A Message From Tony Blair: After Brexit

A Message From Tony Blair: After Brexit

Commentary
Posted on: 3rd January 2021
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

I was passionately opposed to Brexit and haven't changed my mind about its wisdom. But now it is reality, we still have much to be optimistic about as a country, and therefore we must make the best of it. 

However, we must understand the scale of the challenge, which few politicians at present seem to grasp. The Conservative Party is happy celebrating the ‘re-taking’ of sovereignty; the Labour Party is anxious to win back its lost voters – many of whom voted for Brexit – and doesn't want to appear recalcitrant.

The consequence of Brexit is that it leaves us with no choice as a country: change or decline. The way to make sense of Brexit is to treat it as shock therapy. It is to wrench Britain out of the comfort zone of the post-war European-style social contract, and force it to strike out as an independent icon of what a modern, model economy and society could be, if a country has the vision and courage to take the tough decisions to get there.

The champions of Brexit eulogise the liberation from supposedly suffocating European regulation, but when pinned down as to how exactly we use this liberation to regulate better, it seems to come to freeports, fishing and fintech. Even if these amounted to something substantial – and it is doubtful they do – they couldn't possibly compensate for the extra friction in goods trade, the absence of anything meaningful to protect the UK service sector, the hit to our GDP or the vast upfront spending on Brexit.

The deal puts us essentially at the mercy of Europe on financial services – an immense contributor to our present wealth – and on data sharing – vital for our future wealth. 

Likewise, the reduction in European migration under freedom of movement must be balanced against the loss of freedom which millions of Brits have enjoyed to work, live and travel in Europe without restriction, and the fact that since 2016, Brexit has not reduced overall immigration, just changed its composition. 

Short term, there is no serious doubt Brexit leaves us weaker: We're out of the world’s most powerful political union and the world’s largest commercial market to which we have ties of history, values, interests and geography. Unless we act to change its consequences, we will have lost political influence and be economically worse off, which is why our currency devalued after the referendum and has not fully recovered. 

Even more bizarre is the assertion that Brexit gives us an opportunity to ‘level up’ and help the regions of Britain ‘left behind’. 

Europe has never as far as I know prevented any UK government from any amount of ‘levelling up’ and mine did so, by massive investment in health and education plus tax credits to help struggling families; and the biggest factor in recent years in communities ‘left behind’ has been ten years of austerity from the same government the Brexiteers supported.

The point is not that our investment was right or that austerity was wrong – each had its justification for its time – but that neither decision was remotely constrained by Europe.

Brexit’s real consequence is to make vital what is otherwise desirable.

Modern western societies have developed as they have for all sorts of historical and even philosophical reasons. We have many strengths as liberal democracies, but also severe weaknesses. Our welfare states are expensive and often fail to meet their basic objectives. Our health-care services, including our cherished NHS, need deep reform. Our education systems despite improvements still fail large numbers of poorer students. Personal taxes for many are high and value for money in what government provides is often low. Social exclusion and criminality are stubborn societal problems which we seem unable to solve. There is large regional disparity.

Two big things pile on the pressure for change. The risen power of the East, China, is developing a different and they would say more effective model of government. And the technology revolution is upending every facet of modern life and will only accelerate.   

Britain now needs a big plan for Britain’s future and though the Brexiteers have the greater responsibility to provide one, having taken us down this path, it is too important to be left to them, if we want that plan to create a country where opportunity is more justly and widely spread.

This requires fundamental change in our political debate.

Because, for sure, if after Brexit we continue arguing only over who spends most on the NHS, or pays teachers more, or is Universal Credit better than Tax Credit, or should the top rate of tax be 45 or 50 per cent, inexorable decline is where we are headed.

How do we get annual economic growth well above 2 per cent? How do we become a global centre of technology innovation, including in areas where we're already doing well, such as bio-science? How do we make Britain the most attractive place to set up business, given the Brexit agreement’s limitations on regulatory freedom? How do we reform our public services, using technology to drive up performance and drive down cost, when we're going to be borrowing more than any government since the Second World War? How do we cut crime and the numbers of families living on the breadline or cut off from society’s mainstream? How to rebuild our infrastructure to make the most of being a small landmass with a relatively large population? How to preserve the integrity of the UK? What is our new role in the world?

Using Brexit as a spur to answer those questions in a radical but practical manner can help us to overcome these challenges. And – not that it is remotely on the agenda now – if there ever is to be a rekindling of a European future for Britain, under the leadership of a new younger generation, it can come only through a Britain that is strong, not one on its knees, a Britain Europe wants to imitate not isolate.   

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