The Brexit obsession is diverting attention from other big challenges
Since Britain voted to leave the EU, little of substance has happened in the decoupling process. Britain has served its Article 50 notice, the EU has established its preferred method of handling the negotiations, to which the British have acceded, and both sides have now published detailed papers on their preferred way of proceeding. The real fight, as Jeremy Corbyn said, starts here.
If this is a phoney war, then it certainly hasn’t lacked for coverage of its shadow battles. Remainers mock the ramshackle way in which the British government has put together its negotiating position, profess disdain for what they see as the government’s provincial jingoism and boggle at the starry-eyed impossibilism of the British government’s continuing attempts to have their cake and eat it. For their part, Leavers have snarled at Remainers‘ perceived lack of patriotism, labelled those with qualms about the project saboteurs and enemies of the people and set out a wide variety of mutually contradictory preferred positions which they continually seek to map onto the government positions. Position papers have been deconstructed to the nth degree. Every new utterance by a government minister, EU flunkey or holidaying ex-SPAD is dissected endlessly for detail and nuance.
Both sides noisily agree that whatever else one might think of Brexit, it is important. The news-consuming public largely seems to agree. The Express seems to be kept afloat as a newspaper by a combination of EU outrages and statins. Hitherto obscure journalists now seem to make a good living out of Remain-supporting podcasts.
Both sides are right, of course. The terms of the Brexit settlement will have a substantial impact on the prosperity of Britain (and to a lesser extent the EU). It is very possible that the negotiations will end in acrimony, greatly exacerbating the already difficult relations between Britain and the EU and the internal divisions in the UK between the two camps. This is the biggest change of direction for Britain since it sought to join the EEC as it then was. The stakes are high.
One of the big dangers of Brexit, however, is that Britain’s absorption in the process is blinding it to other important developments. The continuing excellent employment figures have rightly been widely reported, though one has to admire the Express’s ability to make a bad news story out of this by blazoning its front page with the number of migrants in jobs. The slowdown in growth passed by largely without comment.
British political types awoke from their navel-gazing when North Korea threatened to launch missiles in the direction of the US and Donald Trump promised fire and fury. But they haven’t particularly noticed that ISIS have lost Mosul or that the Gulf is currently in the throes of a cold war between Qatar, backed by Turkey, on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the other. Every European election or potential change of government is being seen through a Brexit prism: is Angela Merkel going to be re-elected and will her new coalition be more or less Brexit-friendly? Will the new Taoiseach be less accommodating to Britain’s preferred Brexit settlement than his predecessor? Britain’s horizons have sharply narrowed.
Politically aware Brits have picked up on the strife in southern US states over statues celebrating confederacy figures. Few seem to have picked up on the possibility of white nationalism crossing the Atlantic, though UKIP seem likely, in the wake of another large trial involving a group of largely Muslim men who sexually exploited white girls, to elect as leader one of the candidates who is standing on an anti-Islam ticket. This is a show that could be coming to a screen near you shortly.
As important as the Brexit settlement is, everything else continues. Once Brexit is no longer completely all-consuming, Britain will need to get to grips with globalisation, AI, productivity, the housing crisis, an ageing population and all the other challenges that seemed so important before the country voted to devote years to sorting out the second order problem of the precise basis on which Britain interacts with its neighbours. Since the government does not have the human or intellectual capacity to address these challenges at the same time as negotiating Brexit, Britain is set to fall years behind its cohort in dealing with them. So much for making Britain more competitive.
How to solve this problem? Oddly, it is some of those who voted for Leave who now carp that Brexit has led to a sterile debate, as though the outcome should have been closed off further discussion of the manifold problems it raised. Ignoring those problems, however, will not make them go away.
There appears to be no option to ploughing through the Brexit blizzard and accepting that will make us snow blind for some time to come. At the end, whenever that might be, we will survey a very changed landscape. Because Britain will not be prepared for that changed landscape, it is unlikely to be well-placed to profit from it.