Philip Hammond may have coined the phrase – an appropriate use of the term, in this case. “No-one voted to become poorer or less secure,” he told the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, less than six months after the Brexit referendum vote. As others have taken those words up, the last three have tended to drop off it. But was he right?
Obviously, even as senior a Minister as the Chancellor cannot have read the minds of all 17 million plus of those who backed Leave – the largest number of people who have ever voted for anything in a British poll. But let us leave the point there, and turn to his own department’s forecasts. The Treasury’s median long-term estimate is that a WTO-based outcome would reduce cumulative growth over 15 years from about 25 per cent to about 17 per cent. In other words, GDP would, under this scenario, be eight per cent lower than it would otherwise be. It would rise more slowly, not fall.
So even the Treasury, the high temple of Remain, doesn’t expect us to become poorer – but rather, less rich than we would otherwise be. You may counter that this lost growth would mean lost wages and tax receipts, lower spending and higher tax. Or that some short-term forecasts do suggest that we will become poorer this year in the event of No Deal. (The CBI is pushing a very-worst-case scenario today.)
We could come back by pouring cold water on all such forecasts, starting with George Osborne’s referendum campaign projections of an “immediate” recession, half a million more people unemployed, and house prices 18 per cent lower than they would otherwise have been. Instead, the economy grew, unemployment fell and house prices rose. But rather than vanish into a statistical snowstorm, we ask our readers to view Hammond’s statement from a different angle – two angles, to be precise.
The first is from the Left. Trident costs the taxpayer roughly £2 billion a year. That money could instead be spent on tax cuts or public services. Very many on the Left (and some on the Right) argue that it should be. They say that we don’t use Trident, wouldn’t ever use it, shouldn’t ever use it. The cash should go instead on schools or hospitals or benefits or childcare.
Next, mull an argument from the Right. Overseas aid comes at a price of about £14 billion annually. Again, that money could be spent on public services or tax cuts – or, the Right being the Right, on debt repayment. A lot of people on it – and a sprinkling on the Left – hold that development aid is wasted or stolen and perverts incentives and is subject to the law of unintended consequences.
Now stand back from the fray, and ponder a stubborn fact. Voters consistently back Trident and aid. No, that’s not quite right. Rather, put it this way: voters consistently return governments committed to both. Then turn to another subject to illustrate the same point.
Pro-migration campaigners argue that it makes us richer – both overall and per head. Others dispute that claim. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that those campaigners are right. Even if every single voter could be persuaded of this, there is reason to doubt that all of them would come round to wanting higher rather than lower migration. Very many would believe that there would still be costs in some places to higher immigration – in terms, for example, of pressure on housing. And then there is the i-word: integration.
At which point, it is worth standing back from Hammond’s statement, and asking not whether he was right or wrong, but what he actually meant – or implied. Who is the “no-one” in question? Who are those to whom he glancingly refers? Obviously, the British people. But that’s a term which invites further thought.
In one sense, the British people is a single entity; in another, it is lots of groups of people, breaking down in turn into families and individuals. Many of them help to pay for others. Older people tend not to use schools, but they help to fund them. Younger people use the NHS less than older ones, but they help to pay for it. Londoners, some say, subsidise the rest of the UK. And so on and so forth.
Readers will see where all this is going. At each election, we vote to “make ourselves poorer”, in the sense of becoming less rich than we otherwise would be. We plump for Trident because we worry about our security (to reprise the Chancellor’s word); or for lower migration because we think it will mean more cohesion, or for overseas aid because of solidarity with those who suffer. We vote to fund public services we don’t use and parts of the country we don’t live in. Security, cohesion, solidarity: these are intangibles. They can’t be touched or smelled or tasted – seen or heard. They may lead to material gains, but they are not material themselves. None comes with a price tag, but all have value.
Let’s end by illustrating the point. John Hume was fond of quoting his anti-sectarian father, who used to say: “you can’t eat a flag”. True – and anyone who has tried to do so has presumably been disappointed. But the reverse also applies. No-one, we suspect, has ever sung: “I vow to thee, my breakfast.” Those intangibles – such as self-government, to cite another – matter. From one point of view, the desire for the last is a form of solidarity or even for, to use a more EU-ish word, subsidiarity.
You can properly reply that self-government and patriotism aren’t the same thing, or even that they don’t overlap at all. So be it. What you can’t do, this site believes, is claim that Brexit alone, uniquely, exceptionally, will make us less rich than we otherwise would be (if it does so at all). By commission, by omission, in the ballot booth and out of it, we opt to do this all the time – almost without noticing.