The revenge of the UK electorate for Brexit will be brutal

A year ago Britain seemed like a stable, tolerant, reasonably well-run place. Not anymore

Nobody has ever fully explained Europe to the British people, which is one reason why so many do not like it.  Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Nobody has ever fully explained Europe to the British people, which is one reason why so many do not like it. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

 

A year ago, I had a column ready ahead of the Brexit referendum result, assuming, like the opinion polls and the bookies, that a vote to Remain was a done deal.

A hasty rewrite, first considered after the results emerged from Sunderland and then put together in the early hours of the morning of June 24th, was typed in a state of shock.

Concerns about the economic impact of Brexit had certainly been overdone by “Project Fear”, but the direction of travel was and is clear: it isn’t going to be good.

But my shock was provoked by much more than the economic and financial consequences. The result sent all kinds of messages, some rather subtle and subliminal, others delivered like a punch in the face.

Brexit revealed several faultlines running through the UK. Many of us used to believe that quintessential British values include tolerance, openness and, most importantly, a deep distrust of ideologues of both left and right.

This core sense of who we are has been tested, perhaps to destruction, by what happened a year ago; the political, social and economic storms that the referendum unleashed are still raging.

Centre ground

The capture of both the Labour Party and the Conservatives by their respective hard left and right wings risks the destruction of the political centre ground.

Brexit was also a cultural statement, an explicit rejection of global citizenship

Irish observers would do well ponder the similar evisceration of moderate, centrist parties that has taken place in Northern Ireland. It can and does happen, with predictably awful consequences.

Brexit was also a cultural statement, an explicit rejection of global citizenship, as British prime minister Theresa May made threateningly clear when she gave her “citizens of nowhere” speech last year.

It is utterly self-absorbed, setting the UK’s face against the rest of the world while at the same time searching desperately for a time machine to transport us back to the 1950s. Things, apparently, were much better back then.

We know something about why people voted the way they did. The old, uneducated and unemployed elected to leave. So did a lot of uneducated rich people. London voted overwhelmingly to remain; Wales, astonishingly, did not.

A simple “Yes” or “No” referendum at the end of a bitter debate did not sit well with a complicated set of issues with which few politicians seemed willing or able to engage.

Not a strong suit

Europe is about history, much more than it is about economics. And that’s something that few inhabitants of Westminster are interested in. History is not a strong suit of the Brexiteers.

Europhile UK politicians – like ex-chancellor Ken Clarke – have always pretended that the EU is just a free trade area. Clarke is smart and knows full well that economics is almost incidental to the EU’s raison d’etre.

But nobody has ever fully explained Europe to the British people, which is one reason why so many do not like it. Whatever it is that the EU stands for has been well hidden from the UK electorate.

The British did not, and do not like the implicit dishonesty. Until Europe figures all this out, the “democratic deficit” will remain a troubling faultline – and not just for the British.

The British consumer and corporate sector ignored the referendum result, at least until recently

Many of us accepted Project Fear’s economic forecasts, believing that a Leave vote would prompt an immediate post-referendum recession. It did not, shredding the little remaining reputation of economists.

How did we get it so wrong? The simple answer is that the British consumer and corporate sector ignored the referendum result, at least until recently. Sterling, of course, did fall.

Keep on spending

Economists did not see the possibility that British shoppers would keep on spending after a Brexit vote, but they should have. Those same economists probably cut back on their own outlays.

However, they forgot that if a majority of the electorate got what they wanted – the UK’s departure from the EU – then by definition they were unlikely to become depressed about it.

The final shoe to drop is probably close and will be heard when unemployment starts to rise

In fact, British consumers felt optimistic enough to run down their savings at a faster rate than pre-referendum. But this is where the baby got thrown out with the bathwater; economics is actually quite good at saying what will happen but extremely poor at saying when. Now, finally, the economy is slowing, house prices probably falling and rising inflation is eroding real incomes. The final shoe to drop is probably close and will be heard when unemployment starts to rise. That’s a vista too awful to contemplate for Tories pondering the likelihood of another election some time over the next year or two. The revenge of the electorate will be brutal during an economic slowdown.

A year ago Britain still seemed like a stable, tolerant, reasonably well-run place. All has now changed utterly, perhaps for a long time. The political situation is a mess and economic policy is unanchored – what is to replace the “no alternative to austerity” mantra of the last decade? And now the Brexit negotiations start with open warfare, yet again, between the two camps of the Tory party.

Theresa May promised a “strong and stable” government – and has delivered precisely the opposite.

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