News ID: 195070
Published: 0730 GMT June 19, 2017

Brexiters have voted for a poverty even worse than austerity

Brexiters have voted for a poverty even worse than austerity

By William Keegan* When I suggested before the election that an ideal outcome would be a hung parliament and a coalition to think again on Brexit, I was certainly not thinking of the DUP. But, as Harold Macmillan once said: “Here we are, and the question is: Where do we go from here?”

It seems to be generally agreed that the election result boiled down to a vote against austerity and a vote against a so-called 'hard Brexit', with the young — predominantly Remainers and angry about austerity — in full swing, The Guardian wrote.

The vote against austerity was long overdue. Under Cameron and Osborne the Conservatives got away with blue murder in blaming the world financial crisis on Labor in general and Gordon Brown in particular.

Their obsession with 'the deficit' hoodwinked people who do not understand that a nation is not a household, and that cuts in public expenditure are the reverse of what is required in a time of depression.

All economies need a period of rapid growth after a recession. This was denied the people of this country, who have finally rebelled. Way back in 1980, in the early stages of Thatcher’s sado-monetarist regime, the great JK Galbraith wrote in this newspaper: “British social services and social insurance soften what elsewhere might be intolerable hardship. British phlegm is a good antidote for anger; but so is an adequate system of unemployment insurance.”

Unfortunately, the gaps in our social safety net are showing, and in some cases a government obsessed with reducing the size of the state has deliberately ripped that net apart.

Thinktanks are vying with one another to tell us about a record period of negligible growth in living standards. Alas, things are becoming even worse as the referendum-induced devaluation bites further into real incomes.

The terrible thing about the prospect of Brexit is that our underlying economic situation is already bad enough, and the Brexit decision, if not reversed, is guaranteed to make things a lot worse.

In economics there are time lags between announcements and their consequences, and under George Osborne the Treasury overdid its warnings about the timing of the referendum’s effects.

Only now are people beginning to realize the consequences of the decision made last year by the world’s financial markets that Britain had, in effect, voted to become poorer and less secure. The devaluation constituted a reassessment of this country’s economic prospects.

It was Philip Hammond, Osborne’s successor, who, in challenging Theresa May’s obsession with a hard Brexit, maintained that the people who voted for Brexit did not vote to become poorer. But that is what the 51.9 percent of those who voted in effect did.

There were those who thought that the fantasy of a 150-seat majority would enable May to see off the hard Brexiters and pursue a more sensible policy.

But all the evidence suggested that she meant what she said: That she put reductions in immigration above all else, and was prepared to leave the customs union and the single market in order to realize this dubious aim.

* William Keegan is the Observer's senior economics commentator.

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