Three wasted, wasted years

Think of what the British government could have done in the three years since David Cameron launched the Brexit referendum in February 2016. Think of the problems that could have been tackled, from a lack of affordable housing through better training for workers and reducing knife crime. Think of the tedium we would all have been saved in the form of endless debates on the TV and radio. Think of the bitterness we might have avoided.

And what has been the purpose of it all? Apart from the outright lies told by leavers (the £350m a week, Turkey joining the EU), the Brexit campaign never addressed the fundamental trade-off. After 46 years within the EU (as of now), our economy is tightly bound up with that of the continent. Leaving the political structure would inevitably cause economic disruption. There was no cost-free Brexit.

Nor was there any escape from EU rules. Most large businesses would still want to trade with the EU and would need to obey the market’s regulations. Those rules were hardly onerous in any case. A World Bank survey in 2016 ranked Britain sixth in a global list in terms of “ease of doing business”, higher than the US. The World Economic Forum placed us tenth, ahead of countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand that are not in the EU.

If we leave the EU without a deal, the leavers keep parroting, we will trade on “WTO terms”. WTO stands for World Trade Organisation, a body that is based in Geneva; I can remember when people were rioting when countries were forced to obey the rules of the undemocratic WTO. To make our own deals, we will have to bargain with traditionally protectionist China and India, and with Donald Trump’s newly protectionist America, which will insist on Britain dropping rules designed to protect food standards and the NHS.

As part of the EU, Britain was in a trading bloc that could bargain on equal terms with America, China and India. Outside the EU, we will be alone and desperate. How good a deal can we strike? So we will gain neither economically or in terms of sovereignty.

If the referendum campaign did anything, it turned me from a mild eurosceptic into a passionate Remainer. Part of that was down to the kind of people on the leave side; the odious Farage, the chancer Johnson and the clueless David Davis and Dominic Raab. My kids grew up with the right to live or work anywhere across the European continent. That wonderful freedom is being taken away and leavers are proud of what they have done. I will never forgive them.

Having created a mess, they are turning on each other, like the Jacobins condemning the Girondins in revolutionary France. We are all the victims of their posturing; they have wasted all our time for far too long.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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