Suez taught us our future lay in Europe. So will Brexit

Many countries are experiencing economic problems associated with the pandemic and supply chain shortages, but none is in such a bad position as the UK.

This is entirely because of Brexit. Quite apart from the multiplicity of crises associated with the acute shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers – pigs being culled, but not for eating, farmers pouring milk down the drain, queues for petrol, you name it – the economic self-harm is now showing up in the statistics, with the International Monetary Fund putting the UK bottom of its Group of Seven future growth league. This contrasts with our prime minister’s shallow claims that the UK is currently enjoying the fastest growth in the G7.

It is officially calculated that the output of goods and services in the economy will still be 3% lower next year than before the onset of the epidemic. Chancellor Sunak had to be dragged – screaming and shouting and badmouthing his business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, on the way – before agreeing to give minimal assistance to Britain’s desperate energy sector.

One of Sunak’s concerns is the concatenation of so many demands for funds from cabinet colleagues as budget day approaches. He is not helped by the fact that he espoused Brexit himself, thereby guaranteeing extra pressures on the finances from the mounting impact it is having on our trade and business investment – that is, the lack of it.

A YouGov poll indicates that 21% of respondents think Brexit is “going well” – as many as that! – and 53% think it is going badly. Only 53%? I was heartened to learn from my fellow journalist David Aaronovitch that a pro-EU lobby is “stirring” among the young. But David thinks it is going to be a long haul, as long as the decades it took fanatical Eurosceptics like Sir William Cash to achieve their dubious aims.

Many pro-Europeans seem to have given up hope. But I wonder. The damage is mounting, and all the signs are that it is going to get worse. There should come a time when a vast majority of this country will recognise that they have been “had”. Even Johnson’s mendacious administration can hardly rely on hiding indefinitely beneath the cover of Covid and other worldwide problems. At some stage the electorate will recognise that Brexit meant Brexit and constituted an attack on our freedom to do many things we previously took for granted.

I don’t see why it should take a generation of damage for this country to change its mind about Brexit. Let’s face it: it is rapidly threatening to be the biggest self-inflicted catastrophe since Suez. For younger readers, I should point out that Britain realised the limits of the arrogance that went with empire when it had to pull out of a misconceived joint venture with France in 1956 to prevent Egypt from nationalising the Suez canal. It had to pull out because the pound was collapsing and the Eisenhower government refused to support it.

It was a sad end to prime minister Anthony Eden’s career; his health suffered, and he went for a convalescent holiday in Goldeneye, the Jamaican retreat owned by the James Bond author Ian Fleming. The chancellor at the time was Harold Macmillan, who saw what was happening to the nation’s foreign currency reserves, and became known as the minister who was “first in and first out” in regard to support of the Suez venture. Macmillan succeeded Eden as prime minister.

The historical significance of this was that Macmillan realised that the UK’s future now lay in closer ties with continental Europe. His own efforts to join what was then known as the Common Market were thwarted by the opposition of France’s President de Gaulle. It was not until 1973 that we finally joined.

There is little doubt that, quite apart from the geopolitical advantages of being members of the EU, our economy benefited enormously. Growth improved, and, in economic terms, we essentially became a region of the EU under rules, such as the single market, that were drawn up in no small measure by the British. All that is being thrown into reverse. An economic omelette is being ruinously unscrambled.

Now, one of Macmillan’s favourite quotes was from Hilaire Belloc’s wonderful Cautionary Tales: “Always keep a-hold of nurse/For fear of finding something worse.”

Five years ago a tiny majority of those who voted opted for Brexit. The tragic thing was that a lot of people did not bother to vote, because (like Boris Johnson) they thought the nation would not be so stupid as to opt for “something worse”. Why, as my colleague Rafael Behr has discovered, even one Lord Frost, who will go down – and down – in history for trying to rewrite an agreement he himself negotiated, wrote in June 2016 about Brexit: “Even the best-case outcome can’t be as good as what we have now.”




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