Who will make Brexit work?

photo: John Lubbock

A few more hours are left of the UK being officially in the EU.

I’m sad. In truth, I feel a shattering sense of loss. Outside, church bells are tolling for a funeral, but in Britain, it feels like a burial of another kind.

Brexiters are celebrating and insisting that their project will be a success. I have my doubts. I want the UK to succeed, of course. Succeed for its people, not for a few large fortunes and international hedge funds. Succeed at being a strong, prosperous, open-hearted, creative and forward-looking country for the greater number. Succeed at being both competitive and collaborative. Succeed at facing and meeting the greatest challenges of our change: a rapidly changing climate and an environmental emergency.

But looking at the people who are supposed to make it succeed, I don’t know how it can possibly work out well.

Who supported remaining in the EU?

Just under half the voters who were eligible voted to stay in the EU. Most of those who voted to leave tended to be older voters, or non-graduates, while a majority of working-age people voted to remain. The overwhelming majority of working-age professionals and business people voted to stay in the EU.

At the time of the referendum, Remainers were roughly distributed as follows:

  • an estimate of just over half the electorate didn’t want to leave the EU.
  • a heftier majority of working-age people didn’t want to leave the EU
  • working-age graduates didn’t want to leave the EU by 3-to-1
  • graduates under 40 didn’t want to leave the EU by 4-to-1
  • those under 30 were even more pro-EU, regardless of class or educational level.

(source: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2016/06/27/how-britain-voted)

In the past 3.5 years, few of them have changed their positions (this mirrors what has happened with most Leavers). To make matters even more tense, the government is signalling that we’re headed for the hardest Brexit possible, with no EU alignment and little accommodation for business, science, professionals, students, etc. Its Brexit rhetoric is True Blue and uncompromising (Source: Financial Times, 21–01–20, ‘Sajid Javid promises non-alignment with EU rules’).

Most working-age professionals and business people would have accommodated a soft Brexit. What they are being asked to implement and turn into long-lasting achievement is the very opposite. The difficulties of working and trading with our neighbours without alignment can’t be overestimated.(Source: Politics.co.uk. 23–01–20, ‘Everything you need to know about Boris Johnson’s trade deal nightmare’, analysis by Ian Dunt)

See the problem? The very people whose job it will be to make a success of the UK out of the EU over the next decade — both public and private — across all the main sectors of British life are the very ones who don’t want Brexit in the first place and don’t believe it can succeed in any case. The campaign to rejoin will start and grow amongst them. Their commitment to Brexit is zero.

Leavers are expecting Remainers to make a success of something they, Remainers, don’t believe in, and in many cases, fiercely oppose. It’s the equivalent of Evangelical Christians expecting atheists to turn a country into a functional, successful theocracy.

Now, we all know there are graduate Leavers, business Leavers and young Leavers, graduates or no, who are full of vim and vigour and eager to take on the challenge. They might or might not make a success of their lives in Britain out of the EU. But they are a smallish minority and cannot, without the majority of their peers, turn the newly-alone UK into the global powerhouse they dream of. They know — who better? — that passionate commitment to a project can’t be forced.

A brain drain

The government won’t be able to force it either. If it continues not to accommodate business, business will go where it’s wanted and where costs and processes are reasonable. That’s what it does. Same with scientists, engineers, producers of culture, and so on. These people go where they are most needed but also most free, best paid and can work on the most interesting and/or most generously-funded projects. With dwindling investment and cooperation, that’s not likely to be the UK.
EU governments have already signalled they would continue to welcome the well-trained, experienced UK professionals, academics and business people. Several EU countries and regions are giving out strong incentives, which are already being picked up, even though Brexit won’t bite until the beginning of 2021. English-speaking countries outside of Europe will continue to be attractive to UK professionals — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the more liberal states in the USA — and that attraction will grow as the difficulties of Brexit intensify.

This is no longer an argument over who has won or lost. Brexit is happening. Remainers ‘losing’ and Leavers ‘winning’ is beside the point. Remainers don’t believe in Brexit, don’t want Brexit, want the UK to rejoin the EU as soon as feasible and will not be on board to support Brexit, yet most working-age professionals and business people are Remainers. Unless the government swallows a pragmatic pill and negotiates a much softer and more comprehensive deal with the EU than it’s threatening, and unless it stands firm against the bullying and inducements of the Trump administration (Remainers are by and large against Trump as well), then Britain will lose the very people it needs to make it without EU membership. London is a good example. London, the economic engine of the UK, is pro-EU by a factor of 3-to-1. Yet London is being tasked with giving the lead in making Brexit a success. How will that work out?

Some professions will thrive in Brexit Britain. A whole new generation of technocrats and political scientists will flourish. Veterinarians, customs agents, consultants of all types. Anyone buying up cheap assets. But many won’t. And they’ll go, if not in person, then in spirit. What will be left will be retirees, carpet-baggers, lawyers and accountants, exhausted teachers and health professionals, struggling farmers and a lot of skilled workers and former small business owners on the dole. That, my friends, is called a brain drain, and it’s not a healthy trend for a country going through a complex transition.

The UK risks losing not only its most active people, but an entire country. If a hard True Blue Brexit is pushed through, Scotland, cautious and down-to-earth Scotland, is likely to choose independence rather than stay in a Union that has lost its way. And Scotland’s departure will be less of a brain-drain for the UK than a quartering.

A final hope

I might be wrong. The vision of a plucky little country making it against the odds is a seductive one, and particularly powerful in an island nation like Britain. It might well seduce Remainers into giving their all despite their attachment to EU membership. It might attract the state and business to invest in a modern infrastructure and in the businesses and industries of the UK. It might at last sound the knell of our nihilistic rentier and consumer economy. It might make people aware that we must all take care of the vulnerable in our society in order to call ourselves civilised, and give ourselves the financial means to do so. The better part of me hopes my Brexit predictions are wildly off and that the best of Britain will come out and rise over the next decade. That the ‘weirdos’ the government chief advisor Dominic Cummings says he wants in the civil service includes engineers, inventors, urban designers, people of imagination vision in the best practical sense.

Those who can make Britain succeed aren’t ideologues, xenophobes, Faragists, libertarian online trolls nor the bearers of a petty revanchism, nor are they comfortable hedge fund managers in their air conditioned offices or frazzled civil servants trying to square circles, but a creative people coming together to solve the many problems Brexit will throw up, and make something difficult work for the greater good of all.

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Sophie Crow

Sophie Crow

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Writer, storyteller, walker-between-worlds. Attempting to juggle reflection, wit, sarcasm and empathy. I love a good conversation, don’t you?