June 2016 seems not six or more years ago. It feels, sitting in my flat during a cost of living crisis and energy saving cold London, like six decades.
Brexit was indeed a big decision – the United Kingdom does not challenge the rule of Parliament (in essence a one chamber majoritarian rule under the odd first past the post electoral system) often by anything as radical as a people’s plebiscite.
Referendum processes are the norm in countries like Switzerland or Australia. But the British political model has evolved since the days of Bagehot and Dicey to be a paramount struggle between a supreme parliament of more than 600 MPs contesting the power of a Cabinet and an often dominant high profile Prime Minister. People get their vote – if they choose to register and then choose to vote.
The shock of the result to leading commentators, the remain and even leave media or the foreign correspondents based in London was palpable.
Offer: sovereignty, success and self determination in all things economic, labour market, trade, border control and geopolitics.
Reality: something like the curate’s egg … a mixed outcome and a surprise.
Sitting, as I write on the first anniversary of the brutal 2022 illegal invasion of sovereign Ukraine by Russia, I am aware that people and passions can be conflicted. The values of democratic self determination, stubborn geographic nationalism and utter fear of the unaccountable are a bedrock of the UK and many western peoples (I think of Poland, the Baltics, Finland and the Netherlands). But there are practicalities that need to also be addressed.
There can be no simple answer to the question: did Brexit work out? However, there is ample data and a lot of lived experience to say that the current problems facing Britons huddled in our high cost, low quality housing with falling incomes and rising taxes, have only been made worse by many features of the drawn out exit from the EU and all its tentacles.
At the moment we have a troika of worries that are real (post pandemic and post Boris, Liz and maybe even Rishi as PM). Growth, trade and investment are all tracking down in the 2023 versus 2019 evidence trail. Further, the labour market and geopolitical conditions that underpinned much of the appeal of Brexit to many have vanished.
We Britons, I got my citizenship this month, have to face up to the reality that we are the only G7 nation to have failed to rebuild their GDP since last quarter 2019. In comparison to the USA or Canada (up 3-4%) we have staggered to remain nearly one percent behind in real terms. Despite the unleashing of Britain’s sizeable scientific pharma and high tech industries courtesy of the pandemic and the war.
The United Kingdom trade performance over the same period has also tracked below the G7 performance. It is red tape and more red tape piled onto slow central government support for the global trade bonanza predicted by some and lauded by many as necessary in the Brexit decision making. Britain reflects an economy with many SMEs with trade aspirations and a tested relationship to its biggest market – Europe – who have been wallowing in stop start paperwork.
Business investment since the middle of 2016 – the time of the original Brexit vote – has grown. But slower than what has been achieved by Washington, Paris or Berlin. There are currency reasons, political instability reasons and uncertainties over whether London would retain its world financial hub status.
It does not matter that the OECD, S&P economists, hairy Guardian journalists or Jeremy Corbyn think this. It matters that public opinion across the United Kingdom has slowly but clearly cooled with the idea of Brexit. Remainers are not unsurprisingly about ninety percent or more aligned with their view that it was the wrong decision. No shock there. But it is an undermining of the Leave voters with the result that at least one in three of the 52% who voted Leave now accept that it was either the wrong thing or the less optimal thing to do.
Then we have the post pandemic labour market shortage that Britain faces – whilst low inflation has jumped to over 11% in critical peak conditions – that has seen more than three million foreigners exit the country without a commensurate inflow of the correctly skilled and eager workers to take their place. Brexit required a stable and secure flow of people, capital and skill. Brexit was killed off so speak by the Wuhan regional government, the Russian invasion and some very poor Whitehall decisions. But that would be unkind.
Geopolitics has currently shifted from more economics, globalised supply chains and pacific partnership trade networks to the stuff of older Cold War thinking: civil defence in a world of cyber threats; munitions and hardware supply for home and abroad (Kyiv); and the demands of territorial integrity.
Borders matter. Security matters. Peace is not assumed. War is no longer an academic treatise or something that happens to people without a first world society. Peer to peer conflict is back in the game.
I have sympathy for Brexit Britain – timing was everything. You got Boris, bombs and a border crisis shutdown of everything we knew from the 1970s.
We need to give the project some space. It will shape our efforts in NATO, G7 and G20 terms. We need to consider whether to either bury it, rename it or just ignore it hoping that the fresh arrangements will meet our fresh challenges.
Zelensky did not face a toilet roll supply crisis, depressed millions of middle class demonstrators or trade deals that never stood the test. Ukraine, Taiwan and other “hard” examples of self determination must be tempted to see the 52:48 hand wringing to be a luxury that only we Brits can do so well.
But the steely determination of the United Kingdom to be one of the first, strongest and dedicated voices (in diplomacy, resources, military assistance and intel support) in the tough fights currently undertaken across the globe is reassuring. It was a simple school boy view of my generation that Britons complain about the weather (it is a truth), strikes and their football team. But when heavy lifting is needed in conflicts of key national interest (1914, 1939 and 2022) we step forward unfailingly and also with unity.
Brexit: see it, say it and sort it.
But there are bigger threats alive.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors.