Brexit – Changing our outlook?

31st July 2017 by Steve Herbert

Despite being very British in my world outlook, I am not blinkered to some of our national shortcomings.  And I admit to being more than a little concerned about the Brexit journey ahead, and the nation’s apparent lack of progress to prepare for this challenge.

I have long suspected that part of the problem is our national historical perspective.  And I recently chanced upon some rather interesting quotes from that arch Europhile (and much maligned politician) Sir Edward Heath which expanded on this theme.  Shortly after the 1975 national referendum regarding European Union (EU) – then the Common Market – membership Heath wrote:

“It is more than 70 years since Queen Victoria died and yet it is the Victorian influence that remains the most potent of our political life. It is of course hardly surprising that a country like Britain, which for most of its history has been a medium sized power, should eulogize the aberration in British history in the last century which made us, for a time at least, the most powerful nation on earth…

…It is a tragedy that Britain has allowed herself to succumb to the delusion that the splendid isolation of the Victorian age was the norm rather than the exception and that some are still proffering the myth that in the modern world Britain can survive alone.”

Apart from a little repositioning of the text to reflect the 42 years that has passed since this item was first penned, the reality is that this statement could well have been written yesterday.

Yet in the many decades since the article was published in “The Times”, little progress was made in the UK’s relationship with the European Union, and of course we are now departing from same.  And – as Heath correctly summarised – we have a very real problem to address.

For the UK is no longer a superpower – indeed we have not been one for almost a century.  And whilst we still have one of the biggest economies in the world, there is no guarantee that this situation will persist if we don’t get Brexit right.

This makes the lack of progress in the last year so frustrating.  Our major political parties have traded insults, undertaken leadership challenges, and put the country through an entirely unnecessary General Election. The result is a Brexit negotiating position which looks even weaker than it did on June 24th 2016, and is weakened further by the clock ticking-down to our departure from the European Union in 2019.

But we should not just blame the Government and our political leadership.  There are failings at a more granular level also.  For instance, how many employers have actually followed Philip Hammond’s sage advice to get the UK “match fit” for the uncertainties ahead?

As far as I can see very few organisations appear to have yet taken much definitive action to prepare for Brexit.  Indeed the prevailing mood until recently appeared to be one of happily riding the coat-tails of a rather unexpected economic upturn at the end of 2016.

Yet any student of history will tell you that boom will eventually turn to bust, and indeed the economy is already slowing according to most experts.  It would be deeply unfortunate if a major economic downturn coincides with the UK’s departure from the EU.  This would be a double-whammy that could have major consequences for us all.

So it is now really important that the nation and the business community look ahead rather than back at past glories.  Every UK business should now be considering how best to ride-out whatever major storms may lie ahead.

And for those that believe that leaving the EU will be plain sailing, I would respectfully remind you that we are about to leave one of the biggest trading markets in the world, and also the one that we are geographically closest to.  Whilst the UK can – and undoubtedly will – survive and thrive outside of the European Union, it would be wise to at least plan for some rather difficult seas on the journey to that ultimate destination.

I do of course accept that forward-planning is difficult without any certainty of the outcomes of the political negotiations.  Yet this should not deter employers from taking early and decisive steps to enable their business to move – with the least possible disruption – to a post-EU footing.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Jelf Employee Benefits