The shortages that have followed Brexit are no surprise; we knew they were coming.
The most basic principle of international trade, ‘comparative advantage’, depends on the idea that people and countries can be better off if they specialise in the things they do best. The European Union was founded on that basis. Specialisation also increases mutual dependency, and that is a good thing; it makes war more difficult. However, it can also have negative consequences. As countries and regions build on their strengths, there will be a certain amount of disruption – what free market economists like to call ‘creative destruction’. The European funds – the Regional Fund and the Social Fund – were designed to compensate and offer some protection to the people and areas which would be displaced as local industries focused more on local strengths, and moved away from those activities where it made more sense for that work to be done somewhere else.
It was clear, for a long time before Britain joined the EU, that a range of Britain’s longest-established industries – coal, textiles and heavy engineering – had largely ceased to be sustainable as competitors entered the field. When Britain joined the EU, there was further displacement in a wide range of other areas, such as agriculture, car production and electronics. Conversely, the British economy came to depend increasingly on fields of activity where the UK was relatively successful – areas such as finance, scientific research, education and culture.
Currently, there are shortages in a wide range of areas. Some are obvious, and should have been predicted, like the shortages of HGV drivers or agricultural workers; some less so, such as the shortage of phials for medical samples or building materials. Our expertise in theatre or banking was never going to be an effective substitute. What was evident from the outset was that there was always going to be a wide range of activities which the British economy no longer had the capacity to do, and would have to import until a home-grown industry could develop – if it ever does, because there are things that can always be done more effectively somewhere else. It’s built in to the nature of international trade.