Friday, 29 December 2017

Brexit: bad for GDP, good for Britain.


I've been up in Bradford for Christmas. After ten years of being down in Bristol, visiting Yorkshire infrequently, the changes I see are more noticeable. It's good and bad. Of all the cities in the UK I would say Bradford was the most improved. It looks richer, tidier and in a lot of ways is more vibrant now than ever it was.

More than anything it's the march of technology and development. The shop fronts look more modern, the houses have double glazing, the derelict mills are gone, and the city centre facelift looks superb. It's also busier than it was. The economy is undoubtedly better and that is because of immigration.

Now if I were writing about a London conurb this would sound a lot like an article protesting gentrification. But it isn't. The bottom line is, it's improved only in terms of conveniences available and superficially how the place looks. I would, however, hate to move back here.

At the bottom of the hill there used to be a police station. It was pulled down some years ago and the site lay derelict. It is now a KFC drive through. It's a busy roundabout where traffic was always bad. It is now immeasurably worse are the queue for processed chicken extends half way up the hill. It's a bloody nuisance.

Meanwhile, the council has given planning permission for another takeaway on the corner of our road. The three parking pays reserved for the elderly flats are now used by patrons of the takeaway while the road entrance is blocked by careless parking. You can't get out on to the main road because people park right on the corner. It's dangerous. You just can't see.

Moreover, the unmade road now has eight inch deep potholes from all the extra traffic. It's an unadopted road so nobody will do anything about it. It will only get worse. There was a time when people used to do their bit and take care of their part of the street but that doesn't happen anymore. The population of the street is forever in flux and there is a high churn rate. It also used to be that my mum would look after the elderly residents on the street. Nobody will do the same for her.

All of this was totally predictable. Only a moron would put a KFC on a busy roundabout and the council was asked not to grant permission for a takeaway. Residents were completely ignored, their lives have been made worse and they are left to deal with the consequences - less safe roads, more noise, more traffic and more selfish antisocial behaviour.

The high street is also worse. It was simply not designed to take the current volumes of traffic and though there are now speed bumps, it makes little difference as cars get bigger. People who could make do with a Fiesta now have chunky 4x4 hybrids like that stupid Nissan Juke thing. The bottom line is there are too many people and too many cars and our little suburb can't cope with the stress.

One of Dad's grumbles is that at school closing time parents used to walk to the local school to pick up their offspring. Now the road over the way is choked full of obese mums sitting in their cars, arriving twenty minutes early to find a parking spot - so they are not doing it to save time in the day. It's pure selfishness.

There are a number of factors at work here. As a wealthier society we have more conveniences and we expect and demand more. Everything is available to us and we want it on our doorsteps or delivered to our door. It's making us more sedentary, fatter, lazier.

But there is also a total breakdown in governance. Seemingly the council has abandoned any sort of planning and of what there is, there is no assessment of externalities and the impact on safety and life quality. All the while infrastructure crumbles while we import yet more people.

We are told the answer is to build more houses, which is is happening, but this is without regard to the stresses more housing puts on sewerage, water, traffic and public transport - to say nothing of dentists and GPs. A friend in Didcot notes that there are thousands of new houses planned, turning Didcot into a giant commuter dormitory for London when there is no extra rail capacity and little practical possibility of it.

This then has ramifications for the villages in the home counties with the rural ancient and charm - much of which adds to the character of the nation. Though we can't freeze everything in aspic there are some things more valuable than increments in GDP.

This is lost on policymakers whose sole preoccupation is chasing the holy grail of growth to the abandonment of all other concerns. The pace of development cannot keep up and now we are told by BBC news this morning that if we have health concerns we should check "internet websites" before booking a GP appointment - and the plod will no longer investigate thefts under £200.

All the while, the legal system is collapsing, legal aid has been destroyed, rents are climbing still and council tax is going to rise too while wages stagnate. Meanwhile politics retreats into its habitual trivia and we don't dare debate the sensitive social problems or address our collective denial of Child Sexual Exploitation.

This is where the left will chastise us Brexiters saying that our problems are the result of cuts and underinvestment. In some respects that holds but in other respects we have to ask serious questions about what we can still expect the state to provide and how we modernise services to meet the challenges of this wholly different country we have now. But that is not enough.

There are technical, material and health challenges to overcome but society itself is also disintegrating, ever more atomised and politics is drifting toward the tribal retail politics built on identity lines where they who can claim the most righteous victimhood win the spoils of government largesse.

I am of the view that across the board we are faced with problems evolving at a pace that our politics is not equipped to cope with. A major part of that problem is that politics is increasingly done in London with not nearly enough subsidiarity or localism, and is too remote to ever be in touch.

One facet in the Twitter debate I have noticed is that I may as well be talking about the politics of a different country when debating with London policy wonks. Ever quick to label me as a xenophobe or racist for pointing out things that do happen in the back hills of the Pennines, they simply do not recognise the picture I paint. Multiculturalism for a privately educated middle class policy wonk means novelty Lebanese cafes in Shepherd's Bush. In Rotherham it means child rape.

Put simply, a politics so remote that does not understand the country it governs can never hope to govern in the best interests of the country. I'm not surprised the Scottish want independence, and as a Yorkshireman I'm starting to think the North needs its own independence movement.

Even the definition of working class is somewhat fluid here. There is a distinct difference between Bradford and Bristol. Bradford is poorer, the pubs are dirty, dilapidated and barely making a profit. In Bristol I just don't see that kind of neglect. The people are different, the economy is different.

We are told that we have experienced ten years of austerity. But actually it's a meaningless word. Places like Dewsbury have never known anything but austerity. A pint of beer is still £2.50. A taxi ride over a few miles is a fiver compared with the twenty quid I would pay in Bristol. This is why the politics is so very different.

This is where Brexit is necessary. We are told that the regions are dependent on EU funding, but that is remote decision making, remote prioritisation where corporate scale quangos make the decisions in isolation of local politics, local politics is utterly toothless and constrained by the the invisible governance dictated by EU level targets and directives.

We also need a slowdown. Half the problem is the transience and the inability to keep pace with change. Community cohesion is impossible when everything is always in flux. Whatever the statistics may tell policymakers; that immigration is universally beneficial, it is at odds with the consequences we experience in our lives that these people are mostly insulated from.

And then there is the economic reconfiguration we are about to have. This is what I want to see the most. While various economic factors have started to bite in recent years, the consumer culture has barely changed. Habits have changed but still we are used to a wide array of readily available goods with seasonal foods being available all year round. Everything about modern Britain is geared to instant gratification and convenience. It's a facet of British society I like the least.

What we have seen with increased availability is a collapse in price of what were once luxury items and with an crease in availability we see a corresponding shift in attitudes to how things are valued. There is certainly no evidence of an austere mindset and that is what results in the fundamentally selfish behaviours we see where everyone is on the make and everybody feels entitled to everything. Certainly the universalism of welfare contributes to that.

This blog has written at lengths about what would happen if we left the EU without a deal where we experience rapid and sudden changes we are not equipped to cope with. But now it looks like we will leave with a deal, leaving the single market. This means the changes will be consequential but more gradual. Most won't even attribute it to the Brexit because it will be difficult to detect.

With a declining pound there will be fewer incentives for transient workers, and if business wants new talent they will have to train it. Seasonal goods will not be available all year round. People will have to think twice about gorging themselves on KFC. They will have to think twice about using the car to go two minutes down the road to pick up the kids from school. They will have to reconsider owning two cars - and maybe they might lose some weight by walking to the shops.

I think it will be the little things that result in subtle changes of behaviour. It will change the way business operates and as we see more import substitution we will see the range and availability of goods going back to where it was in the eighties. Superficially that sounds bad but then we still have Amazon so it's not like we are going back to the dark ages of having to make a pair of scuffed Clarke's shoes last an entire year. It's more about restoring the value people place on things and not treating them so abysmally.

Effectively I see a re-balancing of, to coin a phrase, the "UK single market" where the non-London economy, and consequently the politics, converges. I'm certainly not going to lose any sleep about the housing bubble bursting. We will see events encroaching on those aspects of life which have largely been settled for decades. When that happens the staples of life once again become intensely political, and from there a number of conversations will open up about everything from trade to agriculture. Subjects which have long since disappeared from the Overton Window.

Whatever remainers might say about Brexit, Brexit will bring change - some of it positive and some of it regrettable. But therein lies the opportunity for change. Economic tides will change simply because they have to, forcing all of the tough choices and uncomfortable debates we've avoided. Had we voted to remain the trends I outline in this post would continue unabated and no doubt the establishment would have taken the remain vote as a vote of confidence and would take no steps to reform itself. They would steam ahead with the next level of EU integration.

Brexiters have been characterised as those who want to wind back the clock. That has never been true, but I am certainly not opposed to slowing the clock, to let things settle, to let systems catch up, to give our public sector a chance of coping with the stresses. Britain also needs space for the divisions to heal. That cannot happen with everything in flux as we drop all our defences against hyper-globalisation.

We should also note that whenever there is change there is innovation. Shifts of supply chains and changes in systems often result in new opportunities and there will be a number of new avenues to explore.

In this, I'm certainly not promising sunlit uplands - and this government will make Brexit cost far more than it ever should. That was always the most likely consequence of the vote. I do not, though, regret voting to leave. The opportunity of uncertainty is far more appealing than the leaden, obese, selfish society as we find it now. Governance and politics is falling apart and has been for some time now. This is our opportunity to arrest the decline. If we can do that, Brexit will have been worth the pain. If not, then we have simply taken the short cut to where we were headed anyway.

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