A couple of days before the UK voted to leave the EU, the official remain campaign, Stronger In, released a bulletin of what it imagined the news headlines to be the next day in the event of a leave vote. Job losses would ensue, it said; prices would rise, the pound would plummet, and the UK would be stuck in a protracted negotiation process for the next decade. (Tellingly, the issue of the Irish border wasn’t mentioned.)
Since the vote, sure, life is worse in the UK than it was in 2016 – but it’s hard to pin that on Brexit, as a sense of national decline is at least partly why a majority voted to leave in the first place. Indeed, aside from the parliamentary absurdities of the past three years, it’s fair to say that the predicted catastrophe hasn’t really happened. In fact, the principal group of people whose lives have been immediately disrupted by Brexit are EU citizens and the victims of increased racist hate crimes. Shamefully, that doesn’t seem to be reason enough to give us pause as a nation – and so we’ve pressed on.
As Boris Johnson spends yet another day projecting ostensible ambivalence about a no-deal scenario, the anti-no-deal political and media alliance finds itself repeating the final days of the EU referendum campaign, by issuing almost daily warnings of social and economic catastrophe. The crescendo of these warnings was the government’s own Operation Yellowhammer documents leaked over the weekend, which foretold instant disruption to medical and food supplies, and imports from the EU.
But what if full-scale abrupt meltdown doesn’t happen, as it didn’t in 2016? And what if those predicting it are written off as the empty managers of “project fear” once again? The current government isn’t hamstrung by an austerity narrative as David Cameron’s was, and anyone familiar with Dominic Cummings’s writings knows that he believes Westminster to be flush with cash that just isn’t being spent properly. It’s quite possible the government will throw money at a no-deal scenario to keep disruption as minimal and temporary as possible. If the apocalyptic scenarios for no deal aren’t felt from 1 November onwards, what will happen to the credibility of those predicting them?
This is important because an anti-no-deal Brexit alliance needs credibility with the public in order to talk about a much worse consequence of a no-deal Brexit: a slow-burn recession. A few weeks before the Operation Yellowhammer leak, Unite the Union presented a briefing in parliament on the effects of no deal on British industry. This briefing was much more consequential and frightening than anything produced by the various pro-EU campaigns. In careful detail, it lays out the thousands upon thousands of jobs that would be threatened by no deal, most of them located in parts of the country that are already struggling economically. Just one example of this is Airbus, which has said it is contemplating relocating its UK sites. Airbus employs half of its 14,000-strong workforce in Wales, the region that currently receives the most EU structural funding in the UK. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the EU, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that nearly a quarter of the Welsh population is already living in poverty. On 1 November 2019, life in Wales may not be any different than it is now. But immiserated by the previous recession, long-term deindustrialisation and successive governments that haven’t seemed all that bothered about anywhere outside of the M25, it is crucial to ask whether Welsh communities will be able to withstand the loss of key industries and structural funding. There is no plan for these communities in the event of no deal; their fates are being ignored in favour of spectacular fantasies about traffic jams in Kent.
The Unite briefing lists a number of industries that will be affected by no deal, laying bare the depth and scale of long-term damage that could be done. The UK’s automotive sector employs 850,000 people, delivering £20.2bn to the economy every year, says the briefing. The food industry employs 450,000 people, with more than 4 million workers employed in the food supply chain. The port of Southampton moves 900,000 UK-made vehicles every year, 60% of which are exports. On and on it goes, and government plans for the sectors listed are completely absent. Unite acknowledges short-term disruption to food imports and so on, but its key message could not be clearer: “The consequences for working-class communities across the country will be devastating and long lasting.” For all the government’s rhetoric about working people and “the left behinds”, what does it really have to say about these risks?
Those opposing no deal must stop focusing so heavily on the prospect of immediate disaster, and start talking more about what the UK might look like in five or 10 years’ time, after the asset stripping of British industry has taken place.
The reasons for the leave vote are complex and multifaceted, but it was seen by some as offering a solution for the many people in the UK who had experienced a decade of economic hardship since the 2008 financial crisis. The remain campaign eschewed responding to that issue in favour of trying to frighten the public into staying in the EU. It’s now time for the opponents of no deal to learn from the remain campaign’s mistake. If they don’t, the architects of a broken and divided nation may well get away with it again.
• Ellie Mae O’Hagan writes about politics and culture for the Guardian