The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s analysis of Britain’s ills
Yesterday, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, published an extraordinary 4,000-word article setting out his vision of a glorious British future outside the “trusses” and regulations of Brussels. It was wrong on every count, yet was a fascinating window into the contemporary conservative mind living in a parallel universe only fleetingly in touch with reality, but which is leading the country to perdition and division. It cannot be allowed to pass uncontested and unchallenged.
Mr Johnson succeeds in blaming almost every British ill – from uninspiring training to our dilapidated infrastructure – all or in part on the failing efforts of a Brussels elite to create a federal superstate. Incredibly, he writes that once free of the EU, Britain will be able to organise, plan, build the homes and infrastructure we need, give our children skills and – bingo! – we will become glorious and rich. None of this is allegedly possible as an EU member. The new alchemy will be simplifying regulations and cutting taxes, doing trade deals as “Global Britain”, alongside boosting wages and productivity.
This, in the language of those gilded Etonians Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, is bilge and balderdash. It is true, as Johnson observes, that Britain is failing on many fronts, but to lay the blame, extending even to low wages, on unnamed EU regulations is fantastical. The blame needs to be firmly pinned on the policy framework – weak regulation, low taxation, minimal public intervention and unwillingness to invest in public infrastructure and services – which he champions.
The EU, with its readiness to offer protections for temporary workers and parents, insistence on highquality environmental legislation, its ambitious cross-country research and development programmes and expenditure on regional development, has instead partially alleviated the great British disaster that Johnson and his Thatcherite cabal have provoked. The EU is a far more reliable deliverer of the aims to which Johnson now lays claim, but which his policy framework and philosophy cannot produce.
Thus, it is not Brussels regulations that have caused low wages, the growth of insecure freelance and gig work and the accompanying plunge in productivity growth. British labour law was enacted in Britain by politicians Johnson lionises and seeks to emulate. The increase in desperate poverty, with widespread growth of food banks, is because Conservative politicians, with Johnson as cheerleader-in-chief, have so attacked Britain’s social contract that it is mean and full of gaps. It is not Brussels regulations that have caused England to have eight of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe. Britain’s incapacity to develop policies that spread income, work and opportunity around the country is once again minted at home.
The thought processes that lead Johnson and his ilk to blame Britain’s house-building record, dismal track record on skills and low expenditure on science on Brussels can only be wondered at. Equally, the notion that Britain is going to embrace free trade by leaving the single largest free trading bloc in the world is bewildering. There are no easy free trade deals to be done with the US, China and India that can compensate for what will be lost with Europe, which is, in any case, looking to protect its interests and salivating at the prospect of negotiating with Brexiters who have as little grasp of economic reality as Johnson. Nor is the Commonwealth going to be a soft touch. All hope to scalp a country that has chosen to isolate itself from its neighbours and friends.
In one respect, Johnson has done the country a service by his effusions, timed as much to put a marker down on his leadership ambitions while undermining his lame duck leader as making a contribution to public debate. He has at least recognised the scale of the economic and social reconstruction that has to be done, while simultaneously demonstrating that the philosophy, policy framework and upside-down vision of the “global Britain” he champions is the wrong means of achieving it.
Britain does need a wholesale refashioning of its economic and social model. Our capitalism needs to be repurposed. Rather than the shibboleth of ever lower taxation, we must think in terms of what skills, infrastructure and public services we need and then levy the taxes required. We have to declare firmly that the country is open and internationalist by remaining a member of the largest free trade area in the world. Above all, we need to restate our values. Britain is a tolerant, ruleof-law society that vigilantly ensures its economy and social structures work for all. Those are the values of the European Union, with whom we should be making common cause, not heading off for an imagined Thatcherite utopia, the cause of so much of what has gone wrong in contemporary Britain. British Thatcherites, not the EU, are the cause of our current ills.
Boris Johnson departing Downing Street last week. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images