On Brexit's third anniversary, the UK has more reasons to regret it than ever

Economic and social problems have made Britain's third year of "taking back control" a difficult one
On Brexit's third anniversary, the UK has more reasons to regret it than ever
Photo: Hannah Mckay (Reuters)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The last day of January 2020 was the UK’s last day as a member of the European Union. Though many people didn’t know it yet, covid-19 was around the corner. The combined effect of both the pandemic and Brexit, compounded by the wider regional and global impacts of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, have led to the situation today: Frustration and regret.

A UK that may have gained more independence, but has lost crucial workers and markets that supported its economy. A country with a health service, transport network, and education system experiencing coordinated strikes by employees furious with the government’s handling of everything from pay in hard times, to the very right to strike itself. A government riven by scandal, leadership change, and financial mismanagement, all of which is undermining public confidence. And a public who made a choice back in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, and increasingly wish they’d made a different one.

Jobs, strikes, and pay

Many of those who campaigned and voted for Brexit talked about the need to protect jobs. Unregulated migration from the EU had pushed down wages and muscled British people out of jobs in sectors like agriculture, building, and healthcare, the argument went.

Seven years on from the vote and three from the ultimate severance of ties with the EU, the UK is going through something of an employment poly-crisis. On the one hand, staff who had kept the National Health Service afloat through years of underfunding have moved back to other European countries, and nurses—who took part in unprecedented strikes last month—doctors, and ambulance staff say hospitals are desperately understaffed to the point of endangering lives.

Strikes have also affected train services for the past several months, as well as university teachers, and now school teachers, leading to the closure of hundreds of schools across the country. Many of the strikes focus on pay, which workers say hasn’t kept in line with inflation; perhaps unsurprising, given that inflation rose above 11% in the UK in October 2022, before falling slightly (but remaining over 10%). The government, meanwhile, is arguing that a shortage of workers is the problem. Labor shortages, in many countries, are pushing wages up, they say. That leads to inflation, which will only be stoked by giving public sector workers enough of a pay raise to support their current standard of living.

While it’s certainly true that other economies are experiencing tighter labor markets, the reasons behind that tightening are to at least some degree local and specific. In the UK, Brexit has potentially sucked thousands of people out of the labor market in the last few years—including EU citizens who have left, those who might have come but didn’t, and UK or other citizens who have decided they prefer to work elsewhere.

In 2016, before the referendum, EU citizens made up between 59% and 77% of all migrants to the UK, according to the the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. That began to fall as soon as the UK voted to leave, and during the pandemic in 2020 led to 94,000 more EU citizens moving away from the UK than to it. This might have bounced back post-pandemic, but the enactment of Brexit at the end of that year put up barriers to prevent it. (Net migration to the UK has still risen in most years since 1991, and was in fact unusually high in 2022, but for specific factors, Migration Observatory said, including the war in Ukraine and a visa scheme for people from Hong Kong.)

Immigration, refugees, and small boats

Curbing immigration was also an explicit factor in the rhetoric of the Brexiteer camp. Some of this was expressed in relation to jobs, as discussed, some to more amorphous cultural issues, and some of it was explicitly racist: Anger and fear directed at people from different countries and specifically different ethnic groups than the white British majority.

Europe has been experiencing an intense refugee crisis for years, particularly fueled by conflicts in which the West has intervened militarily, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. Insulated by being an island, the UK has a relatively tiny number of refugees and asylum-seekers. Asylum applications peaked at just over 84,000 in 2002 before falling dramatically and staying much lower than that every year to date. In 2021 and 2022, however, the number of people crossing the channel from France in small boats—a deeply dangerous and often fatal route—has risen dramatically. A total of 185,000 have crossed to the UK in small boats over time, most in the last three years, according to UK government figures. In 2022, at least 40 died making the attempt.

Brexit has not in itself solved the perceived problem of migration to the UK, or of people seeking asylum; only flows of people have changed, and with the changes different problems have arisen both for the country and for individuals.

How has Brexit affected the rest of the UK economy?

When it comes to a whole economy, of course it’s possible to find data points to support different theories, to interpret data in different ways. In December 2022, Stéphane Boujnah, CEO of Euronext, Europe’s largest stock exchange group, told Bloomberg that London had lost its place as Europe’s financial center because of Brexit. He cited the data point that primary listings in France, as measured by total market capitalization, had overtaken those in the UK in the previous month. That’s far from definitive proof that London is losing its financial-world status. It’s certainly possible to point to ways in which the UK economy is doing well, and also to point out that problems the country is experiencing—such as high inflation and soaring energy prices—are also happening elsewhere (though they are particularly bad in the UK.)

But it’s certainly also true that these are tough times to be a UK citizen, whether you’re someone on low income struggling to afford food and heat, a homeowner watching mortgage payments skyrocket, or an older person dependent on a crumbling NHS or underfunded social care system. Thus far, it’s hard to see the bright spots of Brexit.

What does the UK public think about Brexit now?

On Tuesday, data from Transparency International pointed to one of the biggest declines in public confidence in UK institutions since the anti-corruption group began keeping records. The UK fell from 11th place in the world for perceived corruption in 2021 to 18th place in 2023, with those surveyed pointing to multiple government scandals. Brexit wasn’t mentioned in the Transparency report, and may not have featured in the score; but it’s certainly been a big feature of the last seven years for the Conservative Party, which has been in power throughout. The party’s former leader, Boris Johnson, won office on a Brexit platform—and saw it through—before eventually having to resign because a series of scandals undermined the trust of his own party.

Johnson was followed by a short stint in power for Liz Truss, who crashed the economy with a disastrous mini-budget of unfunded tax cuts in October 2022. Then came Rishi Sunak, one of whose most recent acts has been to sack his party chairman for breaking the ministerial code.

Brexit, in these conditions, has never been more unpopular, with data from non-profit What UK Thinks, which collated a number of polls, suggesting more people now regret the decision than ever.