The Leave vote: doomed to division

Two weeks on from the referendum on EU membership, consultancy CEB scanned 25,000 sources world wide to collect data about job vacancies on offer in the UK. They concluded that compared with pre-referendum figures, the number of jobs on offer had declined by 47%, from almost 1.5 million to around 820,000. They described this as “far outside the normal fluctuations seen by the company, which tend to be between 5 and 10 per cent”.

Of course, it’s still too early to say whether this is simply a short-term “blip” or whether there will be a significant long-term reduction in jobs on offer. One thing is fairly certain: this is not the zero-sum game that the Leave campaign would have people believe. Removing the 2 million or so EU citizens currently employed in the UK will not simply shift 2 million unemployed natives into work. Taking 2 million employees out of the system is far more likely to reduce economic activity over all, slowing growth and making it harder for companies to invest in increased capacity.

Leavers hope that Britain will become a newly vibrant, dynamic economy – perhaps based on expectations of new companies springing up in the absence of all that EU red tape. But those companies will need a market, and the UK’s departure from the EU will make market access more difficult and more expensive.

In the longer term, barring EU citizens from coming to work in the UK would aggravate Britain’s demographic problems: an aging population without sufficient young, tax-paying people in the workforce to sustain the pension system and welfare state.

And there we have it. The Conservative Brexit strategy, if put into practice, is one which would lead, predictably, to bad consequences for anyone stuck in Britain without the means to leave, or to pay for their own healthcare and retirement. That’s a demographic from which the leading Leave campaigners are conspicuously absent. They blithely encouraged others to vote Leave, knowing that they themselves would not be caught in the resulting trap.

From across the Channel, the French publication Libération can see that the Brexit movement tries to combine two incompatible groups: one it describes as “driven by a narrow, xenophobic nationalism; the other more liberal or libertarian than nationalist, and in no way hostile to immigration, with Daniel Hannan MEP as its principal protagonist”*.

The problem for those now faced with the task of delivering on the Leave campaign’s promises is this: there is simply no way to reconcile the wishes of those two groups, either economically or politically.

Economically, as Daniel Hannan was obliged to concede after the referendum, the UK cannot enjoy continued access to the single market if it insists on barring EU workers.

Politically, as Matthew Parris has so eloquently put it, “anti-immigrant feeling won it for Leave, and they know it. They used it, rode it and are complicit in it.” Hannan’s “informed, liberal, immigration-friendly” perspective will do nothing for that constituency but enrage it.

The Leave proponents (those who haven’t simply shrugged and walked away, that is) now find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. They have made promises they can’t keep, to constituencies they can’t simultaneously satisfy. If that’s what they count as a victory, I’d hate to think what they would consider a defeat.

*”L’un est animé par un nationalisme borné et xénophobe. L’autre, dont Daniel Hannan est le principal représentant, est informé, plus libéral ou libertarien que nationaliste, et nullement hostile à l’immigration.” — Liberation, 5/7/2016