We had a lot on our plate already: Brexit was the last thing we needed

Observer |

One of the many annoying aspects of the Brexit referendum fiasco is that it has diverted attention from so many pressing domestic economic and social problems.

Yet those of us who are unrepentant Remainers still regard the struggle as worthwhile. Brexiters may argue that the prospect of short-term economic damage was exaggerated during the campaign, and, as I acknowledged in a recent column, it was. But that this is a case of “so far, not so bad” is beside the point. The damage will hit us if we go ahead with leaving our largest market and indulge the extreme Brexiters’ fantasy of contriving wonderful new markets in far less important countries from the trading point of view – markets, that, strangely enough, already exist.

A point made by a number of us to older Brexiters was, and still is, that they were not being too mindful of the interests of their children and grandchildren, who have grown up with the freedom to travel, work and study throughout the European Union and now see all this threatened.

But it is becoming more and more obvious that the younger generation are threatened not only by the prospect of Brexit – and I repeat, to the BBC and others: it hasn’t happened yet! – but by an accumulation of economic problems, epitomised by the depleted condition of so many public services. And not only the younger generation.

It seems to be widely accepted that the referendum result was to a considerable extent a protest vote against the economic and social problems – housing, the health service, social care, transport, you name it – that have resulted from neglect by successive governments, and were undoubtedly aggravated by the banking crisis and post-crisis austerity.

Now, among my older friends who are concerned about the state of the nation now, and the prospects for young and old alike, is the Cambridge economist Robert Neild, who, at the age of 93, is as sharp as ever.

Robert was chief economic adviser to the Treasury in the 1960s – repeat, the 1960s – and has seen a thing or two. In a recent paper he has argued forcefully that many of this country’s problems with public services stem from the simple fact that those services are woefully underfunded.



Thus the “tax take” in this country amounts to 35% of gross domestic product, whereas the average in the European Union I still hope we won’t leave is 40%. He points out that, since public spending amounts to a third of GDP, an increase in the tax take here to the European average would finance a 14% increase in public spending, and provide the wherewithal to answer all those critics whose standard response to any suggestion of higher public spending is “where is the money coming from?”.

At which point I cannot resist noting that a prominent Conservative Brexiter once admitted to me that he particularly likes France because of the health service.

Which brings us to the present outcries about the state of the NHS. This is, as usual, against the background of the prevailing view in this country that we should have Scandinavian levels of public service while enjoying US levels of taxation – or, in the extreme rightwing Brexiters’ case, Singaporean levels of taxation.

The scale of the resistance to “tax and spend” in Britain was manifested when Gordon Brown, as chancellor, made Herculean efforts to prepare the nation for a 1% increase in employer and employee national insurance contributions in an effort to bring the health service up to continental standards. Evidently, there is some way to go.

More and more people, such as the admirable anti-Brexit campaigner Lord Adonis, are evoking the spirit of the Attlee postwar government to address the current crisis. It is a formidable task – as indeed it was for Attlee, who met dreadful opposition at the time, even though he has been sanctified by modern historians. When it comes to the rightwing press, there is nothing new under the sun.

The current social crisis and prospect would be less daunting if Brexit were not piled on top of it. In which context I could hardly believe my ears last week when Chancellor Hammond was quoted as telling our fellow Europeans that it made no sense to put in place “unnecessary barriers” to British demands. All the “unnecessary barriers” have been put in place by Britain’s bizarre decision to leave the EU.

There is also a prevailing view that the government is involved in some kind of “negotiation”. I fear that this constitutes a gross misunderstanding of the situation. When, after realising that membership of the European Free Trade Area was unsatisfactory, successive British governments applied for, and eventually succeeded in obtaining, membership of what is now the European Union, we had to negotiate terms of membership.

Now, if this narrow and ill-informed referendum decision is not reversed, we have to leave the club. When you leave a club, there is nothing to negotiate: you pay what you owe and you leave. Better to Remain!

Moreover, it is not as if our European counterparts did not have enough on their plates already. Our fellow Europeans can be forgiven for asking what planet the British think they are on.

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