What can Britain salvage from the Brexit wreckage?

EDITOR'S BLOG: The state of the nation: We're in a state.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 07 Jul 2016

Nobody likes a sore loser. At school, in life or in business. But this isn’t a game, a lost contract or being outbid for a flat. I lost and I am sore. I think there is a lot to be justifiably sore about. We are all the victims of an ill-considered, irrational outburst. We have messed up. And, as MT’s boss Lord Heseltine remarked, ‘we have been sold a pup.’ The people were offered a shot at the wrong target and they willingly, self-destructively, nailed the bullseye.

How did we get here? We struggled to find our way in the world, post-imperial pomp. The publication of the Chilcot Report yesterday just emphasised our flailing inability to adjust to a reduced status as we headed into a disaster of a conflict on Big Brother USA’s coat tails. What a tragic figure Tony Blair cuts now. But just because he was wrong on Iraq doesn’t mean he was wrong on everything else. Who wouldn't give their right hand to go back to the sunny days of pre-2008 Blairism now?

I lived through the appalling 1970s doing my homework by candlelight. We sort of found our way post-Thatcher. It was scrappy, opportunistic, service-based but it worked. We had our place within Europe enjoying its manifold benefits while not being shackled to the failed project of the Euro. We didn’t know how lucky we were and we’re about to be reminded of that very firmly, as we reject one alliance and go in search of whoever else might take us in. A new place in the world.

The terrible irony is that many of those who voted Brexit - especially the less well off - have the most to lose. They may think they are sticking two fingers up at the ciabatta-munching privileged Southerners. But when I watch Channel 4 documentaries about Doncaster banging on about the miner’s strike and how Corbyn has the answers I realise these people are deluded. They may feel they have been ignored by Westminster: they weren’t ignored by the EU, whose grants and support will be much missed in many of those places which voted leave. And either way, the mines and the steel works are not coming back.

You can have a go at London as much as you like but don’t deny its success and how it currently carries much of the rest of GB. A study by the thinktank the Centre for Cities just published found that London generated almost as much tax as the next 37 largest cities combined and increased its share of "economy taxes" underpinning the Treasury’s finances to 30%, up five percentage points since 2004/5.

And it wasn’t always that great. London went through bad times. I can recall driving back home to find Brixton on fire. People like London - you can hardly move on its streets for visitors at the moment. And I, for one, have no beef with the fact that you can hear five languages being spoken on the bus. That is the way things now are. Or were up until two weeks ago tomorrow. Now our leaders make veiled threats that Poles and Romanians with families here cannot be sure they will not be turfed-out. This is a disgrace.

But now where are we and what next? There will be much accelerated change. Look at M&S, for example, whose dreadful numbers out today show how that stalwart 20th century company has lost its way. With the pound now in the basement and the stock prices of many businesses looking very cheap expect much predatory M&A action from dollar and euro rich outfits over the coming months. And it’s highly likely to be of the old-fashioned asset-stripping variety. I would fear that the demise of BHS is just the start in the retail world. We are massively over-shopped and there simply wasn’t enough trade to go round even before we lurched back, as seems inevitable, into recession.

Politically we are rudderless and drifting. Times like these call for many things and one of them is not Andrea Leadsom. Never mind her dubious CV, it is her attitude of mind that troubles. In situations like this where one needs a reasonable, steady and experienced head I would tend to pay heed to the senior Treasury civil servant who described Leadsom to the FT as ‘a disaster...the worst minister we’ve ever had.’

Neither do we really require the neo-Con/Maoist creative destruction advocated by Michael Gove. The man may have impeccable manners but he is a scorched-earth ideologue who among the general public has minus 47% - yes you read that right - favorability. The Conservative party seems to agree and he's no longer on the shortlist having got just 46 votes. That leaves Theresa May facing Andrea Leadsom, which strangely enough doesn't make me feel a lot better. 

In the complete and utter absence of a credible opposition -the ones we've got have taken this opportunity to retreat into a Trotskyite bunker, where they can share (alcohol-free) beer and sandwiches with the likes of Len McCluskey - we will have to place our faith in a blend of Theresa May and what is left of our denuded civil service to attempt to negotiate and salvage something from the wreckage.

I’m not "talking UK PLC down" here, either. But this is a vertiginous drop on the post-WW2 rollercoaster. We will survive this but in a different form. You can say goodbye to the UK plc that existed before 23rd June, and a querulous hello to whatever may follow it.

Image credit: Rob Nun/Flickr


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