Six years after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom is being forced to confront an inconvenient truth: Brexit is a process, not an event. It is emphatically not done. Only now are the consequences of the “oven-ready deal” of which Boris Johnson boasted becoming clear. Having forced the creation of a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister is now mounting a futile protest against his own actions. The UK’s economy, meanwhile, is forecast by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to grow more slowly next year than that of any other developed country except Russia.
Yet in spite of this, a strange conspiracy of silence pervades British politics. The Tories seldom mention Brexit other than to boast that it has been done; Labour seldom mentions Brexit because it does not want to be charged with devising an alternative or accepting the truth that many of its former voters in the Red Wall chose to leave.
Labour will not support rejoining the single market at the next general election (this would entail the return of free movement), let alone the EU. To this extent, the Europe question is settled. Even the traditionally Europhile Liberal Democrats, who campaigned at the 2019 general election to revoke the referendum result, recognise that reversing Brexit is at best a “long-term” aspiration.
Instead, the most distinctive critique of Mr Johnson’s trajectory has come from the free-market right. As Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, writes on page 18, “For the Brexit revolutionaries, the problem with Johnson is not that his Brexit is ‘soft’: it’s that he is not using it to create the kind of small-state, low-tax nirvana that some Leavers demand.”
Conservatives such as the former Brexit negotiator David Frost complain that they have been left with a Tory version of social democracy. British public spending, which has risen under Johnson, is forecast to reach its highest sustained level since the 1970s (settling at around 41 per cent of GDP). Over the same period, the tax burden is due to reach its highest rate since the late 1940s (36.3 per cent). Meanwhile, the government has reaffirmed its pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
This is not the post-Brexit agenda that the free-market right wanted. But the delusion was to believe that they were ever likely to triumph. Far from being a vote for a smaller state, Brexit was, if anything, a vote for a larger one, and an expression of mass disaffection. The Leave campaign thrived by promising an extra £350m a week for the ultimate monument to postwar social democracy, the National Health Service. Its injunction to “take back control” appealed to those alienated by market-driven globalisation and unsettled by uncontrolled migration.
Mr Johnson, for all his faults, understood this better than most. His ultimate loyalty is to his own advancement; he was never likely to lead a free-market revolution for which polls suggest there is almost no public appetite. As John Gray writes on page 38, “If they had been rational, Thatcherite free marketeers would have supported Remain. Shaped over past decades into a neoliberal structure in which flows of capital and labour have been removed from political control, the EU is the biggest free market in the world.”
But it does not follow that Brexit will deliver a counter-Thatcherite revolution. Public spending and taxes are rising – largely because of long-term factors such as an ageing population – but there is no move to reverse the ideological legacy of the 1980s: privatisation, deregulation and anti-trade union laws. Indeed, under pressure from his party’s right, Mr Johnson is trying to revive old favourites such as the Right to Buy.
Rather than an economic model, the UK has only a muddle: a strange cocktail of social democracy and neoliberalism. Having left the single market, Britain has devised nothing resembling an alternative growth model, save for the delusion that trade deals with the rest of the world will compensate.
The most decisive action taken by Keir Starmer has been to jettison the majority of the alternative policy programme on which he was elected Labour leader after the party’s epic defeat in December 2019. He may yet win power, but he shows no interest in resetting Britain’s economic model. Rather than resolving the UK’s contradictions, Brexit has merely sharpened them.
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working