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Brexit: The Mourning After the Night Before as World Looks at us Differently

28/06/2016 11:56

Contrary to the Leave campaign, it is not about 'control' but about how we seem to the world where our fate lies; and getting that right will be harder than voting to quit the EU.

People beyond the wilder investment fringes like to feel good about a place to locate themselves or their money. As the American author Maya Angelou said: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." I am not at all convinced that the rest of the world is feeling too good about us at the moment.

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We risk being characterised by rivals as insular and unwelcoming, particularly to young talent and foreign capital. The debate over our membership of the European Union never credited the UK's part in the relatively stable, collegiate approach to crises over the past 43 years, however hopeless or controversial those responses may have been. We may have been like squabbling relatives at a large family gathering, but the worst we ever did was storm into a separate room.

Now we appear to be off, door slammed behind us on the way out. But as we stare at tumbling currency values and share prices, the greater risk to the UK is probably not how we retain a relationship with the remaining members of the EU. It is how we appear to investors and immigrants that all sides know a sophisticated modern economy needs.

We have seemed an open, calm, pragmatic nation; and a place of principles, with a past steeped in an exportable set of values. I suspect we now seem a little smaller and chaotic; and a place led by diminished politicians.

Immigration, which is what it turned out to be about, has given us a culturally diverse country and services people can afford. London in particular is a global powerhouse precisely because it is global, welcoming talent and capital.

Happy? Sad? It doesn't matter. Whatever we may feel about ourselves after the referendum vote, it is how others feel about us that will decide our new position in the world. So far, the UK has not found it's voice. It's found its past: fragmenting along class, age and geographic lines.

Nothing seems to have been thought through beyond that seductive 'control' sound bite. How will the restrictions on unskilled labour demanded by the Leave campaign be applied, for example? If robustly, expect wages to rise as staff shortages kick in. The law of supply and demand is strictly apolitical.

Can we really expect the French to obligingly keep a a border for us in Calais? I doubt it. There is little incentive.

Why will the City be more attractive to the EU than, say, Frankfurt? If it is in the belief that cities long envious of London's success do not ensure it is hobbled by the negotiated terms of trade, we may be sadly deluded.

At the moment we are fixated by currency and share price fluctuations and the carnival of political change. Media likes the immediate, after all. But markets have a way of reaching long-term averages again with surprising speed even after appalling events, such as world wars. We might reasonably expect that to continue, despite these testing circumstances.

This and changes of leaders are distractions, and they may prove far less damaging to our future prospects than how we are perceived as the sixth (and falling) biggest economy in the world.

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