The Ob­server view on Boris John­son’s anal­y­sis of Bri­tain’s ills

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion -

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

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