Leader: Britain after Brexit

The Leave vote was an expression of profound economic and social discontent. But Brexit is a false panacea. It is not the end of, or even an answer to, the European question. 

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Since 2016, the United Kingdom’s EU membership – like Schrödinger’s cat – has been both dead and alive. On 31 January, this ambiguous status is finally resolved. Forty-seven years after the UK joined the European project under a Conservative government, it is leaving under one. Was such an ending inevitable? In 1963, when French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed the UK’s first application to join the then European Economic Community, he declared: “Britain is insular, maritime, bound up by its trade… She has, in all her work, very special, very original habits and traditions.”

More recently, Conservative Brexiteers consistently viewed the EU as an obstacle to partnership with “the Anglosphere” and a block on Britain achieving its full potential. Yet if EU membership were as onerous as they suggest, the UK would have left much sooner. Though under EU rules the UK was forced to accept the free movement of people, it enjoyed opt-outs from the euro and the borderless Schengen Zone and a £4.9bn budget rebate. And it led the expansion of the single market.

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, was among those who argued that the 2016 referendum was a choice, not a necessity. “The idea that there was an irresistible force for a referendum is pushed by Farage’s and Cameron’s supporters,” Mr Cummings wrote in 2017. “They are both wrong. The country supported one but without any passion outside the small fraction who had long been passionate about it. Most Tory MPs did not want it.”

As late as December 2015, 1 per cent of UK voters cited the EU as the issue most important to them. David Cameron held a referendum in the hubristic belief that he would win it and reaffirm the UK’s place in Europe. He achieved the reverse and destroyed his premiership in the process.

The Leave vote was not only a revolt against EU membership but an expression of profound economic and social discontent: the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since records began and a precipitous decline of trust in national institutions and in elites. But Brexit is a false panacea. Based on the government’s own forecasts, economic growth under Boris Johnson’s deal would slow, with GDP 6.7 per cent lower by 2034 than if the UK remained in the EU, while new trade deals with the US and others would add no more than 0.6 per cent.

The Prime Minister, who previously vowed never to tolerate the creation of a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, achieved his Brexit deal only by breaking his word once more. In doing so, he has strengthened the case for Scottish independence and imperilled the Union.

But as Tony Blair argues in his interview with Alona Ferber on page six of our Spotlight supplement, Remainers have to “face up to one simple point: we lost”. The democratic case for respecting the Leave vote was only strengthened by the Conservatives’ landslide victory at the general election.

Brexit, however, has not changed the geopolitical realities the UK must confront: the EU, for all its defects and limitations, is Britain’s largest trading partner and the only transnational regional power bloc with the capability to challenge the US and China. As Mr Johnson will soon discover, there is no attractive alternative to sustained engagement with the EU. Brexit is not the end of, or even the answer to, the European question. 

The liberation of Auschwitz

Monday 27 January was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – the largest Nazi concentration camp – in 1945. Writing soon after those events, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe – as death became the fundamental problem after the last war”.

But as those who bore witness to the evils of Nazi extermination pass away, the experience of that terrible period in European history risks disappearing with the last generation of survivors. At a time of ethno-nationalist recidivism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories and outright anti-Semitism across Europe, we must continue to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to present and future generations, and remain vigilant against the return of the evil of anti-Semitism. 

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out

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