Does Brexit mean a “cliff edge”? More a shallow pothole

Does Brexit mean a “cliff edge”? More a shallow pothole

It’s the economy, stupid. In 1992 the election strategist James Carville coined this one-liner for Bill Clinton in his presidential campaign against the incumbent, George Bush. It worked, and the phrase went round the world. Its meaning was simple: sophisticated political commentators might dream up fancy reasons for voting for Bush, but ordinary voters knew what really mattered. Politicians have the ability to deliver prosperity and jobs; if these things fail to materialise, or if the economy takes a step back, the politicians in office are to blame. Vote them out.

Nothing could be more obvious. Half a century of Keynesian economic orthodoxy had seemed to confirm it. The health of advanced economies in the West depended on the next piece of legislation, the next budget, the next tax reform, the next subsidy. The short term was everything. Economists, journalists, politicians themselves were frenzied in their conviction that everything hung by a thread. One mistake in economic planning and all was lost.

For historians, the picture looks a little different. If we compare any single year with its neighbours, acceleration and deceleration are real enough. But compare one decade with another and a different picture emerges. Indeed if we look at Office for National Statistics figures for the year-on-year growth of the UK’s GNP from 1949 to 2016, booms and busts make little difference to longer-term trends. Macmillan’s consumer bonanza; disengagement from empire; entry into the EEC; the miners’ strike; Thatcherism; Blairism; globalisation: these things produced, at most, modest effects.

Background noise apart, UK GNP since 1949 has grown at about 2.5 per cent per annum, irrespective of the party in office, regardless of geopolitical events (but with slightly higher figures in the two immediate postwar decades). This is desperately slow for revolutionaries eager to transform the world; worryingly fast for social conservatives pondering the inexorable force of compound interest. Only since the crash of 2008-9 has this growth rate halved; but that crash can hardly be blamed on the EU. Brexit might even restore the UK’s long-term average.

We might call this phenomenon path dependence: in the medium and long terms, structural and cultural features tend to dominate tactical fiscal management. Or we might use a metaphor: the mature UK economy is the largest of supertankers, steered by the smallest of rudders.

If so, we might be cautious about predictions of triumph and disaster alike. EEC entry in 1973 was unluckily followed by a recession with other causes, but then produced no economic take-off; EU exit in 2019 may be the same. For historians, economies adapt; markets adjust. That is what they have always done; it is what they will always do. As Lord King, former Governor of the Bank of England, has argued, the effect of Brexit will depend on the small print; ‘the idea this is a gloom and doom story seems to me wildly exaggerated.’

Brexit will mean sectoral adjustments: there will be winners and losers. Slightly more wine might be imported from Australia and New Zealand, slightly less from France and Germany. But the idea that the UK’s long term growth rate will accelerate past 2.5 per cent p.a. is as unsupported as the idea that it will fall off a cliff edge. Sterling’s drop against the Euro is already larger than WTO tariffs, if these were applied against UK exports by the 27.

Not so much a cliff edge, then; more a shallow pothole. Other developments are likely to be more important: the rise of emerging economies; the EU’s decreasing share of UK trade, the rest of the world’s increasing share; de-industrialisation; demographic change; currency fluctuations; the growing role of IT in the professions, and automation on the factory floor; government and consumer indebtedness; the increasing risk to the international economy of financial crises; the domestic problem of productivity. These trends powered ahead while the UK was a member of the EU; they will continue after it.

Why, then, the anguish of Remainers, the eager hopes of Leavers? Other things are more important, for which Keynesian debates on micro-management are but proxies. Take another one-liner: ‘The gentleman in Whitehall knows best’. This dates from 1939, in that able Labour MP Douglas Jay’s book The Socialist Case. Like James Callaghan’s  ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ it was a misquotation. Jay’s point was more intelligent, about the effectiveness of central planning. Thanks to its Keynesian plausibility, it exercised hegemony for forty years.

But with Margaret Thatcher’s election, it was symbolically discredited. How then was the social democratic Left to retrieve the situation? They did so not by discarding the analysis but by moving it sideways. Now, ‘the gentleman in Brussels knows best’. The EU stands not for socialism’s faith in redistribution but for social democracy’s faith in central government planning (by social democrats, naturally). And as Nigel Farage memorably pointed out in 2006, Britain had three social democratic parties and UKIP (he forgot the DUP, as many then did).

The efficacy of central planning is, by now, an item of faith more than of empirical observation. An EU fisheries policy is made up in Brussels, not in the ports and legislatures of those who understand its clumsy impact on fish conservation. The virtue of the Euro is its supra-national origin: never mind that it brings slow growth and high unemployment to many economies that use it. The claim of an EU army is that it will be centrally commanded, not that it is likely to win more battles than the armies of nation states.

George Orwell famously described Britain as ‘a family with the wrong members in control’. For Remainers, assimilation into a supra-national political organisation offers the hope of preventing those wrong members ever again wielding unfettered authority. The economy is a proxy battle; as canvassers on the doorstep found last year, the issue that came up more than any other was sovereignty. One thing the referendum shockingly revealed: it’s not the economy, stupid. Lord Keynes is dead.