So it is now five years to the glorious day since those fateful few hours when UK voted by 52% to 48% to shake off the stifling bonds of EU bureaucracy, regain our national sovereignty, freedom and independence, and leap forward into a future of limitless enterprise and boundless opportunity. So how has that worked out then?
Our Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (really), the Honourable (truly) Member pf Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, thinks it has gone swimmingly: ‘This government got Brexit done and we’ve already reclaimed our money, laws, borders and waters. The decision to leave the EU may now be part of our history, but our clear mission is to utilise the freedoms it brings to shape a better future for our people.’*
That better future on the sunlit uplands will, for those of us fortunate enough to have our present Tory government leading us onward into it, be based on all the bountiful free trade deals we can strike with the rest of the world. Trade deals like one we will benefit from when we obtain membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It may be a bit of a stretch to see ourselves as part of the Pacific rim, but we are now Global Britain and our prospective trade deal with the CPTPP will increase our post-Brexit GDP by as much as 0.08% (although if Malaysia continues to refuse to come to the party that may only be 0.017%). A 0.8% GDP gain is less than one fortieth of the GDP loss we are scheduled to suffer from our exit from Europe, which happens to be a bit closer than the Pacific rim, but the fact that it has been freely entered into as an assertion of our sovereignty more than makes up for a mere 39% hit to GDP.
In terms of ‘reclaiming our money’ the Office for Budget Responsibility, not exactly a radical left-wing think-tank, estimated in March last year that about two-fifths of the damage Brexit would do to our economy had already been done. Ben Chu, The Independent’s Economics editor concludes from this that, based on our 66m population, ‘the cost of Brexit so far on average is around £480 per person, with a further £720 to go.’ The title of Chu’s article sums it up very succinctly: ‘The real ‘Brexit dividend’? Minus £800m a week – and counting’**
In terms of ‘reclaiming our borders’, thousands and thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees are risking their lives by crossing the English Channel in overcrowded small boats in the absence of safe ways of reaching our shores. The Guardian reported that 538 arrived last month and predicted that many more will be arriving through the rest of the summer. ‘Reclaiming our waters’ hasn’t gone a lot better, with UK fishermen, many of whom voted ‘leave’ on the strength of the empty promise to reclaim our waters now finding themselves out of work, having been ‘betrayed’, as Lord Heseltime, the former Tory deputy prime minister bluntly puts it, along Johnson’s way to ‘getting Brexit done’ – or not, in fact, ‘getting Brexit done’, given the years of further negotiations that await. Next in line to be sold down the river after our fishermen were our beef and mutton producing farmers whose livelihoods will be steadily eroded over the next fifteen years by the trade deal with Australia – for a possible best scenario 0.02% boost to our GDP.
Johnson’s unprincipled and mendacious government will try in perpetuity to brush the stupidity and economic illiteracy of Brexit under the Covid-19 carpet. And, for those of us who don’t live in Northern Ireland and are retired and not at risk of losing our jobs and falling into destitution, five years on, the tangible day-to-day impact of Brexit remains relatively imperceptible – prices in the shops going up, goods ordered on line taking longer to arrive etc. This was well summed-up by Thiemo Fetzer, a University of Warwick economist quoted by Ben Chu: ‘The problem is you don’t know how the UK would have unfolded if it hadn’t been for that vote. Brexit is death by a thousand needles, it’s not an earthquake. You don’t hear about each of the pricks of the needle.’
Five years on I don’t feel any less sad than I did on the morning after the outcome of the referendum was announced. A sadness which informed a poem I wrote soon afterwards:
Shutters (June 24th 2016) Someone came last night and shut our shutters, unexpectedly. We do not know precisely who it was, or why, or even whether they knew why. In Italy and France and Spain the shutters mediate the heat, allowing strips of light to filter through open windows bringing snatches of talk and song in other tongues. Azure and ochre, deep cerulean blue, indefinite shades of rose and red, their shutter-palette sings Manet, Monet and Van Gogh. Here, there is no heat to mediate: our shutters used to signify connectedness across a continent until someone came last night and shut them unexpectedly. Can it really be they want to shutter out all talk and song in other tongues? Our house is darker now.