Today, at midnight Brussels time — or 11 p.m. in London — there will be a party in Parliament square to mark the moment the U.K. leaves the European Union. There will be flag-waving and much mutual back-slapping. More than three tumultuous years have passed since the country voted to leave the EU, and finally, Brexit is here. Britain is “Taking Back Control.”
At first, nothing practical will change. For the rest of 2020, a “transition period” deal is in place that means the U.K. remains part of the single market and customs union. Trade and travel remain easy and free — what a luxury — but beyond December 31 this year, uncertainty looms. Nobody knows exactly what the U.K.’s relationship with the economic superpower next door will be when this date arrives, but the two deciding Brexit votes — first the referendum, and then the general election Tory landslide late last year — offer a glimpse into what kind of Britain will emerge from the safe confines of the single market. While the country remains bitterly divided, there is cause for hope.
Trade negotiations now begin between the U.K. government — basking in its fresh and resounding electoral mandate — and Brussels. Both the EU and the U.K. want to maintain unfettered access to the other’s market, but they must first agree the extent to which their industries share regulations. The U.K. government wants total divergence in regulations — to honor Brexit and “Take Back Control” — and the EU wants total alignment — to protect its industries from British companies that, without shared regulation, may face lower taxes or other advantages such as lenient environmental standards. Both sides say they will refuse to budge, but both are driven by a shared interest to arrive at a tariff-free arrangement in the end.
The genius of the phrase “Take Back Control” — which was the driving philosophy of the Leave movement in the run-up to 2016’s Brexit referendum — is that it can mean anything you want it to. Take back control to do what, exactly? For libertarians it meant they could turn Britain into a “Singapore on Thames” — free to lower taxes and unleash business. For the nostalgic it meant getting back to how things were — however they were for you. Some of the more poisonous types wanted to make the country more racially pure. For many Labour voters, however, it meant extricating the country from the global free market in order to take back control of their lives and livelihood. All of these formed the “Brexit coalition” that the Conservatives held together to win big in December’s general election, and the most important of the group was the latter. These were the “red wall” voters who carried the party to a massive majority in parliament.
Economically, these voters wanted protection from a system that sucked the winnings first to London and then to the wealthiest Londoners. They wanted to be richer, and, maybe more importantly, to feel the dignity of secure work, a dignity that had been missing since the Conservatives exposed their regional industries to the cold logic of global capitalism in the ’80s.
The Conservative party knows it is in a fight to retain these voters, most of whom would never have voted Tory if it weren’t for Brexit, and the government is very deliberately moving to give them economic rewards for their support. Across the North, in the “red wall” regions that swung the election for the Conservative party, ministers are publicly pursuing a policy of “levelling up” with Keynesian investment in infrastructure and public services. Even if the economics of this effort turn out to prove faulty, it remains politically sharp. The voters left behind by global capitalism are being told they are respected. In their desperation to hold on to power in the Brexit maelstrom, the Tories have stumbled upon a kind of populism that eschews easy left-right categorization, and it works. Whisper it, but they may even have found the new political center.
Conservative determination to repay and re-enlist northern voters means it is unlikely any of the industries that support those communities will be sacrificed in trade negotiations in the name of “taking back control.” Car manufacturing, steel, textiles — the U.K. government will surely see securing these industries free access to the EU single market as a first priority for trade talks.
The deep irony here is that these people voted to leave the EU, and now they may be tied back into it as thanks for doing so — but maybe the Conservatives are on to something. Maybe for the voters in left-behind areas, taking back control never meant any of the things it did for the libertarians, protectionists, socialists, or nationalists. It meant securing investment — not handouts, but a support structure to allow them to work to access the bounties of the global economy — and respect. The Tories won power, and Brexit, because they listened to these voters.
Even if, as is almost certain, the U.K. economy outside the EU will be smaller and weaker than it would have been in the alternate universe where it stayed put, saying so in the future will be hopelessly counterfactual and unconstructive. The economic detriments of Brexit will come slowly, and there will be no rush of evidence to prove remainers right — no “I told you so” moment. What can be hoped for is a reborn, or at least refreshed, domestic politics. It won’t be perfect, of course, but it may offer a new map that leaves the tired left-right paradigm behind, and maybe even starts to close England’s North-South divide.
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