Six years ago, we started to hear a series of predictions about the misfortunes that would beset us if we voted to leave the European Union. They are still coming. In August, we had claims that Brexit would cause food shortages over Christmas with empty supermarket shelves.
Sometimes the dire warnings have been impossible to refute, since they come without a date. No specific deadline is offered for the apocalypse – as with the man who used to walk along Oxford Street with a sandwich board declaring “The end of the world is nigh”.
Before January 31st 2020, those challenged over their claims could respond: “we haven’t left yet.” Another means for the gloomsters dodging accountability for their claims was to state that any positive news would have been even better if the referendum had gone the other way. “Despite Brexit…” thus became a familiar refrain on the BBC news bulletins.
Fair-minded people though, will surely feel that enough time has passed to assess how some of those claims have measured up to reality.
In June 2016, when we voted to Leave the EU, we had 1.64 million unemployed, a rate of 4.9 per cent. It is now 1.4 million, a rate of 4.2 per cent. (“Despite Covid…” one is tempted to add.)
George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated:
“A vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000.”
That was among the more modest claims. The Treasury analysis offered that as the best case “shock scenario”. But in the worst case “severe shock scenario” unemployment was to rise by 820,000.
The CBI’s estimate was that “nearly a million” jobs would be lost.
Then we heard repeatedly – from the TUC, Nick Clegg and others – that three million jobs in the UK “depended” on our membership of the EU. The implication – that unemployment would increase by three million if we left relied on the assumption that our exports to the EU would be reduced to nil.
For variety, sometimes regional claims were offered – Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, gave a figure of 500,000 for London. David Miliband declared 100,000 jobs in the north east relied on EU membership. He suggested Nissan would quit our shores – a month ago they announced £13 billion of new investment in their Sunderland plant.
House prices to crash
Osborne said opting for Brexit would “affect the value of people’s homes” to the tune of 18 per cent. Thus “negative equity” was included in the Remain armoury. The Treasury small print suggested this would be over two years and that prices would rise by 18 per cent less than forecast.
The IMF was more emphatic declaring we could expect “sharp drops in equity and house prices, increased borrowing costs for households and businesses.”
World War Three
Some have argued that NATO is the main safeguard for peace in Europe. But others argued that leaving the EU would risk war. David Cameron said:
“Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption.”
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, warned that a UK vote to leave the EU would destroy western civilisation:
“As a historian I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety.”
A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic
During a visit to Warrenpoint Harbour, in Co Down, Osborne claimed:
“There would have to be a hardening of the border imposed by the British Government or indeed by the Irish Government and that would have an impact on business.”
Others went further predicting customs posts and border checks, even a return to “the troubles”. While there is certainly unfinished business to resolve with the EU over trading arrangements, the border remains open.
EU nationals resident in the UK to be “sent home”
A constant refrain was that Brexit was motivated by xenophobia. Will Straw, Director of Stronger In, announced that the EU nationals living in the UK would be “sent home”. In fact, they have been offered “settled status” which the vast majority have taken up.
Plenty of speculation has taken place over whether Brexit will prompt the break up of the United Kingdom. It was noted that Scotland voted Remain by a large margin. The contention has been that an opportunity to rejoin the EU would offer the Scots an incentive to leave the UK.
But the opinion polling offers no sign of this being their “settled will”. Most show a small unionist majority. For example, a YouGov poll for The Times shortly before the EU referendum showed wishing to stay in the UK at 48 per cent to 41 per cent. The most recent YouGov/Times poll on the matter, from six weeks ago, showed little change with the unionists ahead by 46 per cent to 40 per cent.
Stock Market crash
On June 23rd 2016, the day of the EU referendum, the FTSE 100 closing price was 6,338. It is now 7,403. At first, we were told that the FTSE 100 didn’t count as it covered big international companies. The FTSE 250 was a better measure. All right then. The FTSE 250 closed at 17,333 on June 23rd 2016. Today it is on 23,481. There was an initial sharp fall in share prices – prompting Remainers to declare that France had overtaken us as the World’s fifth largest economy. But that did not last long. Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, was among those forecasting a long term and serious fall in the value of equities.
The TUC claimed during the EU referendum campaign that Brexit would mean wages would fall by £38 a week. At that time average earnings were £503 a week. They are now £586 a week. Allowing for inflation, steady in real terms.
Linked to some of the gloomy “Project Fear” economic messages was the declaration that a vote to Leave would mean an instant DIY recession. The Institute for Fiscal Studies announced that such a foolish decision would result in “two years of austerity.” Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, claimed the eurozone was growing faster than the UK – with the implication that closer integration was our best bet.
The UK’s economy continued to grow – by 2.3 per cent in 2016, 2.1 per cent in 2017, 1.7 per cent in 2018, and 1.7 per cent in 2019. True, it fell in 2020, by 9.7 per cent – but that was due to the pandemic. We have bobbed back up over the last year. The eurozone has generally performed worse.
Various claims were made that outside the EU our environment would suffer. For instance, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, said the EU was needed to keep our beaches clean.
But the Marine Conservation Society, which organises the annual Great British Beach Clean, offers some intriguing data: “The average litter recorded per 100m is falling year on year across the UK, with an average of 385 items found this year compared with 425 in 2020 and 558 in 2019.” Friends of the Earth said leaving the EU would mean the air we breathe would be more polluted. But it is cleaner.
In some ways ,it is still early days. Though we are an independent country, the use we have made of that has been very cautious. Only a negligible amount of the red tape inherited from the EU has been lifted thus far. The free trade deals – such as the one with Australia – are being phased in at an agonisingly slow pace – though we have seen how leaving the European Medicines Agency has made a huge difference in terms of the vaccination programme.
No doubt there will be challenges and mistakes as our island story continues. But we can now conclude that the Project Fear merchants got it wrong. Their tone was arrogant and emphatic. There was a bullying message that their official credentials meant they were stating facts; that it was beyond debate. Any challenge to their prognosis would be an impertinence. Yet for all their supposed expertise, this alphabet soup of official bodies proved to be wildly out. They have not yet proved terribly contrite about it.