UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

Britain’s departure from the EU under Boris Johnson will dim prospects for the UK next year, with or without a free trade deal. At best the prime minister will secure a deal at the last minute that eliminates tariffs on trade, but there will be disruption, price hikes, protests and perhaps a clash on the seas.

Whatever the losses, the prime minister thinks they will evaporate in the sun-filled freedom to depart from the EU’s regulatory rule book. For all the talk of greater state intervention, Johnson has not changed his spots. His is a right-wing government with a strong ideological commitment to take the country back to where Margaret Thatcher left it.

This is not just out of nostalgia for the Thatcher age, when greed was good. Thatcher was genuinely convinced that economic growth and full employment were wrong if brought about through government action. Johnson is of the same mind. He doesn’t want Britons to rely on “Uncle Sugar the taxpayer” and get addicted to the sweet rush of a compassionate response.

Until Thatcherism, Conservative governments were predominantly pragmatist and were for the preservation of the country’s existing institutions more than their reform. Leaving the EU is a reversal of a long-term historical trend rather than a consolidation of advances made. Thatcher’s fingerprints can be found all over Brexit. She insisted 20 years ago, in her book Statecraft, that Britain’s economic interests would not be damaged if the UK were to quit Europe.

Yet there are few historical situations in which the rigid application of a centralised, free-market approach and the suppression of the state as well as the links to friendly neighbours would be less appropriate than in present-day Britain.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to develop reliable EU-wide supply chains for medical products. The employment shock that accompanied lockdowns is a challenge only the government can meet in substantial measure. And the rise of China as a technological leader requires not just more active industrial strategies but cross-country collaboration. There will also have to be concerted international co-operation on climate, data privacy and tax havens. /London, December 7

The Guardian

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