Britain’s departure from the EU under Boris Johnson with – or without – a free trade deal will dim prospects for the UK next year. At best the prime minister will secure a deal at the last minute that eliminates tariffs on trade. There will be disruption, price hikes, protests and perhaps a clash on the seas. Whatever the losses, the prime minister thinks they will evaporate in the sun-filled freedom to depart from the EU’s regulatory rulebook. For all the talk of greater state intervention, Mr Johnson has not changed his spots. We have a rightwing government with a strong ideological commitment to take the country back to where Margaret Thatcher left it.
That means restoring the executive to pre-eminence by curbing the judiciary, undoing devolution and installing cronies in powerful positions. The country ought to expect more squeezing of the poor. Ministers meanwhile seem untroubled by the idea that business elites entering England should be exempt from quarantine rules that force the rest of us to self-isolate. Aside from bromides, the government offers little to the jobless in the north of England, where the Institute for Public Policy Research (North) says unemployment is at its worst since the mid-1990s.
This is not just out of nostalgia for the Thatcher age, when greed was good. The former premier was genuinely convinced that economic growth and full employment were wrong if brought about through government action. Mr Johnson is of the same mind. He doesn’t want Britons to rely on “Uncle Sugar the taxpayer” and get addicted to the sweet rush of a compassionate response. A key belief in free-market societies is that they reward the industrious and punish the idle. In a slim 2012 manifesto for the future of Britain, entitled Britannia Unchained, Mr Johnson’s home, foreign and trade secretaries sang from a Thatcherite songbook blaming the UK’s low productivity on Britain’s workforce who were “among the worst idlers in the world”.
Until Thatcherism, Conservative governments were predominantly pragmatist and were for the preservation of the country’s existing institutions more than their reform. Leaving the EU is a major reversal of a long-term historical trend rather than a consolidation of advances made. Mrs Thatcher’s fingerprints can be found over Brexit. She insisted 20 years ago, in her book Statecraft, that Britain’s economic interests would not be damaged if the UK were to quit Europe. Once a true believer in European integration – she signed up to the Single European Act in 1986 and took the pound into the exchange-rate mechanism – her apostasy was breathtaking. But she was never wrong in the eyes of Eurosceptic headbangers and rightwing populists who now have their hands on the tiller of the Tory party. Mr Johnson knows this motley crew well, because he was – until recently – their backbench leader.
There are few historical situations in which the rigid application of a centralised, free-market approach and the suppression of the state as well as the links to friendly neighbours would be less appropriate than in present-day Britain. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to develop reliable EU-wide supply chains for medical products. The employment shock that accompanied lockdowns is a challenge only the government can meet in substantial measure. And the rise of China as a technological leader requires not just more active industrial strategies but cross-country collaboration. There will also have to be concerted international cooperation on climate, data privacy and tax havens.
Like his prime ministerial forerunner Lord Palmerston, Mr Johnson perhaps thinks that the country has “no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal.” If the prime minister has to rely on Germany’s Angela Merkel to get an EU-UK trade deal over the line then that is a worrying intimation of the lonely hand in global politics we may have to play for years to come. Only the future will tell whether Britain will eventually be better off on its own, rather than deeply enmeshed in an international bloc, trying to navigate the challenges of the 21st century. What can be assured is that few things will run smoothly if Britain acts like a rogue state on the European stage.