Seven years ago, on June 23, 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. That departure didn’t happen until early 2020, and even now, Britain isn’t completely out.
That hints at the fundamental problem: Although a majority of British voters chose to leave the EU, a majority of British politicians—and an even larger majority of the British elite—did not.
As a result, the British system has fought Brexit tooth and nail.
Brexit was mostly an end in itself. It was about Britain recovering its sovereignty. The Left is happy to talk about the significance of defending Ukraine’s sovereignty versus Russia, but it regards defending Britain’s sovereignty as nonsense. Yet the principles are the same: If sovereignty is right for Ukraine (as it is), it’s right for Britain too.
Brexit wasn’t so much a policy as it was a demand that Britain have the right and the opportunity to make its own policies. It’s won that right—but Britain has to walk through the door on its own. So far, it mostly has failed to do so—and the policies it’s chosen mostly have been mistakes.
The reason for this is simple: The bad ideas that the British elite like aren’t limited to their love of the European Union, and leaving the EU has done nothing to end the elite’s support for those policies. And as those policies fail, the elite has seized the golden opportunity to blame its own failures on Brexit.
What you read about the United Kingdom in the American media—and for that matter, the British media—usually is sneeringly negative:
Britain has a growth problem: Brexit must be to blame. (Which makes me wonder why British journalist Gideon Rachman, one of Brexit’s most outspoken opponents, now points out the failure of the EU’s growth model. That makes leaving the EU sound like rather a good idea.)
Britain is suffering from “austerity,” and this is somehow related to Brexit. (Of all the claims, this is the silliest—the British government has spent at unprecedented rates since 2007, including during the so-called period of austerity under former Prime Minister David Cameron. The lowest point of spending under Cameron was the U.K.’s 13th-highest spending rate since 1949.)
Britain’s core economic problem—which is a lot like the core U.S. economic problem, and indeed the core European one—is that, under the Conservatives, Britain has focused since at least 2010 almost entirely on pumping up demand and building bigger government instead of improving the efficiency of supply.
Britain had lots of quantitative easing, otherwise known as free money. It failed to make it easier to build houses or factories. It subsidized homebuying and child care. It pumped money into an unreformed National Health Service. It locked down harder and longer during the pandemic than almost any other nation in the world. Its low unemployment masks a steady rise in disability payments.
And Britain has come to rely on high levels of low-skill immigration, which creates almost no growth per capita for the British people.
If you keep on pumping demand into a supply-constrained system, you are going to get shortages, inflation, and low growth. And that is precisely what Britain (and the U.S., and Europe) have got. Yes, there are shocks related to COVID-19 and Ukraine, but the shocks would hurt less if the system was more flexible.
Britain has left the European Union, but over the past 15 years, it’s mostly adopted the EU’s economic model—because that’s the model that Britain’s EU-loving elites prefer.
Britain has done a few things right. Under the leadership of former Trade Secretary (and former Prime Minister) Liz Truss, for example, it did a decent job of developing a new free-trade policy outside the EU. But Truss’ fall just illustrates the problem: When a nation can’t even talk about cutting taxes for fear of a market panic, it’s obviously spent too much money already.
Britain’s position today is a lot like the one it put itself in by the mid-1970s. From 1945 to 1975, Britain’s economic policy consisted of trying to have the best of all possible worlds—high growth, no inflation, no unemployment, low interest rates, high exports, a high and stable pound, and lots of state subsidies. But this was impossible, and by refusing to make hard choices and trying to do it all, Britain ended up doing nothing and having to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.
Conservatives knew by the early 1970s that this approach wasn’t working, but they didn’t have the courage to do anything about it—at least not for long. An effort to reverse course under Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath resulted in a rapid U-turn when the going got tough, followed by an election loss to the Labour Party. The parallels to Truss’ defeat and Labour’s current lead in the polls are all too obvious.
The opportunities of Brexit are still there. Britain can still ditch the European Union’s prescriptive regulatory system. It can adopt free trade in food. It can make it easier to build houses. It can get serious about immigration and stop pursuing growth at the expense of growth per capita.
Brexit itself was never an economic panacea. The EU contains both Germany and Greece—so being in the EU is compatible both with being prosperous and being a basket case. The EU does impose serious costs, but ultimately, countries in the EU (and out of it) make a good deal of their own economic weather. Brexit was (mostly) about freedom, not (primarily) about money.
But when you make as many mistakes as the Conservatives have done in government, you will reap the reward of your failures. Far from being one of those mistakes, Brexit was one of the few things the Conservatives—unwillingly, in many cases—have done to break away from the EU-style economic model that Britain has come to embrace.
And that’s why Brexit draws the blame from supporters of that economic model. The alternative is to admit that they have been at the wheel for well over a decade, that they have implemented their model, and that it and they have failed.
And that they will not do.
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