Skip to main content

Behind the headlines

The truth about “basket case” Britain

What’s not to like? Getty

“A corrosive and essentially false story of British economic failure is taking hold in the public mind,” says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, amplified by endless gloomy headlines. Not least, he might have added, in the Telegraph itself, which a week ago announced: “Great Britain is decaying before our eyes”. Bloomberg takes a similar line (“Britain’s battered economy is sliding toward a breaking point”), as does Le Monde (“Brexit: Six years of a crumbling British economy”). “From across the pond,” says Joseph Sternberg in The Wall Street Journal, “Britain looks like a basket case.” So what’s the truth?

Has Brexit been an unmitigated disaster?
Many of the gloomiest predictions simply didn’t come true, says the FT, not least George Osborne’s 2016 prediction that a recession would immediately follow a Leave vote (it didn’t). And when Tory grandee Michael Heseltine bemoans “the loss of our closest market”, says Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail, he’s being “hysterical”. Our exports to the EU in April were actually above where they were in the same month of 2019, before we finally left the bloc. Despite its fiery headline, even Le Monde admits the economic damage of Brexit has been “unspectacular”.

What about the queues at airports?
It’s been a chaotic start to the summer, but it is “delusional” to see this as specific to the UK, says Lawson, or to blame it on Brexit. In the first weekend of June, 3% of flights were cancelled in Britain, the same percentage as in the US. The Germans cancelled 4% of their flights, while the Dutch scrapped no less than 11%. At Amsterdam’s formerly efficient Schiphol airport, “passenger queues stretched into the streets”. Two weeks ago, journalist Iain Martin reported from Stockholm airport: “Police closed the motorway to prevent passengers getting there for fear they would add to the overcrowding. It was bedlam.”

So are we going to “sink giggling into the sea”?
That’s what the English satirist Peter Cook predicted in the 1960s. And according to The New York Times, ever since Boris Johnson’s “feel-good fantasies” replaced actual policies, “the feeling is pervasive”. But then they would say that, says Gerard Baker in The Times. About once a month, The New York Times, which “likes to consider itself the global newspaper of record”, publishes a new horror story about how execrable life is in this once prosperous country. They spent Covid blithely referring to Britain as “Plague Island”.

Do they have a case?
Yes, but we’re not alone. Many think the US itself is in even worse shape: more than 40% of Americans believe Joe Biden rigged the last election. As for Germany, its entire economic model could collapse without unfettered access to Russian gas and Chinese consumers. The French are veering between hard left and hard right, with arch-centrist Emmanuel Macron paralysed in between. Britain is certainly having a rum time, but Bill Bryson’s conclusion in his 1995 book Notes from a Small Island still rings true: “The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.”

🌱💀 If there were a prize for the “most preposterous use of Brexit” to blame for problems that have nothing to do with it, says Lawson, “the gold medal should go to Brighton and Hove City Council”. Last month, it told residents that the infestation of weeds on its streets was down to a “shortfall of European nationals” to pull them out. The real reason? The Green-run council has banned glyphosate, a key ingredient in most weedkillers.