20 September 2023

Britain’s future will not be determined by our relationship with the EU – whatever Starmer says


One of the reasons it is deeply in the Conservatives’ interests to win the next election – not so much doable as a matter of formality in the immediate aftermath of 2019 – is that it will finally put the issue of the European Union to bed.

By 2029, we would have been out for almost a decade, and the referendum almost 15 years in the past. The Government would have had plenty of time to sand down any especially unstable parts of the settlement (albeit surely not perfectly), and Labour would be led by a younger generation who weren’t defined by the referendum and the bitter constitutional trench warfare of 2017-19.

Alas, here we are. Sir Keir Starmer is not of that generation, and whilst Rishi Sunak has with the Windsor Framework stripped him of the most plausible cover for a big renegotiation, Brexit is still an unhealed wound for the Labour leader, and if recent press reports are any indication, he’s going to try to do something.

But what? Alignment on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures is probably the lowest-hanging fruit. It would alleviate the need for many of the current checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the cost would largely be paid in ambition; Labour would need to repeal the Genetic Technology Act and foreswear any chance of the UK’s thriving life sciences sector outperforming its European counterparts and making this country a world leader in anything.

Given both the electorate’s general disinterest in that sort of thing, and the Kuperist mindset that treats any ambition for Britain to excel as delusive, it isn’t impossible to imagine them doing that.

Beyond that, though? The biggest prize on offer, economically, would be access to the Single Market. But that would mean signing up to the infamous ‘four freedoms’: of movement for goods, capital, services, and people.

Set aside for a moment that, even as a full member of the EU, we found it extremely difficult to chivvy the Union into actually delivering a fully-developed single market for services, by far the aspect best suited to Britain’s economic strengths. 

Does Starmer really think that he’s either a) going to persuade the EU to grant us full access for goods, services, and capital but not labour or b) sell the electorate on freedom of movement? Does he really think that Brussels is more likely to offer that, the Holy Grail of British European policy, now than it was to David Cameron, when it might have actually kept the UK inside?

Of course, there is a third option: the principle is, in theory, the movement of labour, not people. A Labour government could in theory draw a lot of the sting from it by shifting towards a contributory welfare system and, via a proper ID card system, drawing a tighter protective cordon around employment and entitlements alike.

But come on, this is Labour we’re talking about, the party so disinterested in the importance of citizenship that it recently toyed with giving permanent residents the vote. Whilst Europhiles may scorn the idea of British exceptionalism, they are usually committed to various exceptional behaviours – no ID cards, a gold-plating approach to EU regulations, and so on – which would baffle their counterparts on the continent.

Politically, Starmer probably feels he has to offer something to Europhile voters, not least because they comprise a substantial share of disaffected Conservatives in the Blue Wall and other parts of the South which he is hoping to feel away. So we’ll probably get some grand agreement and a lot of fanfare. But like the Windsor Framework, the substance of it will almost certainly be disappointing.

The most frustrating thing about all of this is the fact that as much as it might exercise a lot of people traumatised by the referendum, when it comes to the future of the country the question of our relationship with Europe is relatively trivial.

Yes, increasing friction with a large neighbouring market was always going to impose some economic penalties. It could be that the ability to make our own decisions would gradually, if we made better ones, lead to the UK performing better than it would inside the EU. But realistically, that is something we’d only be able to judge a couple of decades after leaving; the (perfectly valid) issue at stake in 2016 was whether those costs were worth the principle that the increasingly broad areas of policy outsourced to Brussels ought to be under more democratic and national control.

But this country’s structural problems predated Brexit and would not be fixed by rejoining. The EU is not, or at least not mostly, to blame for low productivity or flat wages; it is certainly not at fault for our chronic inability to build houses, railways, reservoirs, power stations, or other essential infrastructure.

Prior to Brexit, it suited Conservative politicians to blame Brussels rather than admit that any genuinely Thatcherian attempt to kickstart the economy would involve painful confrontations with traditional Tory supporters – big business over productivity and immigration, homeowners and local authorities over construction.

One of the upsides of Brexit, from the point of view of a Conservative who actually wants to govern, is that it stripped the politicians of their catch-all excuse for not governing. That they have since been exposed as abjectly unready to do so doesn’t invalidate that thesis – exposing the shortcomings of our rulers is the first step towards finding better ones.

Likewise, it is now much easier for the old managerial class to blame Brexit, and fantasise about rejoining the EU as a sort of universal palliative, than confront difficult questions about the ever-growing burden of healthcare and entitlements or, again, the urgent need to build millions of homes.  

Fortunately, it seems unlikely that Starmer would do anything as lunatic as try to actually take Britain back in. Notwithstanding that it wouldn’t address this country’s deepest problems, it would do absolutely horrifying things to our politics. 

Imagine all the furious energy the FPBE types and Scottish nationalists found in defeat, and imagine it channelled instead to the nationalist right, which could go back to blaming Brussels for everything and would have the additional twist of having actually won the 2016 referendum. No thanks.

The European Union is no Hyperborea, nor was Britain prior to 2016. Whatever the material gains of easier trade, they would not justify either the viciousness it would inject into our politics or the lifeline thrown to our leaders’ procrastinations and excuses. It’s time to move on.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.