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Britain’s exit into disharmony and resentment

Britain’s exit into disharmony and resentment



Gylfi Zoega (University of Iceland and Birkbeck College)

We have a prime minister who likes Churchill, has adapted his mannerism and may soon give his speeches. He expresses English nationalism, nurtured by many since the beginning of the 1990s through jokes at the expense of the European Union and a desire to find a new enemy to replace the non-existent Soviet Union. Yet there is no threat on the other side of the Channel. Rather, people watch Britain in bewilderment. What are the British, or rather the English, thinking?

The prime minister is not alone in talking up nationalism; he has the leaders of Poland, Hungary and Turkey to identify with as well as the presidents of Russia and the United States. All put great faith in their own views and policies aimed at protecting the “nation” from outsiders. It is “us against them” and contempt for the “elite” consisting of bankers, universities, the media and international organisations in varying proportions. The charismatic leaders lead their flock in a fight against “the other” and in the process claim to be making their respective countries great again.

There is a large and expanding literature on the causes of the popularity of such political movements. The causes can be summarised by the unequal gains from trade, fear of immigration and concern about protecting local values and traditions. The recent financial crisis also diminished trust in mainstream parties. However, popular misperception of the EU, the bias against it in the media and the failure of any pro EU politicians to make the case for the EU until it was too late may play a bigger role than any economic factors.

So what are the possible consequences of Britain’s exit (exit since it is the English who pushed for it!)? The economic consequences are surely unpredictable. Firms must be preparing for Britain to leave without an agreement, which will reduce but not eliminate any economic turmoil. The European Union may want to make the exit somewhat painful to the UK to deter the exit of other member countries. There is the inescapable consequence that borders will appear between Ireland and the UK and the UK will leave the European Single Market. However, the most profound effect will be found in weakened institutions, in particular parliamentary democracy, a possible disintegration of the country and, last but not least, rising levels of discontent and resentment. The young will be upset at the old for voting to leave and depriving them of opportunities in Europe, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland will be upset at the English for pushing the exit through and Londoners and inhabitants of many the other big cities such as Bristol and Liverpool will be upset at rural England.

Many years after the exit, the poor, the rural population and those less educated will not be any better off and will feel increasingly marginalised. The rise of the service sector at the expense of manufacturing, increased trade and automation will not be halted. English nationalism will also not end on the 31st of October and will continue to find new enemies and new goals. If the economic adjustment will be difficult in November of this year then the Brexiteers will blame the EU; if easy, they will mock those who warned it would be so.

The Brexiteers will be loyal to their privileged roots in the post-exit era and make sure that taxes are low and business regulation relaxed. Inequality may increase further and so will discontent. Only by further inflaming nationalism, dislike of immigrants and by chiding international collaboration can they hope to remain in power. A fractured society is the price to pay for the Exit. This will not be pretty.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Gylfi Zoega is Professor of Economics at the University of Iceland and at the Birkbeck College, University of London