Classical liberals and libertarians should admit that Brexit has been a catastrophe

Harrison Griffiths

December 5, 2022

With few exceptions, classical liberals and libertarians were strongly in favour of Brexit. Some among our number had been on the front line of battles against European integration since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and for them, Brexit represented the culmination of an uphill struggle against centralisation, bureaucratic supremacy, and Brussels’ regulatory overreach. For a long time, Brexit was a niche topic, articulated almost exclusively by those right-wing liberals, the likes of Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell. Liberal Brexiteers must, however, face up to a simple truth: theirs was not the vision that won the 2016 EU Referendum.

Vote Leave Director, Dominic Cummings recognised that the key to success for Brexiteers laid in ‘left behind’ areas of the country whose discontent could be channelled into disdain for the European Union. Most of these voters did not long for a ‘bonfire of red tape’ or an end to the common agricultural policy. For most of these voters, Brexit was a rebellion against globalisation and immigration: the forces which they feel have left them behind.

The Conservative Party’s 2019 campaign, in which Cummings had significant involvement, also recognised this. Having been given the opportunity to park their tanks on Labour’s front lawn by the left’s desire to frustrate Brexit, Boris Johnson was powered to a landslide victory by so-called ‘Red Wall voters’. These voters, mostly from the North and Midlands, have become the predominant swing voters in British elections, and we have seen the illiberalism that it has wrought in Westminster.

The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak has been petrified of cutting public spending and become even less likely to undertake the necessary slaughter of the socialist sacred cow that is the NHS. The party has instinctively turned to taxes and borrowing to keep our unsustainable economy on life support, even to the extent of imposing windfall taxes on energy profits during an acute energy shortage.

The Labour Party under its new leadership has slid even further into the illiberal abyss, with Sir Keir Starmer abandoning Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to decriminalise drugs, whilst parroting right-wing talking points on “cheap labour” and reviving the chilling prospect of universal ID to improve the party’s standing among immigration sceptics.

There is no doubt that Brexit could have been a new dawn for Britain: controlling our trade and customs regime allows us to radically pursue global free trade; controlling our regulatory regime gives us an opportunity to boost competitiveness; and exiting the Common Agricultural Policy could allow us to bring long overdue specialisation to our farming sector.

This is not, however, the vision that is being delivered. Far from diminishing state control of our lives, Brexit has only served to replace Brussels bureaucrats with Whitehall bureaucrats. Liberal Brexiteers may argue that this represents progress because our bureaucrats are more accountable to us, but I think this misses the point.

All democracies – particularly those like Britain which use a first-past-the-post electoral system – are prone to making their institutions disproportionately accountable to a select few politically important constituencies. As discussed, the views of Brexit supporting former Labour voters in the North and Midlands provide the benchmark against which both parties judge their success, and consequently, the direction of travel in Whitehall is a profoundly illiberal one.

Liberal Brexiteers may argue that it is intrinsically good to control more of our own affairs. Eurosceptics in the Labour Party, such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn focused their arguments on the EU’s “democratic deficit” and their arguments have been echoed by liberal Brexiteers like Daniel Hannan. But is that really a liberal outlook? Regardless of where you stand on the liberal/libertarian spectrum, we should all accept that states and democracy are not goods in themselves but means to an end. Restrictions imposed on the British government should be welcomed by liberals and libertarians if they promote the cause of free markets and individual liberty, irrespective of the process employed to enact those restrictions.

For all its faults, the EU imposed some sensible mandates on our government: it strictly limited state aid to prop up failing companies, it enabled free movement of goods, capital, entrepreneurs, and labour, and (through the ECJ) required our legal system to observe a high standard of due process under the law.

We have sacrificed all these mandates and the economic benefits of EU membership, and what have we got in return? Sadly, the answer is very little. Liberal Brexiteers should admit our mistake, we should concede that Brexit has been and will continue to be an illiberal pursuit.


Written by Harrison Griffiths

Harrison is Communications Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


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