There is no joy in it for those who always knew Brexit was a con, but it is finally dawning on more and more people that leaving the EU was a colossal mistake. Those who led the project still talk the same old nonsense about the purported benefits of Brexit, but they, like most government assertions these days, sound like echoes of a bygone time.
In reality, Brexit’s arrival has caused supply chain disruptions, staffing shortages, higher food prices and extra red tape for business. Public opinion is shifting towards remorse. Instead of hurtling away from the EU into the swaggering prosperity promised by the Leave campaign, Britain is instead receding into a dark timeline of recession, strikes, and political instability. Last week, it was forecast that Britain will be the only G7 economy to shrink in 2023.
When it comes to questioning why Britain is in such trouble, leaving the EU is now given as one of the standard reasons – as though it were an exogenous event that struck the country like an asteroid and smashed it out of orbit. Around the world, Britain is now twinned with Brexit as an identity, an island plagued by its hubris. “Brexit has cracked Britain’s economic foundations”, a CNN headline declared late last year. “Blankets, Food Banks, and Shuttered Pubs: Brexit Has Delivered a Broken Britain”, said Foreign Policy last week.
It’s understandable that such a huge event should become the only lens through which the country is seen, both internally and externally. But the truth is that Britain was broken way before Brexit.
Brexit did not break the housing market, so that stock is low and housing so unaffordable that the average first-time buyer in London had a deposit of £150,000 last year, and recent rises in interest rates will be passed on from buy-to-let landlords to tenants. Brexit did not create the need for food banks, the use of which increased by more than 10 times between 2010 and 2014. Brexit did not weaken the regulators’ hand so that energy companies could make their largest profits in over a century, and not even be taxed properly for it. Brexit didn’t slash NHS funding. Brexit did not ideologically brainwash Liz Truss so that she, in a matter of days, sent the pound to its lowest ever level against the dollar.
What Brexit did was heap pressure on a country already struggling with weak public infrastructure and stagnant wages, mainly by limiting the labour market and diminishing volumes of trade.
Obviously, two huge events – the war in Ukraine and the pandemic – have happened since Brexit, and contribute in their own ways to economic pain and the strain on public services. But they both arrived in a country already compromised in its ability to deal with price shocks, supply chain disruptions and widespread illness.
Brexit also did not make our politicians less capable, or more mendacious and prone to culture-war posturing and misinformation. Britain had been stewing in an anti-immigration sentiment that went unchallenged for years, spawning Ukip and Nigel Farage, who did more to secure the anti-immigrant Brexit vote than the Conservatives ever did. Brexit did not write scores of tabloid front pages scaremongering about immigrants and Muslims. And Brexit did not make our left-of-centre politicians mealy mouthedwhen it came to challenging xenophobia. Their punishment was to be devoured by it.
It is because Britain was breaking that Brexit happened in the first place. It was a necessary, phantom new road to prosperity when all other roads had reached a dead end. In that sense, it has been a success. Because when it did happen, the shock was so huge that it diverted attention away from all the reasons that it had come about in the first place. To those who opposed Brexit, leaving the EU was not only a political event, it was an emotional and cultural one too: a physical wrenching from a liberal fraternity, perpetrated by liars and charlatans and maybe even shady foreign influence. The feelings Brexit inspires are understandably strong. But they are also broadly wasted when their purpose is merely to reverse Brexit, to fixate on Brexit as a uniquely calamitous event that is bringing about Britain’s decline, rather than a secondary cause of that decline.
Think of those angry years between 2016 and 2019, when People’s Vote marches swelled the streets of London. The campaign for a second referendum, always more an expression of frustration than a viable goal, was striking in its ability to marshal people and funds, which were then frittered away by scattering the opposition to the Tories – the architects of Brexit – at a time when uniting against Boris Johnson’s party in the 2019 election was crucial.
In constantly drawing our eyes towards it, Brexit is both the result of Britain’s failings and a smokescreen for them. It has become an obsession of two extremes: those who believe we will not prosper until Brexit is allowed to flourish, and those who believe will never prosper unless Brexit is vanquished somehow, even if that is just to extract a political expression of the fact through urging Keir Starmer to admit that it has been a failure. In the middle, another feeling – fatigue – dominates, which forecloses any more examination of why Brexit came about.
Brexit was always the wrong answer to the right question that millions across the country were asking. How do we regain a sense of identity, community, prosperity and security in our future? Or, to put it in the cynical language of Brexiters (and now Starmer): how to take back control? The less cynical subtext to that question is this: how do we regain control at a time when employment, healthcare and housing are increasingly uncertain, when industries have been shuttered and community organisations defunded?
These are the questions that the right still seeks to exploit. See Liz Truss’s statement, even after epic failure, that she merely wasn’t given enough of a chance because “the general consensus is that Covid-19, Brexit and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are the only factors that have influenced our economy” making “departure from the status quo” not “politically feasible”.
Starmer can try to flip and reclaim “Take back control”, if he likes. It’s cute. But if it doesn’t provide its own departure from the status quo, then we have learned nothing, and the uncertainties that brought about Brexit will endure, to be exploited again.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist