7 February 2017

Brexit: a sense of foreboding

Britain voted for Brexit in June 2016: eight months later we are still in the phoney war.

As a kid my grandmother and I often took the 113 bus home. I loved travelling on the upper deck of the red London bus. As we turned into Edgwarebury Lane, Granny and I had to prepare to get off, and she warned me, “Don’t stand up before we’ve turned the corner. You’ll fall.” Doubting the wisdom of Granny’s words, I stood up without holding on saying, “See, I didn’t fall.” “Yes,” said Granny, “but we haven’t turned the corner yet.”

Something like that is very much how I feel today about Brexit, the almost mindless amputation of the UK from the EU and the EFTA single market. Britain is going to a very lonely place, and while it is true that very little has happened in the phoney war so far - except for a rise in fear and a drop in the value of sterling - the gathering dark clouds are ominous.

Business will gravitate out of the UK to EU countries simply because it makes more sense to have easy access to hundreds of millions of workers and consumers than to sixty-five millions. The UK will respond by becoming an economic dependent on the US and accelerating towards a low-regulation, low-wage economy.

Who loses? Higher unemployment, lower pay, worse working conditions and poorer social provision will affect all working people. But non-British EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in other EU countries will face the brunt. At worst it means expulsion, creating the worst ethnic cleansing in Europe, Yugoslavia aside, since World War Two. At best four million people will experience discrimination and insecurity in their adopted homelands.

If the future beholds a toxic mix of ascendant xenophobic nationalism and economic dislocation, we have much to fear. Reassuring White Papers and statements by Tory ministers tell us what government wants and what they hope will happen. They might tell us, “Get over it,” but it hasn’t happened yet, and the pain is likely to be bigger and more long-lasting than we think.

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