It is now just over seven years since that fateful day, 23 June 2016, when Britain went to the polls in a referendum to decide whether the UK should stay in the EU. For weeks before that, I had stood in Parliament Street, York, handing out leaflets and arguing the case for Remain. Now, according to a YouGov poll, 55 % of British voters would vote to Remain compared to 31% who would now vote Leave.
The struggle to get in and the benefits of EU membership
I am old enough to recall the repeated refusal of the president of France, General Charles de Gaulle, to accept the UK’s membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) (in 1963 and again in 1967). The UK eventually joined in 1973 without a public vote, but the result of the subsequent 1975 referendum (under a Labour government) was conclusive: just over 67% of those who voted chose to support continued membership.
Clement Attlee regarded referenda as inimical to our democratic tradition, believing they undermined our system of parliamentary government. And parliament soon had qualms about the 1975 decision. From the 1980s onwards there was much disquiet about our continued membership of the ‘common market’ in both the Labour and Conservative parties.
It is undeniable, however, that common market membership brought the UK many advantages: tariff-free trade, generous subsidies for capital projects and European aid to deprived areas of the UK, free movement of people as well as cultural and educational exchanges. We were finally able to leave the 1970s behind, an era when the UK had been known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, with low levels of economic growth and high inflation.
So, what was not to like? To understand fully the opposition to the EU (as the bloc became known after the Maastricht treaty) we need to delve far back into British history. On the surface, opposition to Europe was based on feared loss of sovereignty, but this has echoes of earlier fears in our history going back to well before the Reformation.
Britain has always had chequered relations with Europe. Over the centuries, political and cultural developments have set us at odds in one way or another with many of our European neighbours. From medieval times, relations have been strained with our nearest neighbour, France. The Reformation set us at odds with Rome and Catholic Europe. The 16th century saw great fears over the threat of invasion from Spain. And, of course, there were the tensions with Germany and two world wars in the 20th century.
Geopolitically, languages and their associated cultures have presented huge barriers to deeper understanding between Britain and its European partners, and as the Times editor William Rees-Mogg pointed out in an article some years ago, it meant that Britain was culturally and psychologically, if not geographically, closer to the United States and other English-speaking nations of the Commonwealth.
Brexit damage and the trade deal myth
However, if we look at what Brexit has brought us there is not much reason to celebrate. The list is overwhelming: increased red-tape and compliance complexities, new non-tariff trade barriers that have hit exporters hard, political and economic problems with Northern Ireland (which were foreseen), frustration over the loss of educational and cultural ties with Europe, drainage of European doctors and nurses from the NHS, as well as loss of employees (and thus labour shortages) in other sectors of the economy, notably the agricultural and hospitality sectors.
Overall, the UK is now reckoned to be 5.5% economically poorer now than it would have been if it had stayed in the EU. Greater controls over immigration were promised during the Brexit campaign. Yet immigration from the EU was small in comparison with immigration from outside Europe, and such immigration continues to grow, despite government efforts to contain it.
Then there are the much-vaunted free-trade deals. The government’s own research indicates that three out of five (58%) of 3,000 companies surveyed now think that post-Brexit free-trade deals will have no positive impact on their business. And less than one third (31%) believe trade deals will have a positive effect, down from 33% the previous year.
Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor, blames Brexit for stubbornly huge UK inflation, which over the past 12 months has hovered around 10%, whereas in the EU the average inflation rate has been at least a couple of points lower over the same period. Labour shortages – in part at least driven by the inflexible post-Brexit labour market – have played their part in encouraging high wage demands which in turn have led to higher inflation.
The truth of the matter is that the British electorate were sold a chimera during the Brexit campaign. At least one of its champions, Boris Johnson, has been discredited as a politician, and at least one of the other major campaign players, namely Nigel Farage, has openly admitted that the implementation of Brexit has been a failure.
A soupçon of hope?
So, what of the future? At present, neither of the two major UK political parties has explicitly committed to holding a second referendum, though they may find that to do so in the next five years or so they would be pushing at an open door with the electorate.
The best we can hope for in the immediate months ahead is a government with a fresh mandate to nullify the most pernicious effects of Brexit. It can do so by attempting to forge new agreements with our EU partners, especially in the areas of more flexible labour mobility, reduction of commercial red tape, and continued improvements in cooperation on areas such as cross-border security and defence.
Whether you consider Brexit to be incomplete or a failure, it’s fast becoming a discredited word in many circles. There is a growing hope that Brexit isn’t here to stay.