On this day in 2016, 72% of the UKs electorate headed to the polls in the EU referendum. Four years on, one can hardly fail to be struck by the subsequent transformation of politics. Yet the consequences in terms of substantive policy have been significantly more limited. Brexit, to date, has changed everything and nothing.
Lets start with the most obvious point. The UKs relationship with the EU will be, and indeed has already been, profoundly altered as a result of the referendum. For all the doubts as to whether the result of the referendum would be honoured or not, it has been. Britains membership ended on 31 January. And the rupture promises to be far more severe than many observers expected at the time.
Yet the Brexiters were wrong to claim that leaving would be easy. Of course, the difficulties sprang partly from failures of political leadership and a parliament too divided to make up its own mind. Yet the National Audit Office claimed that by March 2020 there were roughly 27,500 civil servants working on Brexit. That even the British civil service, long feted as perhaps the most effective administration inside the EU, should have struggled with the task is telling.
While leaving has proven harder than leavers were willing to admit, the process has underlined the validity of the longstanding Eurosceptic claim that the EU, as Douglas Hurd once put it, had inveigled its way into the nooks and crannies of national life. And like an invasive creeper, its removal is causing damage. In both Northern Ireland and Scotland, Brexit is undermining devolution settlements that were designed with EU membership in mind.
Shifts in the constitutional status quo may be occurring slowly, but there has been nothing slow about the transformation of politics. The post-referendum period has witnessed, among other things, a reassertion of the dominance of the two large parties; a shift in their electoral base; changes in leadership; numerous expulsions and Conservative victories in former Labour strongholds.
One result has been the absolute primacy of politics over other considerations. Boris Johnsons government seems committed not only to get Brexit done, but to do so in a way consistent with the UK “taking back control” of its money, laws and borders. The implications of this for the future of UK-EU relations are clear. As prime ministerial adviser David Frost put it in a speech in Brussels in February 2020, Brexit, “was surely above all a revolt against a system”. And its purpose was to reclaim “the ability to get your own rules right in a way that suits our own conditions”.
Consequently, even should a trade deal be agreed with the EU, it will be a relatively “thin” one to avoid replicating the pre-existing arrangement, fundamentally altering not only the way the UK trades with the EU, but also patterns of cooperation over matters ranging from anti-terrorism to defence.
It has, in other words, been a rollercoaster ride. Yet, while the changes we have seen are both fascinating and important, they should not blind us to broad continuity elsewhere.
I argued in the immediate aftermath of the referendum that the “kaleidoscope of British politics” had been well and truly shaken. Yet this was not all. It was up to the countrys leaders to address “the real concerns of many of those who voted against EU membership”.
And initially it seemed that something would, indeed, happen. Theresa May declared her intention to make Britain “a country that works for everyone”, driven by the interests of those “just about managing” rather than those of the “privileged few”. Launching her plan for Britain in March 2017, she remarked that the “EU referendum result was an instruction to change the way our country works, and the people for whom it works, forever”. And her successor has maintained the same theme, insisting on the need to “level up” the country by improving the wellbeing of people living in poorer parts of the country.
Yet ultimately, all that May gave us was words. Gross disposable household income per head in London rose by £1,700 between 2016 and 2018, but by just two-thirds of that level in the Midlands, Wales, the north-east, and Yorkshire and the Humber. Transport spending per head in Yorkshire and the Humber and the East Midlands was actually lower in 2017/18 than in 2015/16. Meanwhile – four years on from the referendum, remember – the government has yet to publish its consultation on the shared prosperity fund about how it will replace EU development funds for poorer regions.
And while the government is set to introduce a points-based immigration system for EU migrants, both May and Johnson implicitly acknowledged that the vote was about more than immigration. It was for a new settlement of some kind for the country, which has not yet even started to materialise.
Of course, until January 2020, Brexit effectively drove all other issues off the agenda. And subsequently, Covid-19 has done the same thing. Moreover both, via their negative impacts on the economy, will make “levelling up” harder than it would have been immediately after the referendum.
Yet at the same time, the pandemic has made the task of acting to address longstanding inequalities more urgent. Its impact, as study upon study has revealed, has been deeply unequal. The virus has hit more disadvantaged urban areas harder, not only in terms of death rates but also in its impact on household wealth.
As the practical case for action has strengthened, so too has the political argument. Johnson came to power by building a coalition that involved former Labour voters who not only wanted to see Brexit done, but also expected the government to represent their economic interests.
Acting now, in other words, is both more difficult and more urgent than it has been at any moment since the referendum. Four years of promises have, to date, led to little in the way of meaningful action. Now Brexit at last is “done”, it is time for the government to deliver.