The great Brexit delusion

Roger Partridge
The National Business Review
2 June, 2019

Two years ago The NZ Initiative’s executive director, Oliver Hartwich, and I presented to a full house at the Adam Smith Institute in Westminster. We were in London ahead of a visit to Switzerland with a delegation of New Zealand business leaders.

May 2017 was nearly a year on from Britain’s pro-Brexit referendum, and the Adam Smith Institute was keen to hear the lessons an independent UK could learn from New Zealand. If Kiwis could make their way in the world as an independent nation, surely the world’s fifth-largest economy could do so too?

Among other topics, we talked about trade policy, New Zealand’s successful experience following the removal of costly agricultural subsidies in the 1980s and the positive effects of our quota management system on the sustainability of our commercial fisheries. In each of these important areas of public policy there were valuable lessons for Britain as it looked forward to self-determination. Freed from the influence of Brussels, a newly liberated Britain would have a chance to repair some of the European Union’s worst mistakes.

At least that was the plan. Two years on and the Brexit date has come and gone, and Britain looks no more likely to leave the EU than it did before the referendum. And for Britain’s governing Conservative party, Brexit has proved a train wreck.

In local council elections earlier this month the Conservatives lost more than 1000 seats and 35 councils. And in last weekend’s European parliamentary elections, the Tories polled a dismal fifth, losing 15 of their 18 seats in the European Parliament.

May departs
Polling for the next general election has the Tory party losing a quarter of their seats. Little wonder that Prime Minister Theresa May finally signalled her resignation on May 23.

What went wrong? It is easy to point the finger at a lack of leadership from May. Certainly, she failed to present a compelling or cohesive vision of Brexit to her colleagues. A ‘Remainer’ during the referendum, May’s first important speech as prime minister presented an isolationist, statist vision for Britain that was irreconcilable with the aspirations of her pro-Brexit caucus colleagues. And her negotiations with Brussels suffered from the most elementary of negotiating errors: the absence of a plan B. She may have said no deal was better than a bad deal, but her tactics failed to walk the talk. She neglected to prepare the nation for a no-deal exit and ended up having Parliament rule it out.

The popular favourite to replace May is pro-Brexit campaign-leader Boris Johnson. Yet Johnson’s leadership credentials are even worse. Before May’s selection as Conservative Party leader in 2016, Johnson was knifed in the back by his closest Brexit ally, (now) Environment Secretary, Michael Gove. Johnson’s failure to gain the support of his closest colleague – or even to make the starting line-up for 2016’s leadership contest – are hardly hallmarks of his qualities as a leader.

But there is an even more fundamental problem at the heart of the Conservative government’s inability to implement Brexit. The Brexiteer’s narrative is that the EU has smothered Britain – along with the rest of Europe – in costly red tape. If only the UK could free itself from Brussels, Britain would be leaner, more prosperous and freer.

Nanny state
However, the reality is quite different. According to the Nanny State index, compiled by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British think tank, when it comes to nanny state regulation, only three of the 28 European nations are more heavily regulated than the UK.

Finland tops the table, with the most severe regulations on food and soft drinks, e-cigarettes, alcohol and tobacco. And Germany, the power behind the EU, is the freest country, with low scores across the board. The gap between the most liberal and the least-free countries is not down to the EU. As the Institute of Economic Affair’s Christopher Snowdon observed: “It is the result of national politicians choosing to treat their citizens like children.”

Britain has occupied one of the top four places in the index since its commencement in 2016, and last year it placed second. Its fall to fourth was not through any liberalising reforms of its own. Britain was simply forced out of the medals by illiberal regulations in Lithuania and Estonia.

Britain was once a place where unless conduct infringed someone else’s rights it was permitted. Not so now. British governments have developed a zeal for banning, controlling and nannying. And it matters not which political party is in power. After all the Tories have been in charge of the nanny state for nearly a decade.

Nothing could better illustrate the Conservative government’s propensity to regulate than last December’s proposals to introduce calorie caps on food served in restaurants and on ready-made supermarket meals. The proposals met with a public backlash and have not been implemented. But they signal a highly interventionist government, with an inclination to regulate that is quite inconsistent with the Brexiteer’s liberal vision.

Britain’s Brexit humiliation may look like a failure of leadership. But its roots go much deeper. Rather than blame Brussels for Britain’s red tape, the Conservatives would have been better to look in the mirror. Today’s Conservative Party barely knows what it stands for.

Theresa May was its ideal leader. She was a compromise candidate, elected to lead because the Conservative caucus lacked a commitment to a common ideal.

A Tory-led liberal Brexit was always a delusion.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates