No Dunkirk Spirit Can Save Britain From Brexit Defeat

Vintage cars in Wadebridge, Cornwall, England, last year. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
Vintage cars in Wadebridge, Cornwall, England, last year. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

How I wish that Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Dunkirk,” had not been released at this moment in history. The reviewers have been near unanimous in their praise: searing, complex, uncompromising about the savagery of war and death. Yet the essential message of the film, with its narrative of heroic retreat in order to fight another day, cannot help but feed the national pride in Britain’s capacity to triumph eventually, no matter what the odds.

Nothing could be less helpful to our collective psyche as the country blunders toward Brexit. We hear much about American exceptionalism, but Britain feels it, too. We are the nation of empire, whose ancestors once controlled a quarter of the globe; we are the mother of parliaments; we stood alone against Hitler; we have not been conquered for a thousand years. We feel remarkable.

The Brexit vote was driven by the belief that Britain was hobbled by being shackled to a moribund, bureaucratic group of nations. The Brexiteers convinced enough of the electorate that we needed only to be set free from Europe, with its tiresome regulations, restrictions and pesky immigrants, to become a proud, swashbuckling, dominant and richer country again.

This promise is a stunning misunderstanding of who we are, what we are capable of and where we stand in the world. Britain’s faith in its independent future is rooted in its economic performance. We are a tiny island, but we are — as the prime minister, Theresa May, and leading Brexiteers have frequently assured us — the world’s fifth largest economy. That ranking has given just over half the country the false confidence that we have nothing to fear from change.

The trouble with that statistic is that it obscures all the weaknesses that lie beneath the surface. We don’t have the skills, the manufacturing base, the drive or the productivity we would need to take off as an independent nation. For years, Britain’s inadequacies have been compensated for by its membership in the European Union. Now, they are about to become painfully apparent.

Education is a critical weakness. We claim to have a world-class system, but the latest figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that on scores for literacy and numeracy, 16- to 24-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland rank in the lowest four of the organization’s 35 member countries. More than half of that age group also have poor technological skills; they rank alongside Americans at the bottom of that pile. As a House of Lords report last week complained, businesses haven’t bothered to train Britons to make up for these deficiencies over the past decade because they could always recruit foreigners instead.

There aren’t enough British workers, with the right attitudes and the right skills, to fill the country’s jobs. The consequence is that we import huge numbers of migrants to do what Britons can’t or won’t. The manufacturing, nursing, care and catering industries all depend on foreigners. Nearly one-fifth of Britain’s university staff members are from other European Union countries. Almost 100,000 seasonal agricultural workers are needed every year to pick vegetables and kill chickens — jobs that farmers’ groups say it’s impossible to get Britons to do.

E.E.F., the manufacturers’ organization formerly known as the Engineering Employers Federation, reports that Britain is so short of workers skilled in science, technology and mathematics that three-quarters of firms struggle to fill skilled engineering posts, and a quarter recruit specifically from Europe to fill those gaps. A third of new nurses each year are European. Only one in 50 applicants to the sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger is a Briton.

Despite all these imported skills, Britain’s economy has stagnated since the financial crisis. A majority of workers still earn less in real terms than they did nearly a decade ago. Gross domestic product has been inching upward simply because there are more people in the country, but the only measure that matters, per capita G.D.P., has not risen at all in a decade. It is a shocking record. For every hour we work, we produce about a fifth less than the average among the Group of 7 countries. Only Italy has performed worse than us in productivity growth over the last 10 years.

Britain’s prosperity is also undermined by the very uneven spread of wealth. There are a handful of rich regions, with London pre-eminent, but much of the country is surprisingly poor. Nine of Northern Europe’s 10 poorest regions — including West Wales, Cornwall and Lancashire — are in Britain.

The prosperity we do have is highly dependent on our trade with Europe. Just about 44 percent of British exports, and more than half our imports, are with the European Union. Britain owes much of the foreign investment in its key industries, in cars and pharmaceuticals, precisely to the fact that the country provides an entry point for Europe. London’s financial and business services are a powerhouse of the economy, making up a third of Britain’s G.D.P., and cornering the union’s markets in this area.

Brexit means that we are about to willfully blow up all these ties. It will make all our trading relationships with our nearest neighbors more difficult and expensive. It will cut the flow of European Union migrants here. As Simon Tilford at the Center for European Reform has pointed out, Britain will be much less attractive to the foreign-owned businesses that generate half its exports once they cannot sell to the Continent without barriers. We will no longer be allowed to sell financial services freely in the European Union, and whatever access we negotiate for goods will have to be, as the union has made clear, substantially worse than what we have now.

The consequences will be serious and lasting. The organization that speaks for big business, the Confederation of British Industry, calculates that by 2020 the country’s G.D.P. could be 3 percent to 5.5 percent lower than if we had stayed in the European Union.

New trade deals with the rest of the world cannot make up for Brexit. According to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a leading think tank, leaving the single market will cost Britain a fifth of its trade in goods (and a quarter in services). Even if we negotiated free-trade agreements with 10 leading nations, including India, Brazil and the United States — a process likely to take years — that trade would make up for only about a quarter of what will be lost.

All this is before we take into account the expense, complication and bureaucratic replication involved in leaving the union; the years of negotiating with countries around the globe; the dozens of European regulatory agencies, overseeing everything from medicines to nuclear power, that Britain would now have to set up equivalents for; the need to recruit thousands of people to manage new and more extensive customs and immigration systems.

Britons are not remotely prepared for this reality. The country is sick of low living standards, and polls show that people are fed up with austerity cuts to public spending. Voters wanted and expected Brexit to make them richer. They were told that negative forecasts of Brexit’s effects were just scaremongering by the elite and its experts; they didn’t anticipate the downsides.

Rather like an unhappy spouse contemplating a divorce in favor of marriage to a charming new amour, most voters expected Brexit to get rid of everything they didn’t like about the European Union (immigration, regulation), while blindly assuming that they would keep everything they did enjoy (prosperity, subsidies for poorer industries and regions, retirement beside the Mediterranean, free health care abroad). They hoped, in short, to have their cake and eat it, too.

The paradox is summed up by two women I interviewed recently. Both were single mothers living on benefits they denounced as far too low. Both had voted for Brexit. Both believed there were too many foreigners here. And both were scandalized when I asked whether they would take vacant jobs in cafes or shops.

“They’re immigrants’ jobs,” one said.

British business is starting to panic about the imminent damage. Already, banks are starting to move their staff out of London and into Europe, foreign investment is falling, real wages are dropping below inflation again and are forecast to fall further, the Bank of England is warning that household debt is rising to dangerous levels as people borrow to keep up living standards, and British growth in the first two quarters of this year has slumped to just 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent respectively, even as Europe’s growth has risen to more than double that.

A senior ex-diplomat, a man who has spent a professional lifetime building up Britain’s trade and its credibility with investors, is aghast at what the Brexit chaos is doing to our reputation. “The core narrative of the country for the past 40 years has been that we’re stable and politically predictable; the ideal platform for investing into the single market,” he told me. “And now we’re rudderless and in a mess.”

These are the dismal facts that should puncture the ridiculous fantasy that Britain’s Brexiteers have sold the nation. They are why Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, is fighting a political battle with Mrs. May’s cabinet to make our departure from the European Union as prolonged and gentle as can be managed.

Britain is not an economic powerhouse waiting to be liberated. We are a country of mediocre education and limited skills, whose preening vanity has prevented us from seeing our failings. Our membership in the European Union is not a set of restraints; it is what has been propping us up. If we insist on cutting ourselves off, parts of our economy will start to die.

Dunkirk is remembered so fondly only because, in the end, Britain was on the winning side. That wasn’t down to our plucky spirit. It was because America, with its overwhelming resources, entered the war. There is no such ally waiting to rescue us now, as we start down the dangerous path of methodically shredding our links with our neighbors and friends.

Jenni Russell, a journalist and broadcaster, is a columnist for The Times of London.

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