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The Government is failing to square the circle between nationalism and economics on Brexit

The Government is failing to square the circle between nationalism and economics on Brexit
3 min read

Former Labour minister & frontbencher Pat McFadden is critical of the Government's Brexit position papers and argues 'For the economic interest to triumph, the nationalism that pervades so much of the Brexit discussion will have to be taken on'.


All summer long, Government Ministers have tried to square the circle between the nationalism driving Brexit and the economic interests of the country. In paper after paper, they have set out ever more elaborate ways of trying to satisfy their nationalist promises while at the same time trying to keep what ŵe have economically. Everything must change so that everything can remain the same.

It hasn't worked. But it has been revealing about the internal struggle within the Government. Take the Customs Union paper. Experienced Whitehall watchers can see the joins. A paragraph here for the Treasury (in fact almost certainly from the Treasury) emphasising the importance of European markets, and a paragraph there for the International Trade Department emphasising the brave new world of potential new trade agreements. 

It's the same in the paper about the European Court of Justice. An attempt to square the circle of the Prime Minister's promise to end the jurisdiction of the ECJ with a recognition that unless we are to cut ourselves off from the world we will have to adhere to rules, and someone will have to enforce them, and because the rules cross borders that can't just be our courts. So the Government takes us on a tour of rule enforcement mechanisms, from the EFTA Court to Moldova, all of which ultimately recognise the authority of the ECJ. And absent from the whole discussion was any recognition of the benefits of common rules, not only in terms of market access for UK firms and their workers, but also good environmental, consumer and labour laws that guarantee decent standards.

The reason the papers published in recent weeks have been so vague is because of this tension between nationalism and economics running through them. But ultimately, Ministers will have to choose. They could choose to pursue the nationalist logic at any price. Nothing would matter other than sovereignty. Any amount of damage to UK companies, jobs and tax revenues would be a price worth paying for achieving the nationalist dream. And some on the nationalist right believe this. Outwardly, they deny there would be economic damage, but inwardly, for them, if there is a price, it's worth paying (in part because they can afford to). But this would be a hugely irresponsible road for the Government to travel down. It would be sacrificing jobs, livelihoods and vital tax revenues for public services on the altar of ideology. 

For the economic interest to triumph, the nationalism that pervades so much of the Brexit discussion will have to be taken on. This goes for Ministers, and it goes for opposition politicians too. We will all have to be more assertive in saying that in an interconnected world, obeying and indeed actively shaping common rules is not a betrayal; it's in the best interests of the prosperity of our people. We will have to stand up not just for market access for our businesses but for the benefits of good standards that ensure clean and safe products and redress for consumers. We will have to speak up for the truth that many of our challenges, most obviously security, cannot be solved through nationalism but through working with others. Otherwise we will continue to be caught in the bind the Government has found itself in all summer – trying to square a circle between nationalism and economics, only to recreate, but in a more powerless form, what we already have.  

Pat McFadden is a leading supporter of Open Britain. He is the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East .            ​ 

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Read the most recent article written by Pat McFadden MP - Growth comes from the efforts of all – not from trickle-down economics

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