In the EU referendum, the British public were given a yes or no option on the question of leaving the EU. But there must be fifty ways to leave the EU, as Paul Simon didn’t sing. Brexit, it transpires, does not mean Brexit. The British public has not been consulted since the referendum, and in the absence of any opposition, it has been down to the Conservatives to single-handedly shape the future of Britain for generations to come.
The trouble is, there’s no consensus within the Conservative party either. With Article 50 triggered prematurely, a botched general election, and endless infighting, Brexit will not be done well. Like a boiled egg, we’ve been told that Brexit was supposed to be hard or soft. I think it’s going to be poached, but either way we’re headed for hot water.
Here’s what I mean by poached: the way things are going, Britain is headed for a dose of disaster capitalism. The deadline is likely to come and go with no deal done. In the chaos that follows, Boris Johnson or similar ends up in power, unelected and with a pressing mandate to do something – anything. What they do is slash taxes and regulation and run a fire sale on public assets. Britain adopts the ‘Singapore Model’ – the radical free market on the edge of Europe – that a tiny wealthy minority have wanted all along. Britain will have been taken and reshaped without permission, hence poached.
The ‘Singapore Model’ should always be referred to in inverted commas, because what advocates describe is only tangentially like Singapore. The island state does indeed operate as a radical free market, but its low tax base has historically depended on land value taxes, profitable state-run industries, and the government providing over 80% of the housing. Those don’t get a mention in the ‘Singapore Model’, so we’re talking about a fantasy version here.
It’s not a mainstream idea. Many Conservatives have ruled it out, and most of the British press talk about it as unworkable. The Telegraph is an exception. “Singapore-in-the-Atlantic is a splendid model for Brexit”, writes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. MP Owen Paterson has used the Telegraph to suggest “the Singapore model is our Brexit opportunity.” Whether they use the Singapore name or not, the basic approach is championed by right-wing think tanks such as The Freedom Association or The Foundation for Economic Education. “If we had a realistic chance of becoming a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ outside of the Single Market, I would be on board” says Christian Niemitz of the IEA. It’s the preferred Brexit strategy of the Initiative for Free Trade, launched last year by MEP and Brexit architect Daniel Hannan. The keynote speaker at the launch event? Boris Johnson.
This vision of an extreme free-market Brexit would see Britain as a trade and finance hub between Europe and America. Huge tax cuts would boost corporate profits and personal wealth. The public sector would be slashed, government spending dramatically reduced. Inequality would soar, the gulf between London and the regions widening even further.
With Brexit talks all over the place, Theresa May unable to build a shared vision, and Boris Johnson as a leadership frontrunner, this is where Britain is headed by default. By the time we are consulted again, it could be too late. The whole course of the country will have been shaped by a handful of powerful men, to the benefit of the 1%.
Alternatively, we could still have an adult conversation about what Brexit means. The Labour party needs to take a stronger line. Most importantly, moderates on both sides of the house need to work together, first to press for an extension on the Brexit timescale, and then to develop an actual plan. The disaster capitalism version of Brexit is not inevitable, but complacency and ineptitude have pointed us squarely in that direction.