Britain is once again the sick man of Europe

If treachery becomes part of the debate, there can only be total victory or total defeat

Martin Wolf


David Cameron, the 'essay crisis' prime minister, resigns after losing the EU referendum in 2016 © Getty


When I was young, in the 1960s, the UK was known as the “sick man of Europe”, for its prolonged economic weakness. But after Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister, this grim epithet no longer seemed applicable. Yet now, once again, as I go abroad — and especially in continental Europe — people ask me, with a mixture of bewilderment, pity and Schadenfreude, “What is wrong with Britain?” I do not pretend to know the answer (or answers). But I can describe the symptoms: the UK is undergoing six crises at the same time.

The first and most important crisis is economic. The starting point was the shock of the 2008 financial crisis. But, today, the most important aspect of this is the stagnation in productivity. According to the Conference Board, output per hour in the UK rose by just 3.5 per cent between 2008 and 2018. Of all significant high-income countries, only Italy’s grew less. Yet that is not because the UK’s productivity is already high. On the contrary, output per hour in the UK lags behind that of Ireland, Belgium, the US, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, Austria, Australia, Finland and Canada. High employment and low unemployment are good news. But stagnant productivity means stagnant real incomes per head. This means that one group can only get better off if another does worse. This does not make for happy politics. A long period of fiscal tightening has made it unhappier.

The second crisis is over whether national identity has to be exclusive. That question soon turns into one about loyalty. Many are comfortable with multiple identities. Others insist there must only be one. One way of looking at this division is as one between “people from somewhere” and “people from anywhere”, as David Goodhart defines it in his book, The Road to Somewhere. But, once politicised, this becomes far more bitter and divisive. It has been, in Brexit.

The third crisis, Brexit, has weaponised identity, turning those differences into accusations of treason. Normal democratic politics are subsumed within (and managed by) appeals to a higher shared loyalty. Once the idea of “treachery” becomes part of political debate, only total victory or total defeat are possible. Such perspectives are incompatible with the normal give-and-take of democratic life. And so, in fact, it has proved. The country is so evenly divided, and emotions are so intense, that resolution is at present impossible.

The fourth crisis is political. The existing parties, based historically on class divisions, do not fit the current identity divisions between those who are gladly both British and European and those who insist that being the former excludes the latter (at least if by “European” one means “citizen of the EU”). Both main parties are being destroyed in the process, but a new political configuration is yet to emerge.

The fifth crisis is constitutional (by which I mean that it relates to the rules of the political game). Membership of the EU is a constitutional question. Use of referendums as the device to resolve such constitutional questions is itself a constitutional question. If referendums should decide such things, what must be the role of parliament in interpreting and implementing that decision? What, for that matter, is a sensible decision-rule for a constitutional referendum? Should it be a simple majority or a supermajority? Why did we stumble into this mess, without asking ourselves any of these questions?

The sixth and perhaps most important crisis of all is of leadership. The UK has stumbled from the “essay crises” of David Cameron to the mulish obstinacy of Theresa May. Now it can see before it the prospect of a general election, with a Conservative party led by Boris Johnson confronting a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. These two men do not have much in common. But they seem to me the least qualified potential prime ministers even in a country that is, after all, still a permanent member of the UN Security Council. One is an inveterate buffoon and the pied piper of Brexit. The other is a hardline socialist and a life-long supporter of leftwing despots. With such leaders, the mess can only worsen — and it surely will.

Why so many crises have befallen the country at the same time and how they all relate to one another are really important questions. Poor economic outcomes, in terms of real income growth, are surely related to the rise of national identity as a salient issue, though there are other factors, notably immigration. What matters, however, is not what caused all this, but that it is going to take a long time to sort all this out. The UK will, alas, remain sick for a while.

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