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An optimist's guide to Brexit

Remainers are paralysed by fear of leaving the EU. But it offers huge opportunities for change, on both left and right.

This article is from the New Statesman's Christmas issue. Take advantage of our special offers and get a subscription for yourself or a loved one this Christmas.

You hear it in the dingy corners of a crumbling Westminster Palace, at discreetly expensive restaurants and in noxious, Christmas-festooned pubs. You hear it from former prime ministers and lowly special advisers, and even from foreign leaders.

“Brexit will not happen.” It cannot actually happen. Parliament, we are told, will force the deluded people to come to their senses, aided by the judiciary and big business. If the people have made a mistake, then can they not be shown the latest economic forecasts and be obliged, somehow, to think again?

With respect to all involved, and – briefly – to adopt the demotic of Boris Johnson, this must be cobblers. If parliament asked the people of the UK to vote on a subject of such huge importance; and if, after exhaustive and exhausting debate, they made their decision, by a clear majority; and if they were then told that it wasn’t going to happen, or at least not without a second vote, the glossy fabric of British democracy would be ripped to shreds. Frankly, I dread to think what would follow.

It is time to think differently. Brexit is coming, and relatively soon. We have to assume that the UK will be outside the EU within two and a bit years. An entirely new chapter in our politics will then begin. Yet most of the British political class is so battered and demoralised by the Brexit decision that they cannot take what is likely at face value, and start to chart how they intend to reshape a country that has much more power over its own governance.

This is odd; and it is a dangerous wasted opportunity. Parliamentary power, expan­ded and reinforced, gives new opportunities to both the left and the right to change Britain. Rather than being paralysed by fear, we ought to be on the lip of a great invigoration of our democracy. Yet hardly anyone seems to be talking about the new agendas that are opening up.

On the left, this may reflect a terror that leaving the EU will inevitably result in a slaughter of regulations and a Hobbesian global-trade state, in which workers’ rights and environmental protection will go by the board. On the right, the lack of imagination about what, after all, so many people have been campaigning for, and for so long, is stranger still. It mostly adds up to a vague feeling that there will be less “meddling” and that the pungent odours of the 1950s – coal-smoke, hand-knitted woollen jumpers, bleach – will magically reappear.

Yet we are not going to be a different people. The instincts of the British electorate haven’t suddenly changed during 2016. It’s unlikely that we will veer enthusiastically back to the distant pre-European-migration past, or cast aside liberal and environmental ways of thinking that have become valuable to us in recent decades. For left and right alike, this is going to be a time of fresh, vivid and urgent debate.

We have to start, of course, with trade. Through the thick miasma of official waffling, some things are already becoming clearer. We will be out of the single market and will be out of a customs union – because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to negotiate our own trade agreements around the world. Theresa May would hardly have created a new Department for International Trade if she intended it to have no purpose.

Yet the pressure from business and industry for access to European markets is also such that her government is going to have to offer Europe a deal on the movement of workers. The logical conclusion is that we will see sector-by-sector agreements to allow in X thousand electricians, or Y thousand careworkers, with industry bodies given coupons by the government and allowed to issue the work visas they require. This is the kind of thing that might allow EU leaders to grant low-tariff or tariff-free access to some markets, and stave off a downward economic lurch.

What it will also involve, obviously, is a higher level of continued movement from the EU into the UK than many Brexit voters expect. But the government will honourably be able to claim that it has “taken back control”. It will allocate the numbers coming in, giving it more direct influence on business and industry generally. As was hinted at with the early deal with Nissan, the change could prompt a move towards more physical manufacturing, at the expense of the service sector.

This is something politicians have been talking about since the 1970s, from Harold Wilson to George Osborne, to relatively little effect. After the deindustrialisation and Big Bang of the Thatcher/Geoffrey Howe era, our economy has drifted steadily further into financial services. We have been arguing, increasingly bitterly, about some of the consequences: the huge rewards for a small minority of bankers; the lack of German-style support for industrial manufacturing and the consequent lack of jobs for people who want to work with their hands; and the increasing imbalance in wealth and power between the metropolis and the Midlands.

 

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Some of the measures the left would like to take to support and protect the steel industry, or engineering, or to enhance our growing advantage in robotics, are made impossible not by British Conservatives, but by EU regulations on competitiveness and state funding. Make no mistake: an awful lot is back in play. Rail renationalisation, for one, despite the announcement this month about franchising of train tracks.

It is true that a Brexit deal that secured the interests of British carmakers while failing to secure the City’s “passporting rights” – so leading to a haemorrhage of financial institutions to Frankfurt, Dublin or Paris – would be extremely painful for the Treasury and the British state. Indeed, whether or not Brexit can be made to work financially will depend to a large extent on our ability to strike an early UK-US trade agreement that allows Britain to sell its service sector into the American market. Otherwise, the loss of tax revenues would be something the rest of us would have to make up, and austerity would be extended to cover a screeching handbrake-turn for the economy. Philip Hammond’s pallor is scary enough as it is, thank you very much.

Looking further ahead, however, manufacturing is already being transformed with new materials and 3D printing; there is no longer any reason to assume an endless downward spiral. The prospect of a new industrial policy is, in a sense, being forced upon Britain by the Brexit vote, but that is good news, not bad news: it ought to produce the most vigorous and excited debate.

Shrewder politicians on the left and right are already thinking about the opportunities raised by new trade agreements. Leading Tories see deals with poorer countries leading to cheaper clothing and food imports than we have now. Many EU trade deals with developing countries don’t include services because they don’t matter so much to other EU member states; they can now be extended to benefit us.

On the other side of the fence, Labour’s Brexit committee has been looking at how the left might develop a critique of global­ism. Part of this could involve the trade treaties to come so that they include environmental and worker protection clauses (and, indeed, human rights provisions) alongside agreements on tariffs.

Those involved, such as John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner, are discussing how a future Labour government could use British corporate expertise to leverage deals that are both progressive and expand trade. The Scotch whisky industry wants lower tariffs for the Indian market, for instance, but also boasts immense expertise on water quality, a big issue for Narendra Modi’s government. Are there more creative and imaginative agreements to be struck between Britain and India post-Brexit?

Defence is another significant area that will change. We remain, of course, in Nato and we should stop trying to hector the remaining EU countries about their own defence arrangements. But with Donald Trump in the White House, Nato will feel very different and with Putin’s Russia pushing hard, an independent UK will need to think about defence afresh. Now that even senior members of the defence establishment privately accept that Trident is old technology and increasingly vulnerable to satellites and drones, we ought to be having a big debate about what kind of defence we need and where our deeper interests lie (Estonia? Turkey?). What once was unthinkable no longer is.

Given that Britain, with GCHQ, is already a world leader in cyber security, we may well decide to ditch nuclear submarines in favour of a vast increase in intelligence. It is very unlikely, as the world gets more dangerous, that we will be able to spend less on defence. There won’t be a “No to nukes, Yes to better childcare” option of the kind the left would feel comfortable with. Our armed forces won’t be cheap but they will be very different; and yet politicians have so far said almost nothing about this. We have had a deep-frozen defence debate for years; it’s time for that to change.

The same kind of profound changes will be available in foreign policy. Able to act independently, Britain can forge a different policy for the Middle East; we can make our own policy on human rights in China, too. After Brexit, we should see a return to something like health for the ignored and enfeebled Foreign Office.

All of this, however, is only the beginning. The range of domestic policies that can now be thoroughly altered is breathtaking, covering everything from the funding of schools to forestry to employment rights. One area with scope for change is agriculture, which has been deeply enmeshed in EU lawmaking policy covering everything from the size of hedgerows and gates to inspection regimes for various kinds of farm, all tied to the doling out of subsidies from urban voters. Whatever version of Brexit is finally agreed, it seems inconceivable that farmers won’t want the best possible access to European markets for their meat, cereals and even wine. Consequently, any new inspection and hygiene regime will have to be at least as good (and therefore as intrusive) as the one we have now.

There are many other possibilities, though not all farmers will be pleased to hear about them. A different subsidy regime could tilt away from the largest landowners, who are already wealthy, to give extra support to struggling family farms and hill farmers – the kind the urban public most often admires and supports. (Cue howls of outrage from the Lords.)

We could have new laws to encourage the replanting of hedgerows and coppices, to protect our endangered birdlife. Some interesting work on forestry futures has been done by the government’s natural capital committee. Across the UK, only 6 per cent of our economy is low-carbon, but that has produced 30 per cent of growth over the past three years. Our island ecosystem is European but also subtly different, and we can handcraft legislation to reflect that.

Or, if we choose to accept that we are now an essentially urban country, a future government could tear up restrictions on housebuilding and urban sprawl and give the green light for widespread planting of genetically modified crops. At its most extreme, it could stop subsidising farming altogether, arguing that we already import most of our food, and that limited countryside space may be needed more for housing and recreation. Whether you think that’s a clever idea, or likely to lead to hideous shredding of communities, at least it’s a choice that will soon become available.

Environmental policy could be another area of change, though we are highly unlikely to follow Donald Trump’s lead and ditch all our green commitments. The big choices on energy policy will be the same outside the EU as inside: carbon emissions are now dealt with by a global treaty. Post-Brexit, are we going to opt for a somewhat less secure or safe nuclear industry? I rather doubt it.

In practice, we are becoming a more environmentally sensitive culture. It is hard to see a future government loosening laws on restricting airborne pollution from industrial plants, or on the disposal of chemical and electrical goods. Even the most right-wing Conservative administration is unlikely to make it easier to open new landfill sites or dispose of chemicals into rivers or near beaches.

Are we likely to want to reverse the effects of the EU’s Birds Directive? On the contrary, after Brexit, I would expect great British organisations such as the RSPB and the National Trust to become bigger voices in the national debate. In most of these areas, the freedom for manoeuvre will enable us to bring in better and tighter regulations, based on the needs of our own wildlife and landscape. At the very least, we can now look forward to arguments about pollution, waste and the proper protection of the landscape becoming fiercer than ever.

Coastal communities could be transformed by our leaving the EU. Old fishing towns have lost out to the growth in big corporate fleets, often owned by non-British companies, scooping up and processing the fish offshore. Gutting, smoking and the rest of preparation is no longer done around the ports and much of the “under ten” (smaller boats less than ten metres long) has vanished. All of this can be reversed.

Much of the EU regulation on fishing is designed to prevent overfishing and to protect stocks from spread of disease, particularly on fish farms. So unless we decided to overfish our own waters brutally, a quickly self-defeating policy – or unless we don’t care about exporting seafood – the space for expansion would seem limited. We could, however, go in entirely the other direction and introduce more stringent safety and hygiene rules, so that our exports would be particularly valued. Thinking bigger, there is now nothing to stop us creating our own extensive undersea conservation areas. Environmentalists are worried about the effects of bottom trawling on the North Sea. We could fish less, not more.

 

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On the other side of the world, the New Zealand government is creating the Kermadec underwater conservation park, a thousand kilometres north-east from the country’s shores. It will be an enormous area where all fishing as well as oil and gas exploration will be banned. New Zealand has shown that by putting “Keep Out” signs on significant parts of the ocean, it can even replenish fish stocks and biodiversity faster than scientists once thought possible. Could we do the same up here? The North Atlantic is a very different environment from the North Pacific, but a future British government could take a more assertive approach to underwater conservation. Whether or not it pleases pro-Brexit fishermen, it could prove a far-sighted environmental policy.

Those are just a few thoughts. There are probably many other areas where we will see a revived policy debate. Once we have control over VAT rates, and indeed the ability to create our own purchase tax, we can do away with absurdities such as taxes on tampons, and craft a tax system to encourage and discourage different kinds of spending – say, differential rates for high-sugar products, or special tariffs on electronic products that are hard to recycle. Why not?

There’s going to be a vigorous argument about all of that. But that is exactly my point. Almost without notice or comment, British politics has developed its own dependency culture, losing self-confidence about important changes of direction. Because of “Brussels”, politicians and civil servants have become a bit “computer says no”, taking it as the first principle that we can’t do this, we can’t do that. We can’t protect industries. We can’t really change economic direction. We can’t create new industrial hubs. We can’t change policy for the countryside. Well, now we can.

The defeated centre has spent a lot of time since the referendum asking whether the Great Disaster was “really” all about ingrained racism, fear of the modern world or media manipulation. Wouldn’t it be healthier to decide that the Leave side’s victory was about what it said on the tin – reclaiming political control – and then ask ourselves what we can now do with that extra freedom?

For all of us who believe in British democratic culture, there can be exciting times ahead. The winds of change can be invigorating, not simply bloody cold. 

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016