The deed is done. The letter is sent. Article 50 is triggered. And the EU has confirmed that we may still have a way back.
My reading of the runes is that attitudes towards and against Brexit have hardened, and there’s a good chunk of people who aren’t closely aligned with either but would quite like the rowing to stop.
Let me be clear. I think the decision to leave is an astoundingly poor one. The Leave campaign made a number of claims, almost all of which have now been dropped. Theresa May seems to have deliberately chosen a more extreme version of Brexit, although whether this is what will be delivered is not yet clear. The UK does not hold many cards, and the EU is now in the driving seat. We have handed over the conditions of nearly half of our trade wholesale to others. Companies are actively looking to relocate. Inflation is up, partly caused by the decline in the currency.
But not one of these facts is making any real difference to changing the views of most of the 52%. I wrote before the referendum about the need for hope – and how many in different parts of the UK felt hopeless. The blame was laid at the feet of the EU.
Earlier this week, BBC’s Newsnight broadcast a film by Nick Clegg of his visit to Ebbw Vale – an area which has benefitted from millions of EU investment, but still voted resoundingly to leave. His film uncovered that the investment has been into things – buildings, statues, roads and the like – rather than into people. In an area which was hit hard by the decline in mining in the 1980s, unemployment remains high. Having a new road is great, as long as you can afford to travel down it. Having a new statue of a dragon – well, possibly not so useful unless you’re employed as its cleaner.
This is the failure of the project. The jobs are still not there. People still feel hopeless. It’s not a question of how much money was invested, but what it was invested in. And, for that reason, a campaign to simply not leave the EU, or to take us back in, will fail to resonate in those areas, because all that will indicate is more of the same – more of our money paid into things rather than people.
In fairness, this isn’t wholly the failure of the EU. It’s compounded by decades of similar underinvestment by UK governments, of all colours. Big industry disappears, leaving little in its wake. Secure jobs become, at best, insecure. Communities become run ragged. The pride in contributing to something big is hard to maintain when you now drive a bus for the council.
So while I disagree with the decision to leave the EU, I can (I think) understand some of the emotions that drove some people to take that decision – and those would have been enough to swing it.
Investment needs to be better targeted. If you don’t think you’re going to get a good job, there is little incentive to get a good education. So it’s jobs that are needed, together with investment in schools and colleges to train up a workforce in the new skills that will be demanded.
The historic coal mines, steel mills and car production plants are probably long gone – but we should be investing in green, sustainable energy production. It’s still manufacturing, even if it’s slightly higher-tech. And there’s no reason why such facilities could not be manufactured in the Welsh valleys or the North East of England.
We need to change the narrative on the EU. Leaving removes our say in the EU’s future direction, and reduces our influence and purchasing power across the rest of the world. But by promoting an EU reform agenda which we can only pursue if we remain, and explaining how this benefits all those areas that voted Leave in June, we have a chance to start changing hearts. I fear it might be too late though.