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UK politics

The great Brexit delusion

In other words, a bigger state. Jack Taylor/Getty

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of “laments, fury and blame-shifting” by leading free-market Brexiters like Nigel Farage and Lord Frost, says Robert Shrimsley in the FT. Perhaps most striking was a piece by the “thoughtful” former MEP Daniel Hannan, published under the headline “The liberal Brexit dream is dying”. Hannan exemplifies a strain of Tory Leavers who more or less believed in the “sovereignty” arguments but saw exiting the EU as primarily a way of achieving a “low tax, lower regulation and less statist” Britain. Instead, they find themselves with the opposite: higher taxes, increased regulation, more state intervention and talk of voluntary price caps in supermarkets.

What these “Leave liberals” failed to recognise was that the vote for Brexit was in large part a revolt against their ideology. The people who delivered the Leave result were hardline on immigration, suspicious of big business, keen on culture wars, and “comfortable with a more interventionist state”. The defining Brexit pledge was, after all, “more money for the NHS”. In order to win, the free-market Leavers made common cause with populists who never shared their economic vision. (Remember Boris Johnson’s “f*** business” outburst?) Their mistake was to believe that maximising “Brexit freedoms” would naturally deliver their longed-for smaller state. But that promised land was “always a fantasy”. And in allying with those populists, Leave liberals surrendered the economic argument, ushering in the big state era they now bemoan. “They won the war but lost the peace.”