Home >Opinion >Columns >The big lesson of Brexit on serving the national interest

Of all the tall tales—which is to say lies—told in the months ahead of the referendum vote in the summer of 2016, the claim by Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, and others that the UK paid £350 million a week to the EU that could be used instead on the National Health Service (NHS) should have been easy enough to disprove. The ‘Leave’ campaign shamelessly dressed up London’s double-decker buses with this nonsense.

Other fake news involved a surge in immigration of hundreds of thousands once Turkey joined the EU, even though Turkey was not joining the EU. It was hard therefore not to feel sympathy for a plaintiff, Marcus Ball, who sought to hold Johnson criminally culpable for the NHS untruth only to lose last July because the judges decreed that the UK parliament only prohibited false statements about a rival candidate.

When the UK reached a deal to exit the EU in late December, just as covid infectious cases surged and countries dropped flights to and from the country, the sad irony of a pandemic defining Johnson’s tenure in office was hard to miss. But there are larger lessons from Brexit. The first is that even by the standards of today’s populism, the decision to leave the EU may be the most damaging wrought by a public vote in a Group of Seven country.

It makes no sense at many levels. Almost 45% of the UK’s merchandise exports go to the EU; only a sixth or so of EU exports are to Britain. Services, an area in which the UK has a comparative advantage over its European counterparts, will be subject to restrictions. These, for instance, can mandate how long British service providers can work continuously in an EU member country. The financial services companies that make London a vibrant financial centre must await what is expected to be a separate deal with the EU post-Brexit, though London will likely sustain its edge. There is pressure building up for another referendum on whether Scotland should secede to rejoin the EU, but the UK prime minister will have to agree.

Now that Brexit is here, it appears even more of a psychotic act of self-harm than it did when the Leave campaign won the referendum 52% to 48% in June 2016. The worst hit will be the north’s blue-collar areas that voted in large numbers to leave the EU and whose prospects are diminished by the loss of competitiveness that will result from Brexit. What was billed as a populist revolt against the elites—a convenient cliché of political analysis in the US, India and the UK—was nothing of the sort. As Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper observed, Brexit was “a coup by one set of public school boys against another." (Former prime minister David Cameron and Johnson both went to Eton)

But, what has seemed to Indian eyes a peculiar Wodehousian tragedy with occasional light moments of absurdity provided by Johnson’s Woosterish bumbling, is a morality play for democracies everywhere. The Brexit campaign was a campaign of hate, built around lies about the damage migrants were doing to the country and the need for “sovereign" control of Britain’s borders. In the year ended March 2020, the UK, in fact, took in more migrants than it did in the 12 months before the June 2016 referendum because immigration from the rest of the world rose dramatically. Nevertheless, Brexiteers have been unable “to articulate any vision of the future of Britain that does not involve embittered aggression", as Tim Adams wrote in the Guardian recently. This also applies to many supporters of Donald Trump in the US and of the ‘love jihad’ campaign and violence in the name of stopping cattle slaughter in India, despite the electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Brexit camp regarded free trade at best as dispensable and at worst as damaging, in much the same manner that some BJP leaders have argued that free trade agreements do little for India. (In fact, for India, an FTA with the EU would hugely benefit labour-intensive industries such as garments.) Choosing to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, as India has done, has adverse implications for Indian companies seeking to embed themselves in global supply chains. Trade in intermediate goods to keep supply chains humming have tripled since 2000 to $10 trillion, according to McKinsey & Co.

What Brexit is ultimately about, however, is the rot in democracies brought about by social media giants such as Facebook. In a TED talk in 2019, the journalist Carole Cadwalladr described returning to the southern Wales of her childhood. Everywhere she went, there were spanking new highways and rail lines paid for by the EU, a huge sports centre and a further learning institute, also funded by the EU. And yet, as if learned by rote, nearly everyone she spoke to demonized the EU and said it was time for the UK to “take back control"—a campaign slogan of the Brexiteers. Complaints about immigrants were widespread even though there were virtually none in the area. Yet almost two-thirds of the Welsh town voted to leave. Cadwalladr blames campaign lies and the fake news spread on social media ‘news’ feeds. Facebook and other social media platforms, along with over-ambitious, amoral politicians were guilty of a “hate crime", as she called it. The 2016 Brexit vote was “the canary in the coal mine". Cadwalladr’s depressing conclusion was that elections contested on facts and governance records may be a relic of the past.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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