Brexit is being surrendered to the declinist Europhile establishment
The United Kingdom has saved £191 billion simply by not being a member of the European Union. That figure represents the degree we would have been on the hook for what the Commission proudly calls “the largest stimulus package ever” and this excludes any contingent liability for the risk of bankruptcy of other EU member states.
This is just one of the major Brexit successes we have already banked. There has been a steady stream in recent years. Some large, such as the vaccine rollout, some apparently small but which will have great impacts, as with the changes that will allow gene editing and unleash agricultural innovation. Others are still wending their way through Parliament, like the Financial Services and Procurement Bills.
Brexit has achieved the primary goal of restoring democratic control. This is a momentous thing in itself and needs no further justification. The right of people to choose how to be governed is the most powerful right there is. Yet Brexit is also a means to an end. The economic success of democracies in the long run tends to be better than autocracies, but as Allister Heath has previously written so clearly in these pages, we cannot simply sit back and assume success will come our way.
Now that Parliament has the right to govern, and the Government the right to lead, will they take the risks that lead to growth or will they bask in the comfort of the waning sun that once shone so brightly over Europe?
Some 4,000 EU laws lie mouldering on the statute book, passed without Parliamentary scrutiny and sometimes against the wishes of HM Government. Fourteen hundred of them are so obscure that they had to be dug out of the National Archives. This was the practical effect of membership of the European Union, unelected and unaccountable, whose laws spewed forth from Brussels and which had, at most, a cursory debate in the Commons, but could be neither amended nor blocked.
The Retained EU Law Bill (REUL), which as a minister I was involved in preparing, is designed to release us from this burden. It would require that all these laws, which intrude across British business and personal life, are either repealed or are turned into UK law. The Bill prevents them being extended, which would allow over-zealous bureaucrats to use a deregulatory measure to regulate by sleight of hand. Suffice to say that this is a task that any competent government department ought to be able to manage smoothly.
All the old files explaining these rules will be available: the purpose of each should be perfectly clear. For those laws that were really necessary, transposing them into UK law will add clarity to the statute book by removing a separate and alien legal code. Yet we are told that the Government now hesitates, advised by civil servants that many hundreds of new colleagues would be needed.
The implication is that our Rolls-Royce departments are incapable of going through the law books with a highlighter pen. This is obstructionism dressed up as idleness. Civil servants are more than capable of the task, which ought to already be under way.
These laws and regulations were imposed by an EU system that does not function and is in the process of making Europe poorer, not to mention making the rest of the world poorer too. Its burdensome, anti-competitive, innovation-destroying rules serve only to keep sluggish incumbent corporations out of the insolvency courts. Indeed, this system will ultimately bring to an end the unique period of European prosperity that Britain unleashed through the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.
Because the opportunity of Brexit allows us our freedoms, it is of the utmost importance that the United Kingdom diverges from this EU model. And since we must lift the burdens of excessive regulation and unleash the competition on which innovation and wealth depend, protected industries that charge consumers high prices are bound to be displeased by these changes and can be expected to lobby furiously against them.
Yet policies that are pro-consumer and reduce prices ought to be welcomed in an era in which the spectre of inflation has returned. No one is talking about a Wild West without consumer and health protections – of which the UK was incidentally a pioneer long before the EU, the Sale of Goods Act 1893 being an early example.
Reducing regulatory burdens across the economy is fundamental to our future prosperity. So it is a particular concern that the Government is apparently being led away from the related initiative of “regulatory budgets”. These would make sure that governments know the total economic effect of regulations before they impose them, instead of using them as virtue-signalling totems.
For example, was the cost of the lights going out – or of dependency on volatile energy prices from other sources – considered when almost all our coal-fired power stations were blown up? There ought to have been a budget to outline the potentially high cost of an apparently medium risk.
The inheritance of the EU regulatory system is now an urgent problem across our economy, not least for the steel industry. After Brexit, the UK took the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and gold-plated it to make it even more costly. This is rendering steel firms virtually unviable, like other energy-intensive industries on which many of our regions depend. The result is that the government needs to bail them out through subsidy.
This is a merry-go-round of cash that serves only the interests of the ever-expanding state, because it does not even achieve its green aims: Britain’s heavy industries are already among the greenest in the world and burdening them with such regulations forces us to import from more polluting economies.
If there had been proper regulatory budgeting, these high-minded, nice-to-do regulations would have been exposed. Instead, the Government now risks killing the British steel industry, destroying jobs while increasing emissions worldwide. If the ETS is not to be done away with entirely it needs urgent and deep reform at the very least. Yet this is just one example. The economy does not have to work in this way.
Budgeting properly for the regulations we impose on the economy does not mean that governments will never regulate, but it will mean that they are forced to be honest with voters about what the costs will be. So many regulations are admired as worthy without consideration of the economic consequences. Surely one of the lessons of the Covid lockdowns is that a greater analysis of the costs ought to have been done. This logic should be applied more generally.
Perhaps it is not surprising that those who still resent the result of the referendum do not want the burdens of over-regulation to be lifted. It is pointless to try to understand all the Remainers’ ultramontane and sacred mysteries, but some clearly want to see us tied into the EU in the hope that, even if the UK is not a member, we can shadow its rules and embrace its inefficiency, or the Hilaire Belloc principle of “always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse”, the mantra of managers of decline throughout the ages. Some refuse to acknowledge the connection between prosperity and a free and self-governing democratic system.
In a perversion of logic, a lordly Times columnist has even called the REUL Bill undemocratic. Laws that came in without scrutiny or consent but were pushed through under the European Communities Act must therefore be kept, possibly because the House of Lords, that most democratic of bodies, does not like it.
A referendum result said that the UK wanted to take back control of our money, laws and borders. A general election result comprehensively confirmed that decision. But most of the work has not been done. Payments to the EU continue, the borders remain leaky and the laws have not yet been repatriated.
The REUL Bill provides the greatest possible impetus for completing this task. It establishes a mechanism for the removal and reform of these regulations with far greater scrutiny than they received when originally introduced. Legislators in both houses will be able to exercise fully the sovereignty of Parliament in areas where they were once entirely subordinate to the European Commission.
A repeal and reform of huge swathes of financial services regulation would make the City more competitive and dynamic now it is outside the EU, to the benefit of the UK. It is European regulations and decades of case law which have helped to jam up planning and development, whether by the Habitats Directive or the European Court’s 2018 ruling which has barred planning permission for hundreds of thousands of homes while the UK suffers an acute shortage of housing.
If we are to learn a single lesson from the pandemic it is that top-down, box-ticking and process-driven bureaucracy is the way to ruin, as the communist Chinese are now discovering. And if it were not for Boris Johnson’s determination to blow away the risk averse process to vaccine procurement – for which he was widely attacked at the time – we would not have recovered from the pandemic as quickly as we did. Were it not for the rapid repeal of many unnecessary EU regulations around HGV licences, the lorry driver shortage of 2021 would not have been eased in time for Christmas, while labour shortages continue to plague the Western world.
The successes of Brexit are already legion. The REUL Bill offers the opportunity to change fundamentally the way Britain is governed and do so for the better. But there is a risk of this being lost now, at this late moment.
What type of defeatism is it that would have a Bill passed by the democratically elected House emasculated by Europhile peers? What type of idleness is it that besets senior civil servants, allegedly working from home, who are murmuring that this is all too difficult? What type of government would it be that fails to deliver on its cornerstone promise?
Jacob Rees-Mogg is former secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy