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Thursday, July 25, 2024
HomePoliticsIt’s time to break this election’s conspiracy of silence over Brexit

It’s time to break this election’s conspiracy of silence over Brexit


Three weeks into the general election and the campaigns are reflected in the media mainly by a mixture of stories of political skulduggery from within the two largest political parties and constant speculation as to the outcome and how bad it might be for the government and who might win or lose their seats. Politics has been reduced to a thankfully bloodless version of Game of Thrones. 

What is notably absent is any proper debate on the challenges our country faces and how those might best be addressed. There is also a lack of critical reflection on why this election seems likely to see one of the largest swings away from a government ever and what that says about the policies of the past decade and their impact on our national wellbeing.

In terms of economic policy this looks to be the least ideological election in modern times. There is little to show between Labour and Conservative. Both have promised not to raise taxes or VAT and both promise improvements to public services. Labour wish to reward workers by raising non-wage benefits paid for by employers. The Conservatives wish to raise personal allowances for pensioners. Both promises are unfunded and probably unfundable unless the economy grows. Neither party has yet explained how this might be done.

Yet this is the elephant in the room. No number of excuses, from Covid to the Ukraine, to the financial crisis of 2008, can explain away why our economy is performing so poorly in terms of growth. Yet the answer is pretty clear.  Since leaving the EU single market at the end of transition in 2020 we have imposed burdens on business and particularly SMEs that hinder growth. Trade is no longer frictionless and where profit margins are small the bureaucratic burdens imposed, tip the balance between profit and loss.

Even before this, the UK’s previous attractiveness as the prime European location for inward investment was undermined by the referendum result in 2016 and has never recovered. Our financial sector, while it continues to be leading in European terms, has lost some of its edge. Insurers and providers of financial services have had to relocate parts of their businesses to the EU to continue operating there. The London Stock Exchange has lost its appeal for flotations. Dealing in Eurobonds has had to go elsewhere. The opportunities for the legal sector to provide services has been diminished.

One might therefore have expected that the election would include a debate about how these issues might be addressed. It was after all Margaret Thatcher who was instrumental in creating the Single Market because she realised how much the UK would benefit economically and the figures for growth up to the financial crisis of 2008 reflect how right she was about this.  Signs of this growth renewed again and ahead of our European partners was present in 2015-16, before Brexit stopped it.

As the Conservatives have embraced Brexit and claim it can be made to work, we might therefore expect to hear of how it is now benefitting us, even if in the short term it might have been disruptive. But the silence is total. We have hardly any genuinely new trade deals and the one we do have with Australia has been described as not being in our national interest by the deputy prime minister. The much promised trade deals with the USA and India have failed to materialise, both countries being protectionist in outlook. 

So, for all the reduction in inflation, there is nothing to suggest any good reason why the Conservatives should be able to revive and grow the economy strongly if they were to win the election and they are certainly not about to admit that they might have got Brexit wrong. 

Instead, they look as if they are about to double down and threaten leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. The proposal is a foolish and dangerous fantasy. Not only will it not facilitate deporting anyone to Rwanda, but leaving is incompatible with the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and with the continuance of our Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU. Precipitating yet further economic damage is an odd way of making Brexit work.

The Labour Party’s position is in some ways however even odder. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour is not saddled with responsibility for Brexit. But it seems to just want to ignore its consequences. If Labour says it will prioritise economic growth, then it has to show how that can be done without reducing the impediments to trade with our nearest economic partners. Yet it appears to pretend this issue does not exist and that economic revival can come without it.

For those of us old enough to remember the 1960s and 70s this failure has an all too familiar ring about it. A continuous reluctance to look at the root causes of lack of productivity in our economy led then to a series of boom and busts as the economy grew on the back of consumption based on credit and crashed accordingly. Most tellingly the UK was outperformed by countries with similar economies.  They often had similar problems, but their growth overall was better than our own.

Even the Liberal Democrats have shown a marked reluctance to engage on this subject. The election is being treated by them as a series of by-elections. This may help restore them as the third party in parliament, but it does not make any contribution to the debate on how our country might prosper.

Former parliamentary colleagues tell me that the reason for this is that the electorate is not interested in reopening or even discussing Brexit, whatever their view of it might have been. It is certainly the case that Brexit can’t just be reversed. But to pretend it is no longer relevant and having an effect on our daily lives is so strange form of self deception that I doubt a majority of the electorate share it at all. Rather it is the politicians who just want to ignore a difficult subject that raises the uncomfortable question of how the political class generally created the mess we are in.

The issue will not go away. It extends much further than just economics. As our continent is threatened by Russia and the USA looks increasingly to be a less reliable partner, so our need to co-operate more at a European level for our defence becomes urgent. Constraints on cultural cross fertilisation created by the end of Freedom of Movement in Europe are an inhibitor on the educational attainments of our young and of our centres of learning. It is also most unlikely that the challenge of mass migration can be met without much closer cooperation with the EU.

The one thing that stands out above all else at present is how discontented the electorate is with the standard of governance it has been getting and how cynical they now are that any mainstream political party will make difference. That is a dangerous place for our parliamentary democracy to be in and its consequences can be seen in the rise of political extremism on our continent. It is time politicians woke up and addressed the real issues rather than running away from them.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.





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