Throughout history, after prolonged periods of austerity, populist politicians have sought to divide and conquer vulnerable and bruised societies with nationalist policies. These often vilify immigrants and attribute the economic shortcomings to external forces but these politicians always promise the people one thing – they are the only ones who can take back control. The 1930s witnessed Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, while Francisco Franco ruled over Spain as a military dictator from 1939, after the nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War, until his death in 1975.
More recently, the ‘Take Back Control’ message of the Vote Leave campaign in the UK’s EU referendum proved more influential than the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ message of Vote Remain. Just months later, the election of President Trump over the favourite Hilary Clinton rocked the political establishment.
Leading up to and since the Brexit referendum, the tone of national politics has coarsened and the reputation of the UK as a tolerant, vibrant and inclusive society has been undermined. Professor Tendayi Achiume, the UN special rapporteur on racism, has said Brexit has contributed to an environment of increased racial discrimination and intolerance.
The negative effects on the economic health of the nation are now starting to bite: we face skills shortages in key areas such as engineering, healthcare and agri-food and uncertainty persists around free movement with Europe. Meanwhile a weakened pound and poor economic forecasts deter new arrivals. Foreign investors from our key markets of Europe, US and Asia are postponing or abandoning projects, and UK exporters are nervous about the cost of doing business in their number one market, Europe. Our Universities are facing cuts to significant European research funds, as well as losing academic talent and students from Europe. For the everyday consumer, holidays and grocery prices have gone up, and household debt is rising. So who is winning from Brexit? Traders shorting sterling are the only ones I can think of.
History suggests that cycles are usually short-lived and rarely deliver what they promise. And in the interim, they cause untold damage to the economic, political and moral standing of the nation itself, which can take generations to recover. Let’s hope we wake up soon from our national nightmare.