‘Britain in worst crisis since WWII,’ declared the Australian’s front page last Thursday. ‘Britain’s state of dismay,’ professed the Age’s puny headline. ‘Brexit Chaos: Disillusion and disappointment,’ the Canberra Times opined. ‘UK on the Brink,’ the Advertiser announced.
The Australian media were of course not the only ones to respond to the failure of May’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons with apocalyptic headlines. Similar stories about the ‘Brexit crisis’ could be found across the globe. If you just read these headlines, you would think that Britain is on the brink of a nuclear war, a mass pandemic or an asteroid wipe out.
I feel it is my melancholy duty, after three weeks back in Old London Town, to report: everything is just fine.
The supermarket shelves are filled with food, the rubbish is still being collected, everyone is still planning their summer vacation and fighting over who will win the Premiership. There are no riots on the streets, mass crime or social breakdown. The only things that are near catastrophe is the dreadful and never-ending cold, and the totally suboptimal coffee. As I write this on a Saturday afternoon in a café serving avocado on toast, it would seem people are continuing their lives unabated.
It has become common parlour in much of the British media to declare any good news there is to have happened ‘despite Brexit’. This point was made very well by cabinet minister Michael Gove’s speech opposing Jeremy Corbyn’s no confidence motion last week. Gove spoke of London being rated the best place in the world for tech investment, for research, that global giants Chanel and Starbuck’s corporate headquarters are moving to London. ‘All of this all of this – in the words of the BBC – “despite Brexit”,’ Gove said.
Before the Brexit vote, UK Treasury forecasted that the mere decision to leave the EU – not the act of leaving, just because of the vote – would cause a recession and 500,000 job losses. In fact, employment has risen by over 785,000 since the Brexit vote. This is a classic case of what statisticians would call garbage in, garbage out. The forecasters assumed that all Brits would act like Treasury officials, that is, be freaked out by Brexit, stop spending, and push the economy into recession. In fact, the British people continued like nothing had changed. The apocalyptic predictions did not match reality.
If Britain leaves without a deal – a real possibility because of the parliamentary opposition to May’s deal – there will be some disruption in the short run. But this should not be exaggerated. There has been over £4 billion spent since 2016 on no deal contingency, there have been over 100 guidance issued in case of no deal, trade and customs systems are being developed, and international agreements signed on issues such as air flights and nuclear safety.
Last weekend Australia signed a wine and mutual recognition agreement with Britain. ‘This will mean Australian exporters can continue to benefit from existing arrangements for mutual recognition as they do currently, even if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement,’ Trade Minister Simon Birmingham explained. Additionally, leaving without a deal opens the opportunity for a multitude of longer run benefits from trade deals, cutting red tape and taxes, and avoiding being part of a scaled-up future European superstate.
When it comes to negative headlines, we should not blame the media for being the media. As the adage goes: if it bleeds, it leads. Chaos sells. This has been the experience of the no-longer-failing New York Times, whose subscription numbers skyrocked following the election of President Donald Trump. The longer term news, that the world is slowly but steadily improving, attracts limited interest. A journalist standing in London reporting ‘People are carrying on their lives as usual,’ just doesn’t sell.
It is important to remember that our lives are not entirely about politics. Despite what some critical theorists claim, the personal is not the political. In this jacked-up political era, we are too often forgetting that what makes our lives meaningful is our friends, family, work, hobbies and achievements – not what the American president said on Twitter yesterday.
The great benefit of living in a liberal democracy is that our lives are not entirely directed by state bureaucrats. This means that people get on just fine when the state is governing less.
In 2010-11, Belgium managed to last without a government for 589 days because of an inability of Flemish and Francophone parties to achieve a majority or come to an agreement. The governance of Belgium continued on a caretaker basis. In news that may shock, everything was fine. The same goes today, during the longest partial American government shut down in history. The daily opportunities and struggles of life continue unabated, even with many busy-body bureaucrats stuck at home.
It is often claimed that politicians are lazy and should be made to work harder and longer hours. This is a terrible idea. Better that politicians took more time off, legislated and regulated less, and let us get on with our lives. As lawyer Gideon J. Tucker declared in 1866, ‘No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.’ On this front, an underappreciated benefit of Brexit is that the parliament is so consumed by the politicking that it has less time to pass problematic legislation.
The evidence shows that things are better off when legislators are not legislating. The American stock market, for example, performs much better when Congress is not in session. This has been labelled the ‘The Congressional effect’ and was confirmed by academic studies in 1997 and 2006. The latter study, by finance academies Michael F. Ferguson and H. Douglass Witte, found that more than 90 per cent of capital gains in the Dow Jones Industrial Average were on days that Congress was out of session.
We live in a complex and often troubling world and there are political troubles all around us. But that’s no reason to think we are amid some unique crisis. In fact, as the likes of Stephen Pinker, Johan Norberg, Max Roser, and Marian L. Tupy have expertly chronicled, we are living in a more prosperous and more peaceful world than any time in human history. This means more people than ever before can live satisfied lives – even if politics sometimes gets in the way.
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