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An economist views the UK’s snap general election

There is something unusual about the 2017 UK general election. It is the way in which all the manifestos clearly make their promises conditional on the ‘good Brexit deal’ that they claim to be able to secure. They are not the only ones. On 11 May the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney reassured the markets that the ‘good Brexit deal’ would stabilise our economy after 2019, and the markets were duly sedated. So they would like us to think. But all this stands in the way of serious politics.

In fact there is no ‘good Brexit deal’ available. The whole concept says more about the chronic nostalgia of the British public than it does about any differences between the political parties. It is this nostalgia for the state before we entered the European Union that has distracted the British public from the responsibility that should be placed at the door of successive British administrations since 1973, rather than Brussels, for a failing economy and insecure society. For the Europeans, this will be the fourth ‘deal’ that Britain will have secured: the first on entry in 1973; the second under Margaret Thatcher in 1984 when ‘we got our money back’; the third obtained by David Cameron in 2016; and the fourth that is to come resulting from our exit from the European Union.

Our historical record, therefore, cannot reassure our European partners that Britain will not come back for more when things go badly after the deal. After all, Euro-scepticism trades on the notion that our ills are due to the ‘deal’ we got from Europe. Indeed the more our politicians demand that we give them ‘a strong negotiating position’ with Europe, the more they are hedging their electoral promises with the alibi that, if they do not deliver, it will be because we did not give them a sufficiently ‘strong negotiating position’, or they were taken advantage of by the Europeans. And the more our politicians predicate their promises on ‘a good Brexit deal’ the more those promises are unlikely to be fulfilled.

 I will still be voting, for whichever candidate can convince me that she or he is seeking relationships rather than deals in Europe.

In this respect the election is not needed at this moment, in particular for the Brexit process which leaves our government only 21 months to settle the complex questions arising out of Brexit. Out of these questions, the more obviously insoluble conundrums are Northern Ireland, where the border promises to reignite civil war; immigration, which owes more to the failure of professional and technical education that none of the political parties have properly addressed; and trade agreements, where any British agreements with non-EU trading partners can only exacerbate any trading agreement with Europe. Trade agreements that we might secure outside the European Union would have to be incorporated in our EU trade agreement because the Europeans would not want us to blow a hole in their customs union.

All of these complexities will come back to haunt us after the election. They indicate that there is no ‘good Brexit deal’ out there. And when the actual deal is exposed, our government, no matter who wins the election, will no doubt place on the table its alibi that we did not give them a sufficiently ‘strong negotiating position’ or they were taken advantage of by Europeans. Maybe our politicians are not so dishonest, but the Euro-sceptics have form on convincing the British public that their problems were created in Brussels rather than Westminster.

In the meantime the great middle class consumption machine continues to power our economy. That it did not shudder as expected after the EU referendum clearly shows, as far as the public is concerned, that all economic forecasts are wrong, so that the marginalised and ‘left behind’ can dream on about the revival of their prelapsarian industrial communities.

I will still be voting, for whichever candidate can convince me that she or he is seeking relationships rather than deals in Europe, and knowing that whoever wins will be losing in the long run. We have an economy that is desperately in need of modernisation, re-equipment, and expansion. But for too long our political establishment has been only too willing to sub-contract economy policy to the City of London, by now a protectorate of the American banking establishment. We have an educational system that dominated by the traditional, non-technical education enjoyed by our political elite, and therefore making our labour market over-dependent on technical education in foreign countries. Finally we have a political establishment dominated by feudal hierarchy and dilettantish schooling.

As long as we are not dealing with the backwardness and dysfunction of our economy and institutions, that backwardness and dysfunction will ensure that the winning promises go unfulfilled. In this situation the promise of the deal that will make things right may be attractive. But in the reality of industrial and economic decline, the art of the deal is an endless cycle of bargain, pact, and regret.

The only way out of the cycle is a durable commitment with our neighbours in Europe to work together to resolve our common problems: the Europe-wide problem of refugees and the civil wars in the Middle East that lie behind the problem of terrorism, the continental-wide coordination necessary for economic revival, and the renewal of the European Social Model.

Featured image credit: Polling Day by cchana. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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