BREXIT CAMPAIGNERS have a long charge sheet against the EU. In fact, it sometimes seems like there’s nothing wrong in Britain today that can’t be solved by leaving the union. Whether they’re talking about NHS cuts, overcrowded schools, the decline of manufacturing industry, the shortage of housing, Islamist terrorists, rural poverty, urban poverty, unemployment, low wages, unions being too weak or unions being too strong, it’s usually “Brussels” that’s to blame. The other day, I even saw someone blaming the EU for underperforming kettles and hairdryers (not a problem I even realised we had).
If even a fraction of this were true, it would be very odd indeed that 27 other countries are still EU members and many others are clamouring to join. Maybe Brexiteers really do think that all foreigners are stupid, or maybe these things only affect Britain, leaving all other 27 member states mysteriously untouched.
The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that most of the bad things Brexiteers blame on the EU can actually be laid at the door of something else: Thatcherism. The irony, of course, is that the chief clowns of the Brexit circus – Johnson, Gove, Farage, Redwood and Nigel “I own a chateau in France, you know” Lawson – have been among the biggest cheerleaders for Thatcherism and the casual destruction it has wrought on British industry and society over the last 35 years.
Take manufacturing industry. There’s been a lot of talk recently about job losses in key British industries – from Port Talbot steel works to the former Rootes Group factory in Ryton – and Brexiteers have been keen to pin it all on the EU. This culminated in this specious post from Vote Leave, which has been widely recycled on social media. (It only took me five minutes to find that the first five claims were false, so I wouldn’t waste too much time on it.)
Now, it’s hard to see how opening up a market of half a billion people to our companies could be responsible for destroying our manufacturing industry, unless there was something else wrong. Industrial decline is a feature of all western economies, in the face of cut-price competition from China and India (which has nothing to do with the EU), but why haven’t we seen a corresponding decline in other EU countries, like France, Germany and Italy?
If you want an explanantion, it’s simple. Our productivity has been rubbish for decades and it’s getting worse. Why? EU regulations? No, they apply to all 28 member states. It’s because countries like France and Germany invest much more in skills, research and capital equipment than we do. That is a choice we have made.
Likewise, the NHS is in crisis not because of migration but because it doesn’t have enough money. If we spent as much on the health service as France and Germany do, the NHS would have another £650m every week. That’s far more than the Brexiteers have “promised”. They don’t have the authority to promise anything, of course. But even if they did, you’d have to be very foolish indeed to believe that the likes of John Redwood would spend the money saved in EU contributions on a public service he has advocated closing down altogether.
There are all sorts of good reasons for worrying about migration levels, but blaming migrants for the NHS funding crisis is pathetic. The vast majority of migrants (especially from the EU) work and pay tax. They also provide a lot of the relatively cheap labour that helps the NHS keep going. The fact that we have chosen not to spend that extra money on the NHS is our choice, not their fault.
More or less the same argument applies to schools. And in both cases, the cash shortage has been made worse by stupid government “reforms”, which have wasted money and sapped the energies of teachers and NHS workers alike. Again, our choice.
On and on we go. The housing crisis is a direct consequence of the ending of council house building by Thatcher in the 1980s and the policy of selling off the social housing stock without replacing it. It has been made worse by the influx of foreign capital made neccesary by the need to finance our cavernous trade deficit. And if you want to know why we have the biggest trade deficit of any major economy, look no further than our post-Thatcher industrial collapse.
What about those low wages? Surely that’s down to all these EU migrants flooding into the UK to work for tu’pence an hour? Hardly. The share of national income going into wages started to fall (very sharply) 35 years ago, long before the recent period of mass migration (if anything it has stabilised a bit in recent years). That just happened to be the time when Thatcher started her campaign to break the power of the trade unions. You may not have liked the union barons of the 1960s and 1970s, but the fact is they did a good job at getting better wages and conditions for their members.
That was also the time when we gave up on trying to maintain full employment and gave up worrying about inequality. In 1977 we had the most equal society we have ever been, at least in terms of income. Ever since then a smaller and smaller share of economic growth has been going into people’s wages and a correspondingly greater share to shareholders and company bosses. Since the great recession of 2008-10, almost nothing has gone to wages. Again, our choice, and nothing to do with the EU.
The Thatcherite Brexiteers don’t seem to like the Britain their heroine has left us with. It’s completely dishonest of Johnson, Gove, Redwood et al to pretend the ills of today’s Britain can be solved by leaving the EU, when much of the problem lies with their own disintegrating ideology. Blaming foreigners is a favourite tactic of the right when their ideas fail to deliver what they promise. They need to look a lot closer to home.