The 2016 Brexit vote was not only a revolt against the United Kingdom’s EU membership but a symptom of profound economic and social discontent: the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since the Napoleonic Wars and a precipitous decline of trust in national institutions.
In the two and a half years since the Leave vote, much political attention has focused on the mechanics of EU withdrawal. But far too little has been devoted to the deeper roots of Brexit. The result is that, far from healing the UK’s divisions, EU withdrawal threatens to magnify them. In his interview with Jason Cowley this week, the economist Paul Collier, author of The Future of Capitalism, speaks of Britain as “living a tragedy”. He cites the “spatial rift between newly booming conglomerations and broken provincial cities and towns”, and “the new class divide between the more educated and the less educated” – both closely mirroring the Remain/Leave split.
The free market right had a clear and unashamed vision for a post-Brexit Britain. The plan was, as the former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson put it, “to finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started”. Outside the EU, Britain would be liberated to discard cumbersome regulations and strike trade deals with “the Anglosphere”: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. At home, Britain would cut taxes, discard “onerous” regulations and extend the private sector into new realms. But as George Eaton writes, this libertarian utopia was never achievable. It neglected to account for the question of the Irish border, which has forced Britain to agree to an indefinite customs union with the EU (denying it the right to strike new trade deals).
Furthermore, as Theresa May has always known, there was no appetite either in parliament or the country for Thatcherism 2.0. Far from the age of “big government” being over, voters now long for its return. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found that 60 per cent of us favour higher taxes and spending (which is the highest level in 15 years), while a mere 4 per cent wish to impose further cuts. Reflecting this, the Tories no longer espouse the aim of shrinking the state but promise higher spending on the NHS and other public services.
Thoughtful Remainers and Leavers can agree on a wider programme of economic and social renewal: higher investment in infrastructure, the revival of British manufacturing, greater devolution from Westminster to towns and cities, and rebalancing the economy away from finance and the south-east. Yet Brexit, and the Conservatives’ irreconcilable divisions, are crowding out the political and economic space for such a strategy. Whitehall is absorbed by the epic task of EU withdrawal, while the British economy is already an estimated 2 to 2.5 per cent smaller than it would have been had the 2016 referendum not been called.
The lamentable irony of Brexit, then, is that it has left Britain ever less capable of addressing the very discontent that produced the Leave vote.
The talking cure
Where do we get our morality from? On 24 November, two of Britain’s foremost thinkers sat down in front of a Cambridge Literary Festival audience at St John’s College to grapple with this and other fundamental questions. In a conversation that ranged from St Augustine to Google’s immortality project, Rowan Williams and John Gray – a self-described “recovering archbishop” and an atheist philosopher respectively, and both NS contributing writers – provided a model of how opposing world views can find common ground.
At a time when our culture is dominated by binary debates, often drenched in anger, it is perhaps unsurprising to find renewed appetite for free-thinking discussion. Across the festival, for which the New Statesman is the media partner, 7,700 people attended 40 events, covering subjects such as the condition of England, the cure for inequality, the birth of rock’n’roll, the death of democracy, the purpose of nature-writing and the “Brexit novel”.
This is cheering. Britain may be in an intellectual slump, but in Cambridge and at many other festivals across the country, there are green shoots of recovery.
This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died