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Britain has barely begun capitalising on its new Brexit freedoms

(Lazyllama / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

The 2016 referendum decision was a watershed in British politics. Amid all the dispute since then, it is easy to lose sight of its main purpose. It was, and remains, to take back control over the United Kingdom’s laws, borders, trade and her national right of self-determination.

The European Union that the voters chose to leave in 2016 bears little resemblance to the European Economic Community that was endorsed in the 1975 referendum. That was a “common market” of limited economic integration, no political integration, and where we were assured we held a veto over everything.   

As a member of the EU, the UK was being drawn into a system of law-making and regulation, which was deliberately divorced from democratic accountability: the democratic deficit. It gave great power to national leaders to agree things with their EU counterparts in the EU council of ministers in secret (or to be overruled), but this divorced them from accountability to the voters. It was never their choice that the EU should increasingly acquire the attributes of a nation state in its own right. Given the chance, voters seized the opportunity to restore democracy and accountability, in the biggest vote in British democratic history.  

The UK is still the sixth largest economy in the world, a nuclear weapons state, the leading European member of Nato and one of only five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It has a leading role in the network of English-speaking nations. We will build prosperity and influence on these things, not on the idea that the UK must subjugate herself to survive.  

Today, the UK is still recovering from the disastrous effects of Covid and is now consumed by the terrible challenges of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the consequent energy crisis, with the public finances already in a terrible state – but these have nothing to do with Brexit. The economic catastrophe forecast by Remain campaigners like George Osborne never materialised; nor have the deregulatory benefits of Brexit, as explained by many Leave campaigners in the referendum. The UK has hardly begun to exercise its new freedom to diverge from the EU, and the need to galvanise economic performance has a new urgency.  

It is hardly surprising that so many still struggle with the shock that the UK is now responsible for its own destiny in the world, but we have come a long way.  In 2019, Parliament was still deadlocked. The Conservative Party threatened to tear itself apart as the Labour Party flip-flopped around whether to support a second referendum, torn between its pro-EU ideology and Brexit-supporting northern voters. 

The economic catastrophe forecast by Remainers never materialised, but nor have the deregulatory benefits of Brexit

The challenge for the new administration is to get much better at leading establishment opinion out of the Remain mindset. This is not about de-metrication or reviving old traditions. There are some promising starts. The announcement of a Brexit Freedoms Bill and corresponding dashboard are fantastic initiatives. It makes it easy to track the impact of EU-retained law. Direct effect is gone, and Parliament is sovereign, yet regulatory divergence requires not just less but different regulation. 

There are many opportunities for managed divergence. In April, the government announced plans to revisit Solvency II, as proposed in the report of the independent Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform. The cost of living crisis has sharpened the need for supply-side reform. The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will enable gene-edited crops to be developed, grown and sold in Great Britain. This is good for consumers, good for environmental protection, and good for innovation and growth, as we exploit our global leadership in this field.    

It took 45 years to build the layer upon layer of EU regulation on the UK economy. Vested interests will resist modernising and improving what membership of the EU has left in place, but the government can achieve a lot more in a much shorter time.

Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex

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