Alex Phillips: We really need to talk about Brexit
Now the dust has settled, it's time to review if we really got what we voted for.
It was the battle that broke Britain. Who could have anticipated a referendum on whether or not to remain part of a trading block could elicit such passion, anger, resentment, tribalism, bitterness, division and hatred. At times, pure, unbridled, hatred. I should know!
Yes, there were vested interests at stake. Big business had spent the best part of half a century dealing with a one-stop-shop in Brussels, where a corporate cartel could rewrite continental-wide laws to serve their interests. Suddenly having the rug pulled from underneath them was unprecedented. And boy, did they let us know they weren’t happy!
Citizens, the vast majority of whom had never lived through even a day outside the EU in their lives, were warned of everything they were set to lose, the sense that a generation whose rights, privileges and accesses were being stolen by a belligerent underclass or arrogant politicians was palpable. Actual tears were wept as headlines spoke of catastrophic economic outcomes, blocks on travel, the end of study abroad programmes, massive roaming charges, the end of cheaper foreign workers, French wine, Dutch cheese, human rights, kids sent up chimneys, super STIs spreading across the land, racists running riot...the warnings only just stopped short of the sky falling in and imminent nuclear apocalypse.
Well, that hasn’t really happened, has it? Or has it? Perhaps the pandemic came at just the right time to mask major issues. A year when industry ground to a halt, when nobody could travel and borders were slammed shut, when across the world migrant workers fled for their homelands and Governments had to spend trillions bankrolling stuttering businesses. If these were to be the symptoms of Brexit, perhaps it helps that they were also the symptoms of worldwide lockdown.
Yet, perhaps begrudgingly, the mainstream media are now writing some success stories. A world leading vaccine rollout this side of the channel as the EU hardly showered themselves in glory with pushiness, protectionism, prickliness and petulance. Double the number of students enrolled on university exchange programmes, despite the pandemic, as the UK’s new global Turing scheme replaces the EU’s Erasmus, adding anglophone institutions across the world, taking the number of possible countries from 37 to 150. Massive injections of taxpayer cash incentivising the car industry to meet 21st century demands with electric battery mega factories, having been told it would all but collapse once just-in-time supply chains were disrupted. Academic collaboration on an entirely new, unparalleled level as grants are made available to leading scientists from every corner of the globe to pursue high risk, high reward innovations free of EU red tape, putting the UK at the forefront of experimentation, when we were told we would become but a blip on the academic horizon.
No equivalence with the EU in financial markets, threatening to drive thousands away from the City of London into the arms of a mediocre financial services sector hungrily waiting in Frankfurt, yet the reverse is starting to happen as the UK positions itself ready to pip Wall Street to top of the global pile.
But apart from some beautiful baubles for the Government to hang on the root and branch reform of self-determination the referendum promised, other issues have perhaps been hidden from view or clumsily kicked into the long grass with ramifications in train.
We never took back control of our waters, an oft made pledge by sou-wester donning MPs who haven't dared to set foot in a seaside town since. There are supply chain shortages, with migrant workers flocking back to their home countries at the start of lockdown and never returning. The lowest paid jobs are now having to put up salaries to eyewatering levels simply to attract the domestic workforce, a good thing if you’re a worker but bad news for employers, depending which way you look at the situation. The tatters of a brutal blackmail over Northern Ireland, as Boris’ oven-ready deal turned out to contain all the unhealthy ingredients and EU horsemeat he had vociferously opposed under his predecessor Theresa May, brushed under the carpet to manage at some point in the future, leaving the UK vulnerable to a mercurial EU’s demands under their cynically strategic sword of damocles.
For some, our regulatory orbit around Brussels is still too close, with an unbroken umbilical cord stretching across the channel that could easily be used to drag us back in.
The tabula rasa created by taking back control remains largely blank, other than a few optimistic scrawlings, with the rest of our independent future still to write. No Parliament can bind its successor and there are plenty of authors out there jostling to grab hold of the newly freed tiller to navigate the Good Ship Great Britain across the uncharted waters of her own destiny.
Did we get what we voted for? Will we get what we want? Or have cracks been papered over that only time will expose?
It’s a good moment to stop and take stock, and try to give an honest appraisal of the biggest moment in our nation’s recent history. Now the dust has settled and tempers cooled.
Today, we really need to talk about Brexit...