Simon Walker of the Institute of Directors yesterday probed the Government’s new industrial strategy. “Will [it] involve reskilling those who make bulk steel, so that they can move to sophisticated high tech products where Britain retains a competitive edge?” he said. “Or will Britain simply block steel imports from China and pour funds into subsidising uncompetitive plants as a method of retaining jobs? At first glance, his question is a narrow one. At a second one, it has wider implications. It asks not only what one particular policy will be but what much of Brexit will look like.
Most debate about the future of Brexit at present concentrates on whether it will be Hard or Soft. If by Soft is meant membership of the single market, with no control over immigration other than a debatable emergency brake, the matter looks to be already settled, despite the Government’s pretence that it is not. There will be some flexible control on EU migration to reduce numbers, probably at the low-skill end. This form of control is very hard indeed, if not impossible, to square with single market membership. The Government is likely to go for sectoral deals in some form. Whether it gets them or not is beside our point – which is that membership of the single market or EEA membership or membership of the customs union look wide of the Government’s plans.
What is clearly not settled at all is the post-Brexit future of the economy as politicians try to shape it – tax rates, regulatory policy, public spending, trade policy, the shape of immigration control. There are two broad options.
The first is what might be called Open Britain. Its starting point would be that our economy needs to be as open as possible if it is to flourish after Brexit. Business taxes would be slashed. So would regulation – including much of that social and employment law that Conservatives for so long itched to get back from Brussels. We would become a kind of Panama for money from overseas. Trade deals would be framed simply to get the best deal possible for exporters; those steel imports from China, say, would flow into Britain. All this sounds like a Thatcherite vision for our economy, but it does not necessarily imply a passive state. Government could be active in the sense of going for big infrastructure decisions more determinedly than has usually been the case. More runways would be tacked on to Heathrow and Gatwick; airports outside the south-east would be expanded. Migration would be relatively high.
London and the South-East would be likely to gain most from such a strategy, at least in the short-term. The losers from imports and high immigration would mostly be concentrated elsewhere – in the Leave-voting North and Midlands among the “ordinary working people” who plumped for Brexit.
Which leads us to the second option. It begins with the conviction that government cannot let down these voters, without whom Leave’s referendum victory would not have happened. Social and employment law would be preserved in aspic. Migration would be low. Trade deals would not be signed if they would let those steel imports come pouring in – which suggests that few would be signed at all. Public services policy would stress more spending rather than reform. Taxes would in consequence be higher than they would otherwise have been. Investment from abroad would be seen through a national security lens only. This would be a Closed Britain. It is difficult to square this vision of the future with the vigorous construction of new airports or nuclear power stations. We would be more likely to put such decisions off and opt for lower growth.
What we are most likely to get, the world being as it is, is a mix of the two. But readers will have spotted the snag with the second. It is ultimately unsustainable – and, in political terms, not consistent with where the Conservative Party has pitched its tent in modern times. This suggests a limit to the degree to which, even in the post-Farage absence of a well-organised UKIP, Theresa May’s party can make progress among those Leave voters in the industrial Midlands and north who might now be willing to give it a second look. The debate is not academic. When the Government paused over a Hinkley Point decision; when it waved through SoftBank’s takeover of Arms; when Philip Hammond raised questions in Cabinet committee about the industrial strategy – all these were signs that it is already raging.
We wrote last weekend that the implications of Brexit have not sunk in for most voters. Indeed, they could scarcely do so, given their sweep and scale. But one of the central decisions in post-referendum British politics is precisely what sort of post-Brexit economy we want – and, therefore, what sort of post-Brexit society we want. Only a few months ago, government and business were more likely to be discussing what sort of European Union we want. How much has changed in so short a time.