At some stage the nation will have to have a serious discussion about what kind of relationship we want with other nations and economies in our region of the world
Is there anyone out there who still has a good word for Brexit? Not the decision in 2016 when 52 per cent voted to leave Europe; but the mess we seem to have landed ourselves in six years later.
Tobias Ellwood, an MP and former Captain in the Royal Green Jackets, is leading the charge in asking his fellow Tory MPs to stop living in 2016. He argues that “six years after the referendum, ever fewer voters associate themselves with ‘Remain’ or ‘Brexit’. This is yesterday’s language.”
After six years, no one can point to a Brexit benefit. Jacob Rees-Mogg bravely flags up the quicker – by a matter of two or three weeks – start of the Covid vaccine roll-out. But paradoxically, the UK was still under the aegis of the European Medicines Agency at the time and obtained a derogation available to any EU member state. In fact, the most popular dose in Britain with the biggest orders from the Department of Health – the Pfizer-Biontech jab – was developed by two immigrants in Germany, produced by an American firm in Belgian plants.
Otherwise, ministers and Brexit enthusiasts have some difficulty in identifying any benefits other than adopting the Braveheart cry of “Freedom!”. Immigration, both legal and via desperate refugees risking a Channel crossing, is increasing. In the EU, Britain could return asylum seekers under the Dublin convention. France has proposed opening processing centres across the Channel but that means cooperating with Europeans.
Since the days of Irishmen digging navigation canals in England – hence “navvies” – British infrastructure and building have always relied on labour, skilled and unskilled, from outside Britain to build homes, offices, roads, shopping malls.
Demobilised Polish soldiers after 1945 were sent down Yorkshire mines to dig the coal needed to earn dollars. They were met with hostility from Yorkshire miners in the communist influenced miners’ union branches who regarded the Poles as cheap labour. But Britain then imported Windrush workers to work on buses, Pakistanis to work in textile plants, or Indian immigrants to work 24/7 at Heathrow and as nurses and doctors in the NHS.
But history lessons, other than about kings and queens, are not popular subjects in England.
The UK is now losing its place in the £95bn EU science collaboration programme, Horizon. It is part of a wider weakening of the UK. The Office of Budget Responsibility reckons that the cut in trade with the EU, thanks to the very hard Brexit decided by Boris Johnson, is reducing the nation’s GDP by 4 per cent, a cut of £32bn a year.
As Adam Posen, the president of the influential Peterson Institute for International Economics, says, this is the “first time in world history when a nation has declared a trade war on itself”.
The question now is do we keep fighting the Brexit war of 2016? Or move on. No one, not even in the Europhile Lib Dems, is talking about rejoining. That question was settled in the election of 2017. There will not be a second referendum. That was settled in the 2019 election.
But how do we move on? In 2016, after the referendum, Boris Johnson assured us that “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU, to live, to travel, to study, to buy homes and settle down… there will continue to be free trade and access to the single market.”
No one has explained why we moved from that win-win Brexit to today’s lose-lose rejection of any normal relationship with our nearest, richest partners. Tobias Ellwood is breaking the omerta on Brexit adopted by most politicians in Britain, as well as businesses which adopt a Brexit version of “see no Brexit, say no Brexit, hear no Brexit”.
The CBI, British Chambers of Commerce, other trade and industrial association keep their heads as low as possible rather than discuss Brexit. Labour shadow cabinet members keep their heads so low on Brexit they are invisible on the problem.
But at some stage the nation will have to have a serious discussion about what kind of relationship we want with other nations and economies in our region of the world. But how long must we wait and how much damage will be done to business and young people’s hopes of living or working in Europe beforehand?
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe.