirmed our impression that Remainers are not very concerned with Europe. Their analysis concludes that the Remain campaign was above all hostile to Brexit rather than positive about the EU.

So Rejoiners plough on regardless, blithely demanding at the very least alignment with the EU, rejoining the customs union or the single market (do they know what those things involve?) or even reapplying for full membership. They claim that Brexit has brought no benefits. They take immense comfort from opinion polls apparently showing that most people now think Brexit has failed. Undeniably, many people have a stake in Brexit failing even now: nationalists wanting to break up the United Kingdom, ‘Rejoiners’ who refuse to admit their mistakes, opposition politicians using it as a stick to beat the Tories, and ‘culture wars’ lobbies portraying British (usually English) history as hateful.

Yet not all the people now expressing disappointment with Brexit can fall into these categories. The main reason people said they voted Remain in 2016 was fear of economic damage. These are the mass of voters who could be convinced that their fears were unfounded, and indeed that they were mislead by ‘Project Fear’. This is why the chronic neglect of the government to emphasise not only why Brexit is not a disaster, but why it is increasingly beneficial, is so lamentable.

The message is not very difficult for even the most non-specialist politician or voter to understand. A few simple points. EU membership was of very little benefit to Britain at the best of times. Since Brexit, our export trade to the EU has not noticeably suffered, and any losses are far less than the money we save by ending our ever-rising payments to the EU budget. Our foreign trade has anyway been moving away from the EU for many years, and that is to be encouraged. Our exports to the global market have been buoyant, especially in services. Imports from outside the EU will bring prices down rather than benefiting high-price European producers at the expense of British consumers. But the benefits of Brexit do not appear overnight: they depend on the policies of our governments and the dynamism of our businesses, and they will develop over time.

Fortunately, one minister has been working hard to make Brexit a success, and also proclaiming why that is so. Kemi Badenoch has been pushing ahead with trade negotiations, most importantly so far that with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Others are in her sights. It is very refreshing that her department has just marked the fourth anniversary of Brexit by publishing a detailed and forceful update of the benefits so far. Among the incontrovertible points contained in the report are the leading position of London as the global financial centre (which of course Remainers said would vanish), and Britain’s dominance in Europe of ‘greenfield’ foreign direct investment (ditto). Trade deals will in future bear increasing fruit if our other policies are favourable. Here I have a couple of worries. First, energy costs of course, among the world’s highest. Second, whether the present government and its successor (whichever it may be) will be willing to diverge, where beneficial, from EU restrictions. The pledge made by the Prime Minister to have all legislation scrutinised for its effects on trade with Northern Ireland (which is still tied to Single Market regulations of course) is unclear in its potential effects on our freedom to decide our own trade policies. A possible Labour government will surely be no bolder.

So Kemi Badenoch will have to stand firm and work fast to ensure that her own optimism and energy are not stifled by the general timidity and lack of enterprise of too many of our politicians of all parties.

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Robert Tombs
Robert Tombs
Robert Tombs is Professor Emeritus of French history at the University of Cambridge.

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