by Peter Kellner*
Any serious analysis of the UK’s current condition starts with Brexit; and so will the argument that follows. But, as we shall see, Britain’s problems don’t end there—and, indeed, didn’t begin there.
Seven years ago the most famous bus in Britain offered the hope of a brighter future. On its side, in massive letters, it proclaimed: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.”
The figure was nonsense, and exposed as such at the time. But as propaganda it was a complete success, and contributed to the 52-48 percent vote to leave the EU.
Today, buyer’s remorse has set in. The latest Ipsos poll finds that just 23 percent say Brexit has been good for Britain, while 54 percent say it has had a negative impact—the widest anti-Brexit margin yet. We should not be surprised. According to the latest research by the Centre for European Reform, an independent think tank, the UK’s economy is now 5.5 percent smaller than it would have been had the UK remained in the EU.
If that were the only drag on Britain’s economy, it would be bad enough. The problem is that it is not. Even if we add in the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, we still do not account fully for the problems facing families throughout the country.
The fundamental truth is that Britain was in trouble well before Brexit, Covid-19, or Ukraine. Consider this verdict from the OECD:
“The United Kingdom (UK) has spent less on infrastructure compared to other OECD countries over the past three decades. The perceived quality of UK infrastructure assets is close to the OECD average but lower than in other G7 countries. Capacity constraints have emerged in some sectors, such as electricity generation, air transport and roads.”
That judgement is not some post-Brexit, post-pandemic moan. It was published in 2015. It tells us not that a healthy economy has been suddenly wounded, but that Brexit has crippled a weak economy further. An analysis by the Financial Times, a paper not noted for left-wing hysteria, recently published a feature under the headline: “Is life in the UK really as bad as the numbers suggest? Yes it is.” Underneath was a secondary headline: “The past 15 years have been a disappointment on a scale we could hardly have imaged.”
The FT noted that “median incomes in the UK are well below those in places such as Norway, Switzerland or the US and well below the average of developed countries. Incomes of the poor, those at the 10th percentile, are lower in the UK than in Slovenia.” As the FT said of the mounting evidence that millions of families struggle to pay for the basics of everyday life, “this is not supposed to happen in one of the world’s richest countries.”
The most vivid stories of broken Britain come from the National Health Service (NHS)—the very institution that Brexit was supposed to save. Patients are waiting longer than ever for an ambulance. Waiting times for hospital operations are at an all-time high. While some of this is down to the pandemic, much isn’t. According to the OECD, Britain has fewer hospital beds than any other advanced country: 23 per 10,000 inhabitants, compared, for example, with 57 in France and 78 in Germany. Over the past decade, NHS spending has risen far more slowly than in the previous half-century; as with the number of hospital beds, it now lags well behind France and Germany.
And so on: other public services are also suffering, productivity is weak and living standards have stalled. Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s can recall economic problems of similar severity. Britain was known round the world as “the sick man of Europe.” But here’s the difference: then there was a continuous national debate about what to do about it—from the negotiations to join Europe’s Common Market at the start of the decade to Margaret Thatcher’s arrival as prime minister at its end. People and parties differed in their prescriptions; but at least there was broad agreement that Britain faced big problems that needed big solutions.
In as far as such debates are happening today, they are taking place on the fringes of our media and politics. Arguments about Britain’s relations with the EU are a case in point. Three successive prime ministers in the past twelve months have been unable to lift their heads above the narrow, if thorny, task of sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol. Appeasing a handful of right-wing Conservative members of parliament and the Democratic Unionist Party, which is supported by just one in five voters in Northern Ireland, takes precedence over any serious plan to fill the black hole in Britain’s economy that Brexit has caused.
Labour is in a different place, but not as different as most of its supporters would like. Before Brexit, Keir Starmer, the party’s leader, campaigned to keep Britain in the EU. Afterwards he backed a fresh referendum to try and reverse the result. Today, he wants “to make Brexit work.” Not only has he ruled out rejoining the EU, he says Labour would also stay out of the Single Market and Customs Union. He acknowledges that Brexit has damaged Britain’s economy, largely by ending friction-free trade between the UK and EU, but proposes a minimalist, step-by-step process of reengaging with the EU if he becomes prime minister.
The contrast could not be greater between the narrow vision of the leaders of both of Britain’s main party leaders, and the ambitions of Prime Minister Edward Heath fifty years ago—and other prominent figures such as Labour’s Roy Jenkins—to recast Britain’s place in Europe and the world.
Could this change? Britain’s next election is less than two years away. Starmer is odds-on to become prime minister. He has gained respect as an honest, caring leader who wants to work with business and revive Britain’s public services. Many in his party hope that his caution is designed to minimize controversy ahead of the election and that, once in power, he will be far bolder, on the EU and on many other things.
For the moment, however, and with the partial exception of climate change, the main actors in Britain’s national drama are engaged in small, scrappy arguments, frightened of large ideas that rise to the challenges the UK faces.
To be sure, there are worse forms of politics. Leaders with big visions are not always good for democracy—a lesson that twentieth century Europe taught us all so painfully. But just now, Britain has veered too far in the opposite direction.
*nonresident scholar at Carnegie Europe, with research focus on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu