Brexit: It’s the economics, stupid

Simon Wren-Lewis 28 May 2018

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First posted on: 

mainly macro, 25 April 2018.

The Global Future report published recently, and particularly the polls it contained, received some attention, but in my view not nearly as much as they deserved. Respondents were shown four possible Brexit scenarios, together with an estimate of what each would do to the amount of money available to spend on public services. One of these options was the government’s preferred bespoke deal. All the options were overwhelming rejected, by Leave voters.

The Jack of Kent blog had a take on something similar that could also be applied to this poll result, after a well-known children’s book: ‘That’s not my Brexit!’. It is very apt for this poll because it makes clear that none of the four types of Brexit offered are remotely like the Brexit people voted for. What is wrong with EEA, FTA, WTO or bespoke in the mind of these voters? They all imply substantially less money for public services. The Brexit people voted for involved more money for public services.

This fits with the finding that most Leave voters continue to believe that they will be better off in economic terms as a result of Brexit. Many voted for Brexit because they were told more money would go to the NHS. The Remain side said that would not happen because of adverse macroeconomic consequences, but many voters believed the Leave side when they said these claims were just ‘Project Fear’, a use of fear as a campaigning tactic. They were told that the EU would not decrease the ability of UK firms to trade with the EU because it was not in the EU's interests to do so. 

This is why polls that ask “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?” only show a narrow majority for staying in the EU. In answering that question, most ‘leave’ voters still believe they will be better off after Brexit. When presented with specific options that show we will not be (i.e. when presented with likely reality), you get quite different answers.

Forget those who say that the Brexit vote was all about sovereignty and not about economics. Economics matters, and the poll shows that in this case it matters a lot more than sovereignty or immigration. What Project Fear achieved, with considerable help from the media, was to take the economic factors that mattered off the table, or even replace them with mythical economic gains.1 Voters went for what they saw as certain: £350 million a week, with less immigration, reducing pressure on public services. Both were lies, but Leave voters did not know that. Which is why most Leave voters continue to believe they will be better off, and why none of the four options they were presented with in the Global Future poll was the Brexit they voted for.

In short, half of the voting public bought snake-oil believing the claims made for it. Most continue to believe the claims, and put down the fact that the government appears not to be delivering what they were promised to something other than that they were sold: a pig in a poke. If you think that is implausibly foolish, your main source of news is probably not a pro-Brexit newspaper or even the BBC.

The implications of this are huge. The Global Future poll shows that most Leave voters, and certainly most voters, do not want any Brexit deal that is actually possible. They only want the impossible deal they were promised by Brexiters. That means that any referendum on the final deal that included the government’s own realistic assessment of its economic consequences would result in a massive majority for Remainin the EU.

This is why Brexiter claims that everyone (and for the maths to work, it has to be almost everyone) who voted Leave knew that it meant leaving the Customs Union are beside the point, as well as being as economical with the truth as most Brexiter claims. Most Leave voters probably had only a hazy idea of what the Customs Union and Single Market were, but most clearly wanted a Brexit that delivered more money for public services. As it is now quite clear that the Brexiters cannot deliver that, then there is no mandate for Brexit. That is what these polls show.

I do not normally disagree with Martin Wolf, but I do when he says another referendum would tear the country apart. Instead, it would be the opportunity for most of those that voted Leave to realise that what they voted for is not on the table because it is not possible, and for them to gracefully retreat by changing their minds in the privacy of the voting booth. On the other hand, to continue with Brexit would do far more harm to the UK’s body politic. We would have allowed politicians to put forward a fantasy and get away with it, which means every election from now on will involve claims more and more divorced from reality. The government, desperate to avoid the disappointed expectations of Leave voters, will resort to ever more populist tactics. The lurch towards an anti-pluralist democracy that we have seen since the referendum result could become entrenched in the UK.

Governments have been elected making impossible claims before, but when it turns out that they cannot deliver, they can get voted out after five or less years. We have to think of the referendum in the same terms. We will have had two years to see if the government can produce the Brexit people voted for, and what these polls show is that they have failed to do so. That may be no surprise to many, but it is news for Leave voters. These polls show that Leave voters do not want the Brexit that is likely to be delivered. To deny people the chance of recognising that the Brexit they voted for is not possible in a referendum on the final deal is deeply undemocratic.

[1] I argue Trump did something very similar.

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Topics:  Europe's nations and regions Politics and economics

Tags:  Brexit, UK politics, politics and economics, Global Future report, democracy, Project Fear, public services

Professor, Economics Department and Merton College, Oxford

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