In a prescient book in 2011, ‘Europe, the Grand Illusion’, Tony Judt suggested that the EU was making economic promises to its member states — promises of unsustainably high rates of growth, employment, and spending on social benefits — that would prove impossible to fulfil. When those promises were broken, he argued, it would inspire an angry populist backlash.
Europe is now fully in the grip of disillusionment about the EU project and we see the rise of nationalism and far-right populist parties across the European Community. At home our clearest example was the Brexit vote. Unsavoury characters, stirrers of hatred and advocates for dumping collaboration, rise in prominence; the best known is Nigel Farage.
As I write in July 2020, the blame game has intensified, largely I suspect because as our transition period nears its end no-one has been able to describe a single benefit of Brexit, other than ‘going it alone/doing it our way’ which seems daft in a networked world where at least half our goods and services, including food, comes from our European neighbours.
It remains the case that the Leave campaign persuaded a small majority of voters to blame the EU for the failure of politicians to fulfil dreams across the UK, including the fact that the ‘trickle-down’ effect has not worked, leading to the continued blighting of formerly great regions, towns and cities. While the EU has its faults, particularly in making impossible promises to its member states, it is not the EU that:
- Privatised British Gas, the Electricity Board and BT
- Sold off our Power Stations, leading to the Chinese/French collaboration on Hinckley Point
- Privatised British Rail leading to the highest fares and most overcrowded rail network in Europe
- Privatised the Royal Mail, leading to disproportionate escalation of postal charges
- Privatised the Water Industry
- Shut down most of the UK coal industry
- Legislated against trades unions
- Sold British Steel to India
- Sold off British housing stock and failed to replace it
- Underfunded Education and the NHS, infrastructure and social goods
- Sold the country’s gold reserves
- Brought in tuition fees for higher education
- is surreptitiously privatising the NHS, because it cannot sustain it at a profit
- is cutting jobs in the police, NHS and armed forces
Our own successive governments have done these things; their actions backed by a widespread disdain for state ownership and the delusion that private enterprise runs things better. The problem is that private enterprise runs things for the benefit of shareholders and only focuses on service provision where profit flows from it. Privatisations are forms of mortgaging our future for an injection of funds, in the vain hope that the shareholders – who could be anybody from a Lithuanian bank to a gambling cooperative – will prioritise public and social goods. These goods are known to be costly and can only really be provided by state investment in facilities which create a public realm of services – a civil society. Many wealthy and important groups do not like the ‘hoi polloi’ at all.
We have done all of these things to ourselves: the EU had no part in any of them. We have been poorly served by our politicians, hardly any of whom have any vision of community, nor qualifications in international economics or the ability to speak any European languages. They are also many of them who are in hock to corporate or institutional backers. This leaves them in a lamentable state of ignorance, vulnerable to both their paymasters and populist urges; the former demanding their pound of flesh in the form of special advantage for their interests, the latter typified by simplistic solutions to complex problems – which fail within months or bring with them substantial price rises.
So, what will happen next?
I predict that among the endless spin blaming the EU, it has been forgotten that we initiated these changes to the fabric of Britain ourselves. Soon, those in blighted communities who ‘wanted their country back’ – a strange euphemism for an increase in self-esteem with cash rewards – will realise that NO benefits from Brexit will accrue to them, other than pride in winning a majority in 2016. The broken windows and pound-shops will remain lining the deserted high-streets and once great cities and industries will continue their decline – accelerated by the loss of EU funding for 9 of the 10 poorest regions in Europe that happen to be in the UK. Unfortunately it will remain easier to be hostile to ‘forriners’ than to re-examine our errors of judgment and the regressive state of our politics.
Meanwhile, down at Westminster we have become accustomed to empty rhetoric about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, now to be bigger than just Manchester, and already proving an elusive target as the PM’s entourage drops into northern venues for a few moments of hand-shaking and back-slapping before passing on.
And after the passing of the ministerial cavalcade, low-paid jobs and unemployment tighten their grip. Large increases in redundancies are forecast as a result of leaving the EU. They are already showing up: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/job-losses-no-deal-brexit-europe-leuven/
We must hope that some unexpected good fortune will restore our futures but the outlook is bleak. We lack leaders with vision, or any politicians with expertise in straight-talking and collaboration, and without such people we will not easily renew our prospects.