Britain suffers the Brexit blues

Published by The i paper (27th November, 2017)

‘The eyes of the world are upon us,’ declared Theresa May in her Florence speech two months ago as she sought to wrestle back control of her government. If only that were true. Instead, most of the planet is simply mystified by Britain’s withdrawal from our key European partnership. People are left puzzled why a place famed for pragmatic good sense has fallen for fairy tales, shrugging their shoulders as they observe a country that seems to be having some form of collective breakdown.

Brexit was promoted as a project of national renewal, a nostalgic appeal to reviving past glories. Even now, despite alarming lack of clarity on how to solve complexities of withdrawal, those daring to point out deficiencies in this daft idea get accused of ‘talking Britain down’. This is gross hypocrisy given damage wreaked by charlatans behind this disastrous rupture. Slowly but surely, the clouds are clearing to expose their dismal lies as billions are put aside that could otherwise have been spent on hard-pressed public services promised a financial boost. Go whistle indeed.

Perhaps the most pernicious impact is to see Brexit hasten national diminishment, for all that jingoistic rhetoric of restoring pride and ‘let the lion roar’. Yes, a slide in global standing is inevitable for a post-colonial power in this rapidly changing world. Indeed, it is to Britain’s immense credit that over recent decades the country staved off decline and developed into such a soft power force. There are many reasons for this, foremost among them being an open stance adopted amid globalisation – one reason to be so dismayed by a vote last year fuelled by fear and nationalism.

Now look at events last week. It began with London losing two institutions – won by previous Conservative prime ministers – to rival cities as the European Medicines Agency went to Amsterdam and European Banking Authority to Paris. Britain tried arguing that their future should be part of trade negotiations – but as the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier responded, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ It is not just the loss of 1,050 jobs that is damaging. Some 36,000 officials and scientists visit the medical agency alone each year so this hurts airlines, hotels, restaurants and taxi firms.

Then came the budget. There was much attention on the politics swirling around a beleaguered chancellor but the economics was grim with faltering national growth, flatlining real incomes and sluggish productivity. Yet as we slash growth forecasts thanks to Brexit, our biggest trading partner – from which we are seeking to detach ourselves – is expanding at fastest pace for a decade. Note how Philip Hammond had to refer to ‘the world’s sixth largest economy’ since Britain has been overtaken by France. This gap between our two economies is expected to grow next year.

These figures impact on pay and public services, highlighting how that mendacious populism ends up hurting struggling communities promised salvation. Much of the impact will be hard to pin directly on Brexit, of course, such as when firms opt to build plants elsewhere or the best brains relocate. Yet last week two UK-based marine insurers established subsidiaries in Ireland as politicians bickered over borders and deals, while one of the country’s top science universities said it was already losing staff due to our looming European Union departure.

Brexiteers will blame others for their selfish failure. Meanwhile India’s economy is predicted to leapfrog Britain and France soon in another sign of fast-shifting global dynamics. This news comes after India defeated Britain in a battle for a place on the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ensuring we are without a judge on this key world court for the first time in its 71-year history. The reasons were complex, including contempt for our demeaning foreign secretary Boris Johnson – but Brexit was seen as a key factor in desertion by traditional allies.

Permanent members of the security council tend to win such fights, despite growing resentment at their power. But this is the second recent blow to British prestige at the United Nations after a motion questioning our legal hold over the Chagos Islands was referred to the court. These are warning symbols of waning influence amid signs that European allies feel no need to back an isolationist nation. ‘Call it poetic justice or payback for imperialism,’ crowed one Indian commentator. ‘After the Brexit referendum, the UK is internationally at its weakest position in decades.’

As former head of the Foreign Office Sir Simon Fraser says, it is hard to think of a major foreign policy issue that Britain has really influenced since the referendum. And that was before the department’s budget was, astonishingly, almost halved by Hammond despite spending more on a winter fuel allowance for old folks than the entire foreign office. While ministers bleat about ‘global Britain’, they will blow ten times more on aid than is spent on diplomacy and promotion of national interests.

The ICJ contest also exposed British reluctance to confront a strong nation such as India with whom we need a post-Brexit trade deal. Yet we export more to Belgium alone than to India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa combined. In the aftermath of their triumph, however, Indian diplomats insisted any agreement must include looser immigration controls on their citizens. It would be funny if it was not so tragic.

Brexit is enfeebling our nation while failing to achieve proclaimed goals. That was just one more week in a national fiasco that will leave Britain poorer, less powerful and more isolated. Far from letting the British lion roar, the Brexiteers have merely ended up pulling out its teeth and ensuring our country loses its bite in the world.

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