Professor Robert Tombs believes the radical economic reform the country witnessed during the 1980s has given rise to a generational divide in outlook, which can be seen in people’s perception of Brexit.
Let me begin with three quotations:
1. Whatever the terms of a deal with Europe, ‘we must swallow the lot’;
2. Britain is ‘the sinking Titanic’, Europe ‘the lifeboat’;
3. Being in ‘Europe…would be in the interests of this country whatever the terms’.
These quotations come from a senior Foreign Office official in charge of negotiations, the PM’s senior advisor, and from a leading Tory backbench Europhile.
But they were made in the 1970s, not 2018.
This shows that the bureaucracy, the political class, and much of ‘the elite’ generally have not adapted to half a century of change, but ‘the country’ has. They are not ready for Brexit. The country is. Why?
First, there have been great changes in public attitude since the 1970s – the low point of postwar “declinism”, when people were convinced that the country was economically, politically, and in its global influence in decline.
We know now that this declinism was hugely exaggerated, indeed I would say wholly delusional.
There was no economic decline: Britain’s economic performance since the 1940s has remained exactly in step with that of the United States; membership of the EEC and then the EU had no significant effect, unless perhaps a slightly damaging one.
There was no political or global decline either: Britain remains what it has been for the last three centuries – one of the half-dozen most powerful states in the world. It has moved ahead of many of its rivals (Germany, Russia, France …). Some experts even reckon that in ‘geo-political capability’ it counts as the world’s number two.
People of my age were brought up believing in ‘decline’, which is seemingly impossible to shake off; but it’s a delusion.
Yet ordinary people have shaken off this paralysing declinism that grips so many of our rulers. They have noticed that since the 1980s, despite the blunders that our governments (like all governments) have committed, we are not the ‘sick man of Europe’. The change dates now from the 1980s.
The evidence? A Eurobarometer poll (2013) that showed that Britain was the only EU country that believed that it could face the future better outside the EU. And of course this was very perceptive. The EU is stumbling from crisis to crisis, with no way out. You don’t need a university degree to realize this: in fact, it seems you realize it better if you don’t! Perhaps people who themselves face the threat of unemployment and stagnant wages are more sensitive to the fate of those in the EU, where youth unemployment (in the 15-24 age group) is over 30%, and much higher in some countries: roughly three times the levels in Britain or the US.
Second, the EU has been becoming steadily less important economically to the UK for two decades. We do less of our trade with the EU than any other member, and the percentage is steadily declining, even while we are still members: on present trends it will return to the level it was at before we joined the EEC. This is partly because of the recurrent problems of the Eurozone, the limitations of the single market system (which has created an imbalance which even The Guardian has described as ‘unsustainable’) and also because of the growing importance of our wider global trade. It’s often said that ‘no one voted to get poorer’; but ironically, the only people who seem to have done just that are Londoners who voted Remain, as the mayor of London’s own recent report showed that Londoners would be better off under Brexit.
In short, economically, the country is ready for Brexit, because global economic trends are leading us in that direction.
Economics is not the only issue, though it does tend to dominate modern political debate.
But people know that deep down it is not the only or even the main issue: fundamentally, it comes down to a question of power. Power includes sovereignty, democracy, security, frontiers, identity, citizenship, rights – a powerful mixture which has dominated modern politics since the 18th century.
A majority of the country voted to leave the EU. Far more would surely have done so if the pressure put on them by the government and its international partners had not seen so severe, and I would say so unscrupulous.