Goodbye Britain

Goodbye Britain

A Farewell to Brexit: Reflecting on the Past and Looking to the Future

LO, BREXIT is under way. And I have effected my own exit: having penned my last Bagehot column I now turn to Germany and its neighbourhood as The Economist’s new bureau chief in Berlin. That outgoing column conveys some thoughts about Britain’s troubled present. So now, in my final post on this blog before passing it to the new Bagehot, I want to look beyond the country’s current condition and cast my gaze first backwards and then forwards, taking stock of my five years writing about Britain and of what awaits it now.

Reflecting on the Past

First, let’s reflect on the past where I owe readers a settling of balances. Which predictions of mine were hits and which were misses?

There were two big misses. The first was the 2015 election campaign. I believed the Conservatives were too divided and that the work of modernising the party was too incomplete for them to win a majority. If this lot could not beat Gordon Brown in the midst of an economic crisis in 2010, I reasoned, they would not do significantly better after five years of austerity. In retrospect, such judgments clouded and over-complicated what remains an essentially reliable formula: a party with either the most trusted leader or a lead in polls of economic competence stands a good chance of winning a British general election; one with both, like the Tories under David Cameron, is by definition the front-runner.

My second big miss was the European Union referendum. Here, to be fair, I was less sure. I warned that youth and expat turnout needed to be high for Remain to be safe—it would transpire neither group was sufficiently registered or engaged. But I generally expected Britain to reject Brexit. A land as tea-sippingly cautious as this, I decided as I toured Remain and Leave events in places that would all go on to vote Out, would surely not do something so rash as to quit the EU. My call was wrong for two main reasons. First, I overlooked the sort of fiery, anti-authority streak that dwells mostly but not entirely dormant in the English id. Second, I overlooked the reality that for many older voters leaving the EU was not a leap into the unknown but a conservative, cautious reversion to the pre-1973 status quo; witness the current delight in the right-wing press at the prospect of Britons getting blue (non-EU) passports “back”. At a number of Brexiteer rallies, I heard something to the effect of “we managed without the Europeans before and we’ll manage without them again.” I did not sufficiently factor this into my expectations.

I take one main lesson from these experiences. Most political pundits work on a two-dimensional grid when they make sweeping predictions: salience of subject on the X axis, gut feeling plus poll numbers on the Y axis. The received wisdom says the political class made its big mistakes on the latter one. Yet in fact polls in both 2015 and 2016 were closer to the mark than we tend to remember. And the hunches—the assumptions about the British character—underpinning our predictions of a hung parliament in the general election and a Remain vote in the referendum were and are basically right.

The trouble was and remains on the X axis, overlooked and much harder to quantify. What really moves voters? What do they most care about and how much? These things are not easily captured in polls, at partisan campaign events, or in casual conversations with voters. Well-run, accurately selected focus groups, however, are better guides. That is why political parties use them so keenly. Media organizations should follow suit and find new, different ways of taking the country’s temperature.

Not all of my forecasts were wrong (here I beg your indulgence). In 2014 I put the chances of Theresa May becoming the next prime minister at 75%. Tim Montgomerie’s bottle of red wine said I was wrong; the Tory commentator is, I would enjoy confirming two years later, a man of his word. In March 2015, I concluded on a visit to southwest England that the Liberal Democrats would be wiped out there, when the conventional wisdom said the party was fairly well dug-in. It went on to lose all 15 of its seats in the region. My immediate impression that summer that Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster for the Labour Party and would advance no radical ideas about Britain’s future has more than withstood events. I also take pride in having declared ahead of time that Sadiq Khan would become London’s next mayor and that Jim McMahon (then a mere councillor, now an MP spoken of as a future leader) would emerge as a Labour star.

Most of all I am pleased to have predicted, also back in 2014, that the divide between open- and closed-Britain, Remainia and Brexitland, would increasingly define the country’s politics at the expense of the traditional left-versus-right cleavage. The referendum campaign and its aftermath have borne this out and then some. I only hope the demographic analysis that underpinned my call also proves correct about Britain’s long-term future, and that this will indeed belong to the cosmopolitans. The question is whether a “cosmopolitan populism” (as I put it in a follow-up to my 2015 paper on “Britain’s Cosmopolitan Future”) can be forged to bridge the gap between different parts of the country.

Looking to the Future

Turning to the more immediate future, what will Brexit mean for Britain? As the talks start, the country has a poor hand. The Article 50 process was explicitly designed to make an example of the departing member. The time period it allows for the fiendishly complicated talks is utterly ungenerous. All the other countries need to do is work out the price they wish to extract from Britain for the things it wants, and which of those things it can simply forget.

You can tell Britain’s starting position is grim because the Brexiteers keep availing themselves of different reasons for why it is not. First, they said German carmakers would lean on Angela Merkel to give Britain a jammy deal. German carmakers demurred. Then a new negotiating chip was invoked: if Europe did not play ball Britain would lure firms out of the EU by becoming a tax haven. This was transparently non-credible. Then, for a bit, the government threatened to flounce out of talks, until it wisely stopped doing that. Most recently it hinted at using Britain’s substantial defence commitments as a bargaining chip before realizing that the seemingly threatening tone was counterproductive and shutting up about it. Now, farcically, newspapers evoke the image of Britain “negotiating” Gibraltar’s rights through the sights of a gunship.

It is hard to tell precisely when and whether this cycle of belligerence will be broken. Mrs. May’s Article 50 letter was more conciliatory than many had feared. Perhaps this heralds a pivot: having talked up her Eurosceptic credentials ever since she replaced David Cameron, could the new prime minister be turning towards the continent? Might she be about to march her troops back down the hill? Probably not. The post-imperial pride and insecurity that motivated the Brexit vote is not hers to deploy or withdraw at will. She has merely ridden it to clinch the fleeting favours of the tabloids and some of her own MPs.

The Realistic Limits of Britain’s Prospects

Two main scenarios mark the realistic limits of Britain’s prospects. The first, best one is that Britain reaches a position distinctly worse than membership, but not disastrously so. It ends up as a loyal rule-taker, paying into EU programs and budgets, shadowing EU regulations, and granting plentiful work permits to EU nationals. Some businesses leave, but most stay in Britain for its competitive strengths; it remains pragmatically close to the European political, legal, and regulatory ecosystems in whose orbit it remains bound by history, culture, and geography. Over the following decade, the politics changes, a referendum is called, and in, say, 2032 Britain opts to become the oldest new member of the EU. Brexit comes to be seen as a historical interlude, not a tangent; a momentary pause for breath as the country consolidates its rapid globalization to date before proceeding forth.

The other extreme is grim. Not as bad as some Remainers prognosticate (neither societal meltdown nor economic collapse is really on the cards). But still, it could get seriously ugly: talks fall apart; Scotland quits the union; the Troubles return to Northern Ireland; the growth of the gap between London, better hedged against Brexit, and the rest of the country accelerates markedly; trade takes a severe hit, and unemployment ticks up; public services splutter even more; debt, taxes, and prices rise; living standards slide; the civic fabric ages and frays. Old and new populist forces thrive. The country declines not with a bang but with a whimper: the Italy-fication of Britain.

What Will Happen?

Having started this farewell post with some predictions, I will end it with some. I think the country will get a deal, but a poor one. Contrary to what some in Britain reckon, most other EU members want not to punish it as such but to ensure membership of the club does not become the second-worst option on offer. “Access” to the single market and “equivalence” with its protocols will turn out to mean much less than membership; if the country avoids an economic shock, it will be thanks only to strong global growth. There will be cheering stories of firms and sectors creatively reorganizing themselves to deal with new realities—albeit typically in places like London that did not vote for Brexit in the first place.

Most of all, I predict disappointment. The sort of absolute sovereignty marketed by Brexiteers last June does not exist in the modern world: the more interconnected we are, the worse the exchange rate of institutional autonomy for real power becomes. For example, it is very unlikely any realistic reduction in immigration will be felt or appreciated, unlike its economic downside. Leaving the world’s biggest internal market will not make life in Sunderland, Stoke or Blackpool, or any other working-class Brexit stronghold, any nicer. Higher prices will not feel like “taking control” to most. A government strained by the biggest logistical task since World War Two will have much less capacity and capital with which to attend to bread-and-butter imperatives. Britain today has no opposition capable of forcing it to do so (the case for some new centrist party or alliance rescuing moderate Labourism remains attention-worthy).

But although David Cameron was wrong to call the referendum—there was no clamour for it outside his party and his own long years of EU-bashing were always going to make his last-minute, born-again Europeanism unconvincing—the wider grievances it exposed are real, if not always accurately directed. You do not have to like Mrs. May’s economic and social illiberalism to take it seriously; it is popular, and for reasons liberals must examine closely (I still think moving the capital from London to Manchester and confronting, really confronting, the housing crisis would help). No one who wants the best for Britain should treat their probable persistence under Brexit as a cue for triumphalism.

A Journey Worth Remembering

If, all things considered, this has been a demoralizing period in which to cover British politics, it has also been a captivating one. A more cohesive, untroubled, assured, uncomplicated Britain would have been a much less interesting one to travel around and write about. My stint has taken in the first coalition government in decades, a Scottish independence referendum, a nail-biting general election, an EU referendum, and the novelistic, at times Shakespearean, drama of its fallout.

And it has taken in many encouraging stories and trends along the way: Britain’s world-beating universities; its chilled-out knack for integrating newcomers; its temperamental economic openness (Brexit honoring this rule in the breach); its noble role (despite short-sighted and damaging cuts) as a supplier of international security; its relatively creative and dynamic mass media; its often plucky and defiant pro-Europeans; its overwhelmingly decent, public-spirited, and incorruptible politicians; its halting progress towards a more modern politics and a post-imperial identity and economy.

Thanks for reading this blog these past couple of years—and for the frequently thought-provoking, well-informed comments and reactions below the line and on social media. For those interested, I will henceforth be writing a new The Economist blog on the German-speaking world, to be launched shortly. Until then.