Brexit is a culture war with economics as collateral damage

Securing any EU trade deal and regional development in the UK are steep challenges

My first post-Brexit column. A business column focused on economics, with a smattering of finance. Topics that seem quaint, perhaps beside the point. The UK's departure from the EU is the outcome of a cultural – tribal – battle where victory was total. Despite rhetoric about healing, coming together and closure, there were no efforts to reach out to the defeated. Division remains as deep as it is wide.

The culture war is metastatic. The BBC is doomed. What happens next will be regrettable, but the BBC itself is partly to blame. Its flagship programmes pushed "false equivalence" to an absurdity while facilitating the extremism that the balance was supposed to avoid. BBC Question Time long ago became a game show. It's modern incarnation provides perverted voyeurism for those who like to watch intellectually challenged people yelling half-formed prejudices at each other. Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh missed a trick.

Brexit's economic consequences won't matter. The first order of business is banishment from the headlines. Now that it's done, Boris Johnson has declared Brexit to be non grata.

Brexiteers acknowledge that the car industry, if not all manufacturing, will be run down. Gove, Javid and Johnson have told British business to get ready for border checks. The chancellor tells companies they have had years to “‘get ready for it”. Nobody, including Gove, Javid or Johnson, displays any sign of knowing what “it” actually is.

They say they want a Canada-style free trade agreement. The EU explains, repeatedly, how Canada is different from the UK. But both sides are incentivised to do a deal this year and the Canadian option can be adapted.

The only realistic possibility is a simple, limited, trade agreement. The EU won’t even go that far unless the British concede on “level-playing-field rules”, fish and European Court of Justice involvement. Far too many concessions for the Brexit ultras. But for Johnson?

Groundhog Day: no-deal threats are being ramped up. The previous “offer” of zero tariffs on EU imports in the event of no-deal has disappeared. Instead, businesses are told of extensive border controls in the event of no agreement. The message is simple: “Brexit means obstacles to free trade with the EU. We will let you know how bad they will be.”

Once, this would have generated headlines. Today it gets hardly a mention. Brexit is a culture war in which the economy takes acceptable collateral damage.

Railway plans

Johnson’s other objective, “levelling up”, will be tricky to deliver. Railways are at the heart of plans for the north of England. A £100 billion-plus railway line – HS2 – will be the first of many infrastructure projects aimed at the great levelling. A decision is imminent. HS2’s routing close to Coventry suggests one thing in common with Brexit.

Regional development is something many countries have failed to achieve. Not for want of effort or money. When the economic rationale for a town disappears, it’s hard to recreate it, at least by diktat. Regeneration happens, but usually only via a fleeting relationship with policy. They say they want to level up, but damage to London may be the only result. They will nevertheless declare victory.

A federal UK – devolved power –- is necessary for economic development. Perhaps necessary to keep the union together. Federalism has its own acronym, one that probably spells its doom: FUK.

Scotland's dilemma is that it wants nothing to do with English nativism but knows that the economic costs of Brexit provide a stark lesson about the consequences of going it alone. Hence, Scotland is split.

Notions about British tolerance, English diffidence, decency and pragmatism, painted a picture of exceptionalism. That’s gone. It was an Orwellian conceit. The English are no different to the rest of us. That, I think, is the biggest lesson of Brexit.

Labour fantasies

Orwell’s words from 1946 sum up Brexit: “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The left never forgave Orwell for being right about Russia. Echoes of those fantasies are seen in Labour's official exoneration of Corbyn's electoral evisceration. It was all the voters' fault. Labour is preparing the ground for the next defeat, the next mistake by the electorate, in four or five years' time. That's important: a two or three-term Johnson administration.

Will reality intrude? Remainers say Brexiteers now own the consequences. This is naive. Throwing sand in the wheels of the UK’s trade with the EU will cost jobs, tax revenues and much else besides. Britain will either be poorer or much poorer. The important half of the UK couldn’t care less.

Analysis reveals that "voting Leave is associated with older age, white ethnicity, low educational attainment, infrequent use of smartphones and the internet, receiving benefits, adverse health and low life satisfaction", Eleonora Alabrese, Sascha Becker, Thiemo Fetzer and Dennis Novy report in Who Voted for Brexit? (European Journal of Political Economy, 2019). This study is one of many that all reach similar conclusions. Merely quoting facts such as these is no longer permissible in the culture war. Equally unacceptable is to point out that the legitimate grievances of the typical Leave voter will not be addressed by Brexit.