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The UK government should stop doing stupid stuff

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Barack Obama famously said, “Don’t be stupid.” (actual, he said stronger.) This is always good advice. This is especially good advice for Britain today. It would be great if we could start something that makes sense. But hope must be restrained. But it should certainly be possible to stop being really silly.

Brexit itself was absurd. Few people who have serious knowledge of the subject doubt it. It has raised barriers for the country’s closest neighbors and most important trading partners.As Budget Responsibility Office “The latest evidence suggests that Brexit has had a significant negative impact on UK trade.” This has reduced overall trade volumes and the number of business relationships between UK and EU companies. did. The OBR very reasonably assumes that “Brexit would make Britain’s trade intensity 15% lower than it would have been if the UK had remained in her EU in the long run.” Meanwhile, “Global Britain” has disappeared as hopes of closer trade ties with China and the United States have disappeared.

Brexit was absurd, but so is the idea that there is an easy way to get back to closer ties with the EU. Membership renewal is out of the question. This will not only exacerbate the political civil war in Britain. It is also because EU member states are too smart to believe that the UK is the way it is now and in the future she will be an enthusiastic member of the EU. From their perspective, the sight of the UK struggling outside is a useful lesson about the dangers of secession. Importantly, Brexit has allowed the EU to move forward faster than if the UK had habitually thwarted.

Most alternatives to full membership, such as joining the single market, the customs union, or both, would also restart the Brexit civil war with both major parties. It’s definitely worse than a membership because you’re obliged without doing it. And again, the EU has good reasons not to trust the UK. Her EU action against the Northern Ireland Protocol is conclusive proof of that.

It is useless to try to change the main characteristics of the current unhappy relationship. But that can’t justify making things even worse. For example, a basic maintenance principle is to only make changes when there is no good alternative to change. Change itself has a cost. So what does it mean to have a ‘pending EU bill’, a plan to ‘review or withdraw’? 4,000 laws from the EU Does it form the basis of much of our national life today? This only adds to the uncertainty and cost of doing business.

Smart companies don’t want to operate under many different regulatory regimes. That is the logic of Margaret Thatcher’s single market project, which seems to remain incomprehensible to Brexit supporters. Plans of this sort should not make the UK more ‘investable’ than ever. Dismal statistics on UK investment do not betray this concern.

Bar chart of investment share of GDP (%), showing the UK's very low investment share of average GDP from 2016 to 2022

What would have been a positively prudent approach for British policymakers to take? It certainly would have started with a realistic view of weaknesses and priorities. The difficulty of building on undeveloped land given the failure to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, persistent regional disparities, excessive centralization of government, chronically low national savings and investment rates, and the failure of pension funds to invest in productive capital. Try it. Failures of nations, failures of building world-class companies, and years of failure to raise skills to a high enough level.

None of these had anything to do with the EU. But all of it was “too hard” for a long time. So instead, we did Brexit as a distraction exercise, culminating in a show by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarten. It was Brexit as performance art in its purest form.

There is little hope that this government will do anything positive before the next general election, especially in the midst of an energy and inflation crisis. But it’s no exaggeration to ask them to stop being ridiculous. So don’t consider changing regulations unless there is a clear improvement. Don’t promise migration control you can’t provide. Don’t stick to the alternative of differing food standards, which makes solving Northern Ireland’s problem so difficult. But work hard to maintain the ability of our scientists to work closely with their European peers. And especially, stop the British Bulldog’s constant barking.

It may not be possible to tackle big problems now. But governments are in a deep hole right now, but at least they can stop digging deeper.

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