Brexit has never lacked for optimists, but economically grounded cheerleaders are a little thinner on the ground. The empty rhetoric of exhortation, prime minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that Britain “will prosper mightily”, remains more common.
While the political arguments for leaving the EU are well understood, the economic case has always looked pretty thin. Many of Brexit’s most committed advocates were never that bothered about the economic arguments. For them, it was an existential issue of sovereignty and if it came with a price, well, the cost would have to be borne.
So the news that Alex Brummer, a respected financial journalist and Brexit supporter, was offering an argument for optimism should have made his new book a must-read. And in some ways it is — just not in the way suggested.
In the Great British Reboot, Brummer offers both reasons to be cheerful and also a manifesto for how to re-engineer the UK economy. It will make for welcome reading in Downing Street as Brummer’s prescriptions align rather closely with Johnson’s own political prospectus — though the gap between strategy and implementation remains as wide as ever. His analysis of the shortcomings of the British education system and its production line of monoglot generalists is very much to the point.
There are moments of political archness. Brummer is too quick to see every European failure as proof of the case for Brexit, though he lists even more British strategic errors that had nothing to do with the EU.
But the author offers many convincing arguments against what the prime minister would call the “gloomsters”. Brummer asserts that the UK retains “world-beating” advantages in a number of sectors such as science, research, fintech and the creative industries. It has genuinely world-beating universities and a financial sector that has shown itself to be superbly adaptive.
He is also rightly scathing on the ways in which the UK has allowed some of its finest businesses to be snapped up by foreign companies. Today we delight in the triumph of AstraZeneca, but no obstacles were thrown in the path of Pfizer when it tried to buy the pharma company. When Japan’s SoftBank swooped for the UK’s most important tech company Arm Holdings, its interest was welcomed by the government of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, as proof that the UK was open for business. Johnson’s more Gaullist approach is likely to herald a significant change in attitude but a lot of horses have already bolted.
All these points are valid and are reasons why the full-on catastrophising of some Remainers is likely to prove flawed. That the UK would have been richer remaining within the EU is easy to argue. But Brummer makes a decent fist of arguing that exit need not mean national decline.
There is a difference, however, between avoiding the worst and securing the best, and where Brummer fails is in offering many convincing examples of how Brexit will make Britain richer.
Most of the success stories he highlights are unlikely to benefit from Brexit. The university sector, for example, sees little but downsides. And while the UK remains attractive, it is somewhat less alluring for the highly skilled mobile workers it most desires.
Few of the economic and industrial policies Brummer espouses required exit from the EU. Were he advocating the low-regulation, low-tax route favoured by some hardline Thatcherites, then the case for leaving Brussels’ orbit might hold more philosophical water. But in fact he is arguing for a more active state, a more interventionist government. His prescription is more investment in skills, more support for investment. One might call it a German approach.
To that end, this is a curious book. In essence, Brummer’s argument is less that the UK will prosper mightily outside the EU than that it can cope and that the political gains can be supported. So not so much a great British reboot as a great British patch job. There is much good sense and much to recommend in this book. It is just that the case it makes has surprisingly little to do with Brexit.
The Great British Reboot: How the UK Can Thrive in a Turbulent World by Alex Brummer, Yale, RRP£20, 336 pages
Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s chief UK political commentator
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