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The Osborne audit: what have we learned?

Ahead of this week’s budget, the economic historian Robert Skidelsky examines how four years of austerity have affected Britain.

George Osborne by Ralph Steadman

On Wednesday, for the first time in four Budgets, George Osborne will be able to claim plausibly that Britain has come out of the Great Recession. Growth was 1.8 per cent in 2013 and is expected to be between 2.4 and 2.8 per cent in 2014. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the economy is still 1.4 per cent smaller than it was in 2008 and 14 per cent smaller than it would have been had the recession not struck.

That lost output, amounting to £210bn, is gone for ever. Every household is almost £2,000 poorer on average than it would have been; the government’s revenue is £70bn less – that is (say) 70 hospitals, 1,000 schools and 250,000 housing units not built. Or, to take another number: 650,000 people now unemployed would have been in employment.

This is not all. Every year of the recession has reduced our growth potential. Economists use the word “hysteresis” to describe the rusting away of economic resources through misuse or underuse. Hysteresis has to do not just with the output lost during the slump but with the potential output lost in the subsequent period of near-zero growth. Headline unemployment is an incomplete measure of such rusting, because it also occurs when people work less than they want to, or are in jobs below their skill level, or just leave the workforce. A physics graduate may be able to find employment as a taxi driver or waiter. But how much physics “potential” will he retain after years of doing such jobs?

These are heavy costs. Just as George Osborne did not cause the recession, he has not caused the recovery. Intertwined economies usually fall and rise together, and Britain has been lifted off the rocks by the global upturn. Yet policy does make a difference – to the speed of recovery, its strength and its durability. On all three counts, the Chancellor’s policy is open to severe criticism.

Fiscal austerity slowed and weakened the recovery; monetary looseness ensured that it would be highly unbalanced and therefore fragile. Significantly, the official independent watchdog, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), in its December 2013 Economic and Fiscal Outlook, judged the “surprising” growth surge of the past year to be “cyclical . . . rather than indicating stronger underlying growth potential”. That the bank rate needs to be kept near zero shows that the economy is still on life support. 

Missed budget targets

Let’s start with the targets Osborne set himself in his first Budget of June 2010. He inherited a prospective deficit for 2010-2011 of £149bn, equivalent to 10.1 per cent of GDP. He promised to get this down to £20bn, or 1.1 per cent of GDP, in 2015-2016, mainly through spending cuts. By 2013-2014 the deficit should have been £60bn. In fact, it is projected to be £111bn, or 6.8 per cent of GDP this year. Now the Chancellor must cut spending by another £62bn over the next four years to meet his original target, two years later than promised.

There were no growth targets – those were abandoned years ago – but there were growth forecasts. Fulfilment of Osborne’s budgetary targets depended on the economy growing at 2.3 per cent in 2011, 2.8 per cent in 2012 and 2.9 per cent in 2013. In fact, the growth rates achieved were 0.9 per cent in 2011, 0.1 per cent in 2012 and 1.8 per cent in 2013. In other words, Osborne’s failure to meet his deficit targets was caused by the failure of the economy to grow to expectation.

The official explanation for this failure is “bad luck”. In familiar language, policy was “blown off course” by unexpected events. Chief of these was said to be the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, which started with fears of a Greek default in March 2010 and then spread, by contagion, to Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy. For the next three years the eurozone slumped almost as badly as Britain. The eurozone slump, it is argued, stymied the British recovery.

There are two things wrong with this. First, with its own currency and control of its exchange rate, Britain should have done better, not worse, than the members of the eurozone. Second, although the eurozone financial crisis undermined confidence, and hit British exports, the European slump arose in part because European finance ministers were pursuing exactly the same policy as was George Osborne. So it makes more sense to say that the coincident slumps of the eurozone and Britain between 2010 and 2013 were the effects of a single cause: the policy of cutting public spending. The “unexpected” element in the situation was the failure of so-called fiscal consolidation to deliver growth.

Why should anyone expect a policy of cutting public spending in a recession to produce growth? It is counterintuitive. A recession is caused by businesses and households spending less. If the government also spends less, one would expect this to worsen, not reverse, the recession. This, I think, is exactly what happened.

Making the case: George Osborne on his first Budget Day, 2010

Primitive economics

Over the past four years, I kept asking myself: what did Osborne have to believe to convince himself that cutting government spending was necessary to “get the economy moving again”? His core belief, I concluded, is ideological. This is that state spending is heavily wasteful. From this, it follows that the smaller the share of GDP spent by the state, the larger GDP will be, because the private sector allocates resources more efficiently. It’s as simple as that.

This ideological fundament generates three seemingly common-sense, short-run propositions, which I call “primitive economics”. The first, known by the cognoscenti as “real crowding-out”, states that if the government commandeers an extra quantum of “real” resources such as workers and factories this will deprive the private sector of their use.

Second, there is the idea of “financial crowding-out”. If the government borrows additional financial resources (money) to fund its spending, this will force up interest rates and oblige businesses to pay more for their money.

Finally, there is “Ricardian equivalence”. This says that government borrowing is just deferred taxation. Expecting to pay more taxes tomorrow, people increase their savings today. So increased government consumption “crowds out” an equivalent volume of private consumption.

Eighty years ago, John Maynard Keynes pointed out that this trade-off view of the relationship between public and private spending may be valid at full employment, but is quite wrong in a severe recession.

In such a situation, extra government spending does not necessarily “crowd out” real resources. Where there is slack in the economy – the labour supply exceeding labour demand as today – extra government spending can bring into use the idle resources by creating more employment. There is no displacement; the public spending is not done at the expense of private spending. Rather, the public spending compensates for a lack of private spending.

Second, it is not true that whatever the government borrows is a subtraction from a fixed pool of savings that would otherwise be invested by the private sector. Many savings are just lying idle in bank accounts, because the private sector lacks the confidence to invest them. By offering investors a risk-free rate of return, the government can put these savings to active use. And by generating employment, this “crowds in” additional savings.

Finally, “Ricardian equivalence” ignores how government spending can pay for itself, not just by increasing national income (and therefore government revenue) but by investing in projects that create value for the economy, such as schools, houses, transport infrastructure, green energy, and so on.

Probably few policymakers today believe these “crowding-out” stories literally. I doubt whether even George Osborne does. But they believe that governments need to behave as though they believe these ideas in order to retain the “confidence” of the markets.

So, the question is: why do the markets believe them? Why do they scream “Default” whenever government borrowing goes up? Why did Osborne feel that unless he got the deficit under firm control, he would be spooked by the markets?

The reason is that, for the past 30 years, all economically literate or market-savvy persons (who do not generally include politicians) have been slaves to “models” of the economy which ruled out severe recessions by assumption. Even social democrats, who wanted to use the tax system to redistribute the wealth created by the private sector, bought in to the dominant view that, on average, markets do not make mistakes. This was the tragedy of Gordon Brown; it is also why Labour under Ed Miliband has been unable to deploy a convincing case against Osbornite economics.

Consequently, it is not surprising that governments and central banks failed to take precautions against a slump happening; more surprising that they did not thoroughly revise their beliefs when it did happen. To some extent, they did. When the world economy crashed in the winter of 2008 all the main governments came in with bank bailouts and stimulus packages. But as soon as the danger of another Great Depression was removed, the old orthodoxies reasserted themselves. In particular, as it was bound to do, the slump left a legacy of rising deficits and taxpayer liabilities. In this kind of climate, fears about the solvency of governments seemed reasonable.

And mainstream economics offered no help at all. What was going on, the economists said, was just a readjustment of economic life from one optimum equilibrium to another. Thus there was no “output gap” that needed to be filled by extra government spending. Rather, what needed to be done was to cut down state spending in order to make the existing output more productive. The Chancellor is no economist: but this presentation played to his ideological preconceptions. In a world-view of this type, there is no distinction between the short run and the long run. We always live in the long run, and if we leave the long run to the markets, all will be for the best. 


A world in which beliefs and facts have come so far apart will be particularly prone to delusionary thinking. The delusion was that policies that made the recession worse would produce recovery. This delusion was abetted by reputable economists. Three years ago, the doctrine of “expansionary fiscal contraction” was all the rage and a huge research effort went into trying to prove its core proposition: that the less the government spends, the faster the economy will grow. The econometricians produced some striking correlations. One claim was that “an increase in government size by 10 percentage points is associated with a 0.5 to 1 per cent lower annual growth”. In April 2010, Alberto Alesina of Harvard University assured European finance ministers that “many even sharp reductions of budget deficits have been accompanied and immediately followed by sustained growth rather than recessions even in the very short run”.

An International Monetary Fund paper in 2012 brought Alesina’s hour of glory to an end. Going through the same data as he had examined, the IMF authors pointed out: “While it is plausible to conjecture that confidence effects have been at play in our sample of consolidations, during downturns they do not seem to have ever been strong enough to make the consolidations expansionary at least in the short run.” Fiscal contraction is contractionary, full stop.

George Osborne has said publicly that he was influenced by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. These two Harvard economists claimed that their data showed that countries’ growth slows sharply if their debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90 per cent. It turned out that their findings were skewed by the vast overweighting of one country in their sample. But a much more important error was their confusion between correlation and causation, also seen in the work of Alesina. High debt levels may cause lack of growth but a lack of growth may cause high debt levels; or both may be due to some other factor(s). How, one asks, can good statisticians make these kinds of mistakes? Only, I think, because their theory or model already tells them that this is the way the causation has to run, so that their only task is to establish a correlation.

Quantitative easing to the rescue?

With the failure of fiscal “consolidation” to revive the economy, the Chancellor increasingly turned to monetary policy. This fitted his ideology. Orthodox monetary policy works by the central bank targeting short-term market interest rates, providing banks with the reserves needed to keep the rates on target and, by varying the rates (or expectations of future rates), influencing the volume of private-sector lending and borrowing. It bypasses fiscal policy, which is why it is attractive to those who dislike state intervention. Since 2008, monetary policy has been ultra-loose or “unorthodox”. Not only has the bank rate been kept at 0.5 per cent for a record length of time, but the Bank of England has injected £375bn of “new money” into the economy, £225bn of it before Osborne became Chancellor. This is known as “quantitative easing” (QE).

How big a part has QE played in producing a recovery? The quick answer is that no one knows for sure. Unlike government spending, which has a direct effect on the economy, monetary policy works indirectly by inducing private households and businesses to change their behaviour – to save more or spend more. QE is supposed to work through two “transmission channels”: the bank lending channel and the portfolio rebalancing channel.

The central bank activates both channels by buying government bonds (gilts), mainly from non-banks. The sellers of the bonds receive cash; they deposit their extra cash with the commercial banks. In the first transmission channel, this is supposed to increase bank lending. The banks have more cash to lend out, causing them to lower their interest rates. As a result, more money is borrowed by businesses and households; the spending of the loans raises total spending, and therefore output, in the economy.

Early experience of QE showed that this was not happening: the banks were hoarding their cash, not lending it out. The architects of QE had underestimated the damage that banks had suffered as a result of the collapse of their assets in the crash, and therefore their desire to rebuild their reserves. What Osborne then did was to start subsidising bank lending. The Funding for Lending scheme, introduced in July 2012, was supposed to stimulate bank loans to businesses. It failed to do this – business lending is still well down from its pre-crash levels.

Desperate to get something in the economy going up, the Chancellor switched to Help to Buy in April and October 2013, which insured banks for a 15 per cent loss on 95 per cent mortgages. This has certainly contributed to the recent surge in house-buying and the rise in house prices.

It should be noticed, however, that both attempts to boost bank lending are fiscal policy by the back door, as the contingent subsidies are liabilities for the taxpayer.

Because of the disappointing results of bank lending, the Bank of England came to rely more on the second transmission channel, portfolio rebalancing, to stimulate the economy. Bond purchases by the Bank swell the cash deposits of the sellers, encouraging them to spend. Simultaneously, they reduce the supply of gilts in the market, which causes the price of gilts to rise and their yields to fall. The “search for yield” then induces investors to switch from gilts to stock-market securities and other assets, making it easier for businesses to raise capital. The increase in the price of these assets also expands the net wealth of the asset-holders, causing them to spend more. These various effects will result in growing GDP. Certainly the rise in stock-market and house prices has contributed to a “feel-good” factor, which is bolstering the current optimism about future prospects.

Set against these benefits are two costs. By encouraging excessive risk-taking, QE may reignite the pre-crash asset bubble, against which the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has warned. The second is the increase in inequality. Of this, John Kay wrote in the Financial Times: “In the modern financial economy, the main effect of QE is to boost asset prices . . . the one certain outcome of QE is that those with assets benefit relative to those without . . . these policies may not benefit the non-financial economy much, but they are helpful to the financial services sector and those who work in it.”

The trouble with unorthodox monetary policy was that it is not unorthodox enough. Rather than try to increase private-sector cash balances, the Bank should have lent the money directly to the government to spend on public investment. We can be sure the government would not have hoarded the cash! But this operation would have blurred the line between monetary and fiscal policy, and thus the sacred ideological divide between the private and public sectors.

To put the matter crudely: a recovery based on stuffing the mouths of bankers with gold will be weaker and less durable than a recovery based on an upsurge of mass spending power. 


Wealth and income have been growing more unequal in Britain since the 1980s. George Osborne has not created the inequality; but he has exacerbated it by dragging out the slump and using lopsided means to bring about the recovery. Britain may well emerge from the recession with a problem of structural underconsumption. Investment is driven by consumption, so when consumption falls off, so does investment. A tendency to domestic underconsumption – unless offset by a buoyant demand for exports – will result in what economists such as Larry Summers have started to call “secular stagnation”. The chief symptom of this will be rising structural underemployment: a slackening of demand for labour which does not reverse itself with recovery.

This brings us back to the ideological fundament. It is the Chancellor’s firm belief that the government’s share of total spending should be reduced as much as possible. Spending financed by deficits is twice cursed, not just because government spending is wasteful, but because it enables governments to pass on the cost of waste to future generations. Hence Osborne’s pledge to eliminate the Budget deficit entirely. This is tantamount to saying that the government expects to pay out of taxes for all the schools, hospitals, housing and transport systems that it builds. Because all Conservative governments want to reduce taxes as well, this amounts to a vast programme to privatise virtually all public services.

At this point, the ideology destroys sane economics. A sensible view of public spending would distinguish between capital spending and current spending. It would enable one to say that deficits resulting from excessive current spending are bad because they do not generate any revenue and add to the national debt, but deficits that are incurred on capital spending can raise productivity, improving the country’s long-run potential. A sensible Osborne policy would have been to confine cuts to the current account and offset these fully by expanding public investment in green projects, transport infrastructure and social housing, as well as export-oriented small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has been arguing this case inside the government; lip-service is paid to the principle, but public investment is still 35 per cent down from the pre-crash levels.

What George Osborne has done is to bring an ideological fervour to a defective theory of macroeconomic policy: the theory that additional government spending can, under no circumstances, move the economy to a better-equilibrium growth path. What may be rational to believe when the economy is fully employed is palpably wrong when resources stand idle.

Moreover, it is not Osborne and his friends and bankers and Top People who suffer. It is the ordinary people of this country, whose lives and prospects are wrecked or diminished. Four years of George Osborne have been four years too many.

Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and a leading biographer of J M Keynes. His most recent book is “Five Years of Economic Crisis” (Centre for Global Studies, £5)

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.


Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.


What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.


Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt