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Brexit: can’t get over it, won’t get over it

October 12, 2016

I’ve tried and I’ve tried. But I cannot and will not get over it. Any more than I will drive over a cliff despite the warning signs because Satnav told me to.

Four months on from the EU referendum, if it’s not now clear to a majority of people in Britain that Brexit is a bad idea, it will not be so until it’s too late for the government to do anything about it. This is not to say that the concerns of those who voted to leave are invalid. But it should be pretty obvious by now that the anger of the electorate is directed at the wrong place. The European Union is not responsible for our under-investment in South Wales and the North East. It’s not responsible for our failure to provide adequate housing, education and health services to a growing population.

These problems can be laid partly on the doorstep of successive British governments, and partly on factors beyond the control of any single government or political bloc. The European Union, flawed though it is, is a convenient scapegoat for British politicians who want divert attention from the consequences of the policies they have implemented over the past thirty years.

The EU did not force us to rely on the City of London for economic growth at the expense of engineering, manufacturing and technology. It didn’t create seventy-odd new universities without sufficient thought as to how those institutions were to be funded, and without reference to the skills that the country actually needed.

It didn’t build a massive set of parallel bureaucracies in the National Health Service at the expense of patient care on the principle of market-driven reform. It didn’t demand that we tinker with our primary and secondary education systems with a frequency that has left our teachers bewildered and demotivated.

And it didn’t insist that we allow hundreds of thousands of non-EU workers to enter the country – either to study (thereby propping up our cash-strapped universities) or to make good urgent skill shortages in organisations such as the NHS.

Now we learn from no less a source than the Treasury, an arm of the British government, that the version of Brexit that the same government has in mind will cost us as much as £66 billion a year in lost gross domestic product, more than eight times the amount of money saved by our leaving the EU. The Treasury made this prediction before the referendum, but, significantly, still stands by it today.

And what of the sovereignty we urgently wish to restore? The main bit of control we want to restore is not over the size of bananas, or even human rights law. It’s over immigration. This appears to be the objective of our new Prime Minister, who seems to have forgotten that her brief is now much wider than the Home Office.  It appears to be more important than membership of the Single European Market that accounts for 45% of our exports.

Despite the hot air rising from the Conservative Party conference a couple of weeks ago, I have a message for the doctors, nurses, care-home workers, scientists, bankers, software designers, baristas and fruit pickers who hold foreign passports and currently work in the United Kingdom. Don’t worry. You will still be needed here in ten years’ time.

Here are some reasons why.

Let’s start with the medics. Regardless of what sort of Brexit emerges at the other end of the coming negotiations – open, closed, hard, soft or plain suicidal – people will still get sick and die in increasing numbers. Demographics sees to that. More people are getting older every year.

What about the government’s plan to train more British doctors and claw back their training costs if they fail to complete a specified period working within the NHS, you might ask? It won’t work. People looking at a career in medicine will be put off by the prospect of what appears to be indentured labour. Already a large proportion of doctors are leaving medicine within a few years of qualifying. Junior doctors are no longer prepared to put up with the ordeal of endurance that has been part of the culture of British medicine since the foundation of the NHS. Measures that made their ridiculous working hours more meaningful – mentoring, for example – have disappeared in the welter of reorganisations that have taken place over the past two decades.

As for the scientists and engineers, even the hard Brexit supporters accept that we will need to import foreign expertise long after Brexit becomes a reality. Likewise the IT specialists. All assuming, of course, that the employers  – many of which are foreign-owned – of these skilled individuals don’t decide that it’s simply too much hassle to maintain workforces in such numbers in the UK because the government puts up too many barriers against their employment. An irony, considering that we’re leaving the EU because we’re fed up with its bureaucracy and red tape.

Even in the fields of Norfolk, is it really likely that our indigenous workforce, loaded up to the gunwales with degrees, diplomas and matching ambitions, will pick up the slack to replace the foreign fruit pickers? I don’t think so. At least not unless they’re paid considerably more than the living wage. Which will mean that the supermarkets will have the choice of paying our farmers more for the produce, or importing tariff-laden produce from the EU. In either case, we the consumers pay more, which we won’t be happy about, and in the latter case the farmers will simply go out of business, with the knock-on effect of depressing yet more areas of the country.

And finally consider the tens of thousands of foreign workers who look after our elderly up and down the country. The same scenario applies. Would we be able to replace them all with British workers? Not without a wage hike. How would our politicians react to old people’s homes going out of business up and down the country because either they can’t fill their vacancies or local councils refuse to pay the fee increases they would need to demand in order to remain sustainable?

So no, I won’t get over it, and neither should the 48% of the voters who elected to stay in the EU, not to mention a significant proportion of the Leave voters who were misled by opportunistic claims and who probably have now realised it. The people of Sunderland, for example, who voted to leave the EU and are now discovering that Nissan is reconsidering further investment in their local manufacturing plant.

At the very least, the government should test the will of Parliament by putting the decision to invoke Clause 50 to the test. There are enough MPs of all political stripes who oppose Brexit to bring the whole project crashing down. Whether they have the courage to do so is another matter. At whatever stage, the most important measure since our entry to the market must be subject to Parliamentary endorsement. If our MPs have the right to debate and vote down the annual budget, why should they not have the right to scrutinise the consequences of an advisory referendum, and ultimately the terms of Brexit?

I’m not saying that leaving the EU might not work out in the long run. No doubt we can and will muddle through. But it’s no less a colossal risk now than it was at the time of the referendum. And if we ignore the very obvious pitfalls and unknowns, and jump blindly into the void, those who allowed it to happen will pay for it with the destruction of their careers, and we, the voters, will live with the consequences for decades ahead.

It is not petulant or grumpy – or whatever other epithet the “get over it” merchants use to describe people like me who profoundly oppose Brexit – to continue to speak up against what we believe is a horrendous mistake. Nor, as the UK Daily Mail suggests in one of its more virulent editorials (Whinging. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British People), are those who urge a re-think “sore losers”. The referendum was not a contest intended to produce winners and losers. It was a debate involving many shades of opinion and political allegiance on a matter of fundamental national importance. The debate was deeply flawed, and was subject to shameless manipulation by politicians and other public figures who should have known better.

My voice is not loud. I have no axe to grind. I have little to lose materially whether or not we leave the EU – or at least little that I value. I won’t be around to see the long-term consequences. But my kids will, and so will my friends’ kids. I care about them, and about their future.

It’s not too late to call a halt to this madness. But the clock is ticking towards March 2017, when the government proposes to press the exit button. Time for the politicians to show some guts for a change, methinks.

2 Comments
  1. Excellent. Thank you Steve. You have eloquently described and annotated my own thoughts on this disaster.

  2. Thanks Abdullah. I’d love to think it could be stopped, but I fear too much political capital has been invested in the new status quo. Not over yet though. You might want to have a look at this piece written by a British lawyer: http://jackofkent.com/2016/10/why-the-article-50-case-may-be-the-most-important-constitutional-case-of-a-generation/ Very dispassionate (the opposite of me!) but very clear and well written. S

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