By Owen Riddle
We all know the news. Britain and Europe are set to break their union of 43 years over the coming months. Whilst you may think this is taking the country and the continent into uncharted territory, you may want to look back to the interwar years to give yourself a clue, for there are striking and deflating similarities.
I want to compare 2016 to the late 1930’s, for my Nana (Grandmother) was a young adult at that time and Europe was about to plunge itself into a self destruction that necessitated a union. She was the same age as all those young Brits that were either denied a vote or were soundly outvoted by older generations. For both my Nana and the young generations of today, the future looked uncertain and bleak, yet these time periods are connected.
The setting across Europe in recent times has become an unstable one. Off the back of an economic crash has come significant instability and upheaval. The currencies of Europe took a hit and austerity has been practiced throughout the continent. A radicalisation of politics has also occurred. The Syrzia Party controls Greece and Podemos is on the rise in Spain and been part of a long term political deadlock there. At the opposite end of the spectrum, France and Poland are just two nations experiencing a surge from Far Right parties. Italy and Austria are having the same problems.
A British nation that has grown more hardline and fearful of an EU superstate have now decided to look on in isolation at the mainland. Rewind eighty years and Britain was looking on in isolation at the mainland; so afraid of a Communist superstate to the point where they willingly unopposed a fascist coup in Spain and allowed the Third Reich to expand and re-arm itself. Radical political forces were beginning to take hold. Spain was locked in a civil war between Fascism and Communism. Germany had been dominated by those very parties before Hitler began his purges of opposition whilst Italy and Portugal remained Fascist too. Sitting to the North was the giant Soviet state of Russia. Tensions were high and were facilitated by the recent Great Depression a few years before as economies crashed hard. Sound familiar?
In the British outpost we now have, unemployment is threatened by our exit and on the deal the hard right politicians strike out for them. British Industry may well become extinct if those politicians do not save it. The free-falling pound has made Britain a loss making enterprise for many foreign businesses and we haven’t even left yet. If they decide to pick immigration control over economic stability, then those such as Boris and Farage have already talked of turning to the Commonwealth for trade. But almost every historian of any political persuasion accept that the Empire died after World War Two. What is left are a smattering of island outposts and equal Commonwealth partners of varying status; some who are more powerful than ourselves. This weak and jittery British economy has been reliant on the same housing bubble that has caused the crash and on the whim of the consumer. Another hit would be disastrous for the poorest and most remote from London. Over 120 billion was wiped from the pound after only a few hours; more than we had contributed to the EU since 1973. A pro-austerity government will cut more and raise taxes in a regressive fashion. For some, wages would be well below their costs so expect more poverty and destitution. Malnutrition and poverty was already at decades long highs before we decided we didn’t need EU post industrial payments and investment. How is a government with a massive deficit going to replace this?
Back in the 1930’s, the Depression struck the nation which already had a weak economy after the First World War. Unemployment rocketed and Industry began a sharp decline. Wages were not worth having for those still working and poverty and destitution became the norm. The Empire was crumbling and the Commonwealth was a means of appeasing and trying to cling on to some prosperity from it. The economy was becoming reliant on the financial services that caused the Great Depression and was being left in the wake of the industrial powerhouses of the United States, Soviet Union, Japan and Germany. The government of the day, whether Liberal, Labour or Conservative invested massively in the poor in response. They recognised the need for investment to counter the decline and that the Empire had only military benefits or labour benefits to provide much needed employment to help rebuild the nation; this was more acute after the War. Welfare was now key and was being invested in even before the war, before being accelerated after it. This investment and a diverse economy eventually pulled the nation out of decline briefly by the 1960s.
It was only joining the European common market in 1973 that had gave Britain long term stability by the 1990s. My Nana was 70 by this point. How old will we be before we see such prosperity? Need we talk about the optimistic message set out by Theresa May on entering number 10 and these words from Thatcher on Downing Street in 1979? “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” We can only ‘hope’ that history does not repeat itself in that case.
It may not be that long before we return to that prosperity, but there is no Empire to rely on and barely a British Union to rely on either with Scotland and Northern Ireland possibly having referendums on just that. The kind of investment that has kept Britain protected against the dark days of the 1930s is under threat. We had a Conservative government under Cameron that was hostile to workers rights including Union strike calls. They did nothing to react to the decline of industry and immigrants can no longer be relied upon to fill the jobs and roles that many British people simply won’t or refuse to do. The disconnect between the London and the South East and the rest of the U.K. will increase. Ironically, those regions such as Cornwall, North East, Yorkshire, North West and Wales are all places that have voted to lose millions of investment and have voted for greater poverty and less opportunity; Brussels giving more money to these places than Westminster.
But even beyond the historical comparisons of Britain and Europe heading back to a mild repeat of the interwar years, more recent and pioneering prospects have been stolen from us. Young people can no longer study or live abroad so easily, have less funding for creative enterprises and less of a chance to transcend class divisions. For many on the left, leaving meant a rebellion against a corporate elite and particularly the TTIP agreement between the US and EU, giving the US unrestricted access to European trade. With an isolated Britain, they are likely to get a British corporate elite trading with the Commonwealth at best and an unrestricted TTIP agreement with the US. It is by no means the end of the world and it is certainly not the end of Britain, just the regurgitation of the Britain of the past. Back to the Future.