PENRITH, England—A man in overalls whitewashes the front window of yet another shop closing on the city’s main street. Families stockpile blankets to ward off the cold as they sit shivering in their homes with no heating while lines of people who cannot afford to feed their children form at the local food bank. Bars shut their doors early, and some days, they don’t even open at all.
I’m not in Ukraine, where I’ve spent the last year reporting on the devastation caused by Russia’s war. This is life in broken Britain, a quagmire of misery and problems, where even February’s weather is predicted to be colder and glummer than usual.
In Penrith, a Conservative Party-supporting town in the far north of England, most of the shops now close their doors at 4 p.m. and don’t even bother opening three or four days a week. A popular pub—the third in recent months—and a local grocer have announced they are closing after 25 years and 18 years, respectively. Even a local store that sells cut-price clothing, which is (in fact) stock from insolvent chain stores, is closing due to a 50 percent slump in sales.
For the first time in my life, supermarket shelves sit empty due to supply chain problems. There is an egg shortage, a potato shortage, and a shortage of Wi-Fi bars; working in war-torn Ukraine is easier and more comfortable (missiles aside) than trying to do the same in peace-shattered Penrith. Britain’s troubles are legion: the fallout from COVID-19, high inflation, an energy crisis, a cost of living crisis, transport and health sector strikes, food shortages, rising poverty and inequality, the first war in Europe in a generation, and a possible recession. If the winter of discontent does sequels, we’re in it. Chief among all the culprits is the destructive effect of Brexit and bad governance.
Brexiteers promised the country would “take back control.” Instead, it is on course to be the world’s worst-performing big economy this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. It is predicted to be the only major economy to hit a recession in 2023, lagging even behind war-busy and sanctions-hit Russia.
As the third anniversary of Britain’s formal withdrawal from the European Union lands, many people are asking what, exactly, have they gotten control of? Brexit has added red tape and increased costs for both U.K. businesses and the foreign companies that once used Britain as a European base. It has stifled imports and exports as well as sapped investment. It has contributed to both labor shortages and problematic inflation. The U.K.’s Office for Budget Responsibility expected long-term GDP to drop 4 percent because of Brexit—or 100 billion pounds ($124 billion) in lost output and 40 billion pounds ($49 billion) in lost public revenues every year.
London has been one of the world’s biggest financial centers for a couple of centuries and was the largest financial hub in Europe. Brexit prompted finance professionals to relocate to Paris (among other continental destinations), and now the “City of Light” is challenging London. Foreign direct investment in the U.K. has dropped by 4 percent from 2010 to 1.7 percent in 2021. According to a report by the London School of Economics and Political Science, households are paying the brunt of the long-term costs of Brexit. Food bills rose by 210 pounds ($259) on average between 2019 and the end of 2021, costing consumers 5.8 billion pounds ($7 billion) and disproportionately affecting those on a low income. Meanwhile, Scotland, which has been in a union with England since 1707, is pursuing a second independence referendum: 62 percent of its voters wanted to remain in the European Union.
In 2016, 52 percent of Britons voted for Brexit. Buyer’s remorse has set in—belatedly. A recent YouGov poll found that, when asked if it was right to leave the EU, only 34 percent of respondents said yes and 54 percent said no. Yet the government, the same one that is mired in repeated sex and corruption scandals and has had five leaders in six years, maintains its smoke and mirrors stance that Brexit is the path to growth. Last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt—who in fact campaigned for Remain during the referendum—unveiled a plan to get the country back on its feet, saying “Our plan for growth is necessitated, energized, and made possible by Brexit.” Made necessary, at any event. Both the government and the opposition Labour Party refuse to publicly acknowledge the negative effects of Britain’s departure on the economy.
Almost 50 shops closed down every day across the country last year, and the forecast for 2023 is equally bleak. Brexit has left the country with a labor shortfall of 330,000 people, mostly in jobs like transport, storage, hospitality, and retail. Pubs, the stalwart of British society, are increasingly under threat. Tim Martin, owner of the popular low-cost pub chain Wetherspoons, was among the hardest campaigners for Brexit. Now, as he shuts 32 of his pubs, he is urging the government to increase EU migration. It’s beyond irony and into farce.
The Penrith area voted more decisively for Brexit than most of the country, with 53 percent in favor, but now 88 percent of local businesses say they have staffing shortages, according to local media. Bar staff told Foreign Policy that British people no longer want to work in hospitality due to long hours and low pay—and because COVID-19 closures pushed many people to find a new line of work. The problems are not helped by spiraling energy costs—a Penrith Mexican restaurant was quoted at having a 1,000 percent rise in its energy bill by providers at the beginning of winter.
After spending almost a decade abroad, the stark decline of my country is shocking, even after my time in Ukraine. I am typing this wrapped in cardigans and blankets, as it costs 10 pounds ($12.30) to turn the heating on for a few hours at home. People are increasingly turning to food banks amid stagnant wages and rising prices while rail, post, and national health service workers are all implementing rolling strikes. Waiting times even for emergency hospital patients can be longer than 12 hours, and travel is now so expensive that a round-trip bus ticket to nearby market town Keswick, just around 40 minutes away, costs 24 pounds—while the minimum wage is around 10 pounds an hour.
It wasn’t Brexit alone that broke Britain, but facing what by some accounts is the worst decline in living standards in a century, it’s clear Britons could have done without it. It remains to be seen how leaving the EU plays out in the long run, but for now, people are poorer and more miserable, and the country is more isolated. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes was right in the end: Lives are solitary and poor and nasty, if not quite brutish and short. The British can overcome outrages done by foreigners—there’ve been enough of them—but the worst part of all is that we did this to ourselves.