Why Britain’s Brexit Mayhem Was Worth It

The country appeared willing to throw away a huge chunk of trade over a minor industry. But national life has to be about more than simple calculations of GDP.

A fishing boat sits at a harbor on Britain's southern coast
Jim Wileman / Guardian / eyevine / Redux

No, of course the past few weeks—like the past few months, and the past few years—of Brexit drama have not made much sense. In economic terms, not a lot about Brexit ever has.

Britain and the European Union have in recent days been locked in talks to conclude one of the most important trade agreements ever negotiated. As a New Year deadline approached, after which, absent a deal, the two sides would impose tariffs and restrictions on each other’s goods and services, compromises appear to have been found on long-running areas of disagreement, including how future disputes might be managed and how to reconcile diverging rules and regulations managing their respective economies. A deal has finally been reached.

Until the end, though, one sticking point remained: fish. And so a trade deal between the fifth-biggest economy on Earth and the world’s largest free-trade bloc was nearly derailed on several occasions because of a dispute over whose fishermen could catch what fish, in what numbers, for how long, and in whose waters.

Brexit was always stupid, the great and the good have repeatedly told us—by which they usually meant that it was stupid for Britain—but this negotiation seemed extraordinarily so. According to its many critics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was placing ephemeral and outdated notions of sovereignty above the reality of 21st-century trade. What sense was there in demanding full regulatory control over the British economy if its biggest market, the EU, restricted access to its hundreds of millions of customers as a result? What sense was there in risking the U.K.’s entire economy over fish? Each year, Britain exports just short of £300 billion, or about $400 billion, worth of goods and services to the EU—more than 40 percent of everything it sells abroad. Of this, fish sales are worth a little more than £1 billion, or a third of 1 percent of the total. Britain was thus threatening to make more than 99 percent of its trade with the EU more difficult and expensive, just to defend the remaining fraction. Really?

The fact that Britain took so long to accept the flaws in this logic was generally seen as further proof of its continued descent into self-defeating parochialism, nostalgia, and petty nationalism all wrapped up in the neat box called “populism.”

The problem with this point of view is that it imagines national life as a spreadsheet of total economic gains and losses, as somehow unemotionally rational—and this way of looking at the world as somehow a good thing. But isn’t one of Brexit’s central points that national life is about more than gross domestic product? This is the reason that Brexit provokes some of the most basic questions in politics: What is required of a national economy in today’s world? Do national economies exist anymore? What is a nation today? What is the group to which we owe our fundamental allegiance? And what common sacrifices are we prepared to make for the health, happiness, and contentment of that group?

These are not narrow nationalist questions: The EU, for example, has shown since the 2016 Brexit referendum that pursuing national interests through a wider union is perfectly possible. At the same time, for many Scots, the challenge of Brexit is that they feel that their principal loyalty is to Scotland, not the wider United Kingdom, and that their interests would be better protected by an independent Scotland within the EU. For London, all of this raises a troubling question of how the EU has been able to act more like a unified country in these past few years of negotiations than Britain (which actually is a unified country). What does this say about the strength of British national life?

Brexit has exposed weaknesses at the heart of Britain: the fragility of its unity, the imbalance of its economy, the failure of its political class, and the fraying social, economic, and political bonds that hold it together, uniting fishing communities with urban centers, Brexitland with Remainia.

None of that is to say wider economic judgments are unimportant. Of course not. The only way to make Brexit work in the long run is for Britain to somehow become a better environment for high-profit industries in which it has, or could have, a competitive advantage—banking, finance, science, technology, engineering, design, and so on. Fishing is not one of those industries. Britain cannot get rich on fish.

Yet, at root, Brexit was a rejection of the economic status quo, which too many had concluded was benefiting the country’s urban centers at the expense of its more rural regions. And not without evidence: Britain is the most unequal economy in Europe, combining a supercharged global hub as its capital with areas a three-hour drive away that are as poor as some of the least-developed parts of the continent.

Brexit was not solely a vote of the “left behind”—much of the wealthy and suburban elite also voted to leave. But Brexit was a rejection of the direction the country was taking, a desire to place perceived national interests above wider European ones that too many Britons did not believe were also theirs. Is this entirely unreasonable?

As I languished at home in London, having been forced to cancel Christmas with my in-laws in Great Yarmouth, a seaside town on England’s east coast that strongly supported Brexit, I read through an obscure history book of the area that I’d given to my wife for her birthday. “The Town of Great Yarmouth or Jermouth, called in old times Garianonum,” the book, written sometime in the 17th century, begins.

Garianonum was in fact a Roman fort that is still standing. After the Romans left, replaced by the Saxons, the land around the fort began “little and little [to] lift his head above the waters,” providing fishermen with a prime spot to catch migrating herring each fall, according to the book, Henry Maship’s History of Great Yarmouth. These fishermen came from England, but also from France, what is now Belgium, and elsewhere in Europe, settling in the area over time. Eventually, the town grew and was mapped, taxed, and chartered, becoming “Great.” It is ancient and deeply English, but also indelibly European: Roman, Saxon, and ever connected to the continent.

To this day, Great Yarmouth’s crest features “on a field azure, three herrings argent,” Maship wrote. In the 14th century, under King Edward III, the three herrings were merged with the three lions of the royal coat “in acknowledgement of the effectual aid rendered to that King, during his wars with France,” as Maship explained. A motto was added—Rex et nostra jura, or “The King and our rights.” So Great Yarmouth is not only an ancient and deeply European town, but one founded on fishing rights, and conflict with the continent. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I was reminded of this recently by former Prime Minister Theresa May’s erstwhile deputy, David Lidington, who noted that atop the grand staircase in the British foreign-ministry building in London hangs a series of grand murals depicting the country’s history. One of the smaller paintings shows Alfred the Great, the ninth-century unifier of England and apparent founder of the Royal Navy, commanding his fleet to attack the Danes. Even the Foreign Office, which sees itself as the bastion of rational, self-interested diplomacy, is infused with semi-mythical visions of naval glory against a European enemy.

For 1,000 years, fishing was essential to Great Yarmouth: The town’s greatest-ever herring season came as late as 1913, when huge numbers of steam and sailing drifters landed 900 million fish, according to The Little History of Norfolk.

Today, the herring industry has all but disappeared, and Great Yarmouth is poor—the 25th-most-deprived borough in Britain. In 1997, 2001, and 2005, it voted Labour, but it is now a solidly Conservative seat, and voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Yet its history remains central to its identity: When I got married in the area in 2016, my wife’s father found some old wooden herring boxes in his garden shed.

As the historian Ed West has noted, nostalgia is usually an accusation, a negative charge to refute. But surely in a place such as Great Yarmouth, it is entirely reasonable to be nostalgic for an age in which the town was more successful? Is it then unreasonable to demand protection from your national government, even at the cost of the wider economy? Isn’t that what nations do?

For these reasons, critics dismissing the British government’s stance over the past few months should pause for a moment. Fishing might well represent a tiny fragment of the U.K. economy, but does that mean it should not be protected, even at the cost of dither and delay and, even, perhaps, the freedom of other industries? Should attempts not be made to revive it in some small way? Are nations not about more than cold reason? For what are they but imagined communities, built on a sense of a shared past?

In fact, wasn’t it precisely because of the perception that Britain’s wealthy urban centers no longer cared for their less important regions and industries that many voted for Brexit? Professor Anand Menon, the director of U.K. in a Changing Europe, a think tank, told me that, until the Brexit referendum, it was hard to dispute the charge that successive national governments in London had done little to address the plight of poor coastal towns and fishing communities. It was because of this, he said, that the Johnson government’s focus on the repatriation of fishing rights had become so symbolic—it represented a commitment to “left behind” towns and industries.

An even wider point here goes beyond Brexit: Earlier this year, I traveled through Ohio, which twice voted for Barack Obama but switched to Donald Trump in 2016 and stuck with him in November. This was a state that felt abandoned by Washington, as Great Yarmouth felt abandoned by London, its heavy industry left unprotected as the United States pursued global trade liberalization that benefited the country’s economy overall, but not the people living in that part of the Midwest.

Is Johnson’s Brexit trade deal the answer to Great Yarmouth’s problems? Take back some control of Britain’s fishing waters—even if gradually, with plenty of European fishing still allowed—and the herring will flow once again, along with the gentle, seasonal prosperity of old, the soothing and predictable rhythm of national life, the bonds between town and country restored? No.

In a narrow sense, Great Yarmouth’s herring industry was always dependent on trade and cooperation with the continent, and it began to hurt in the early 20th century as the Russian revolution cut off its Eastern European markets. The industry then collapsed because of overfishing. More important, though, the world has changed since the town was at its apex. It is fine to look back to a lost industry and to demand of your national government more care, and interest, and protection—even to hope for a resurrection of sorts—but the world of merry fishermen and thousands of small trawlers has gone. Technology, not the EU, killed that. Take Norway as an example: outside the EU and fully in control of its waters, yet a country that has seen the number of its fishermen collapse from about 90,000 at the end of the Second World War to about 9,000 today, Barrie Deas of Britain’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations told me.

In Britain, barely a quarter as many people work in the fishing industry today as did before World War II, but most of these jobs were lost before Britain joined the EU. Fishing declined because more advanced technology and boats meant more fish were caught by fewer workers. As this happened, debates raged in the House of Commons about what ministers would do. Members of Parliament demanded answers from the government: Were the Danes and Germans taking too many “immature fish” before they had a chance to make their way to England’s east coast? Or was the depletion, as happened to be the case, because of new trawler boats and overfishing generally?

None of this on its own makes Brexit right or wrong. The British fishing industry’s interdependence with other national fishing industries doesn’t mean that it, and the coastal communities long dependent on it, can’t demand protection from the government, or that a better deal with the EU would not make a real difference. Boats from EU countries catch about 60 percent of the fish in British waters at the moment; by contrast, 90 percent of the fish in Norway’s seas are caught by its domestic fleet. The better balance in this arrangement—from a British perspective—that has now been struck will benefit some British fishing communities, allowing them to keep and sell more of what they already catch but have to throw away to keep within strict EU rules. Such national protection is no different for other industries: Ask any country’s national-defense sector to survive without taxpayer support, and see how long it lasts.

Politics, like European fishing battles, is complicated. But it is reasonable to wonder whether we have paid enough attention to one of the lessons of the Brexit vote: that national life has to be about more than simple calculations of GDP. Being part of a wider unit—nation or confederation—means looking after the people and communities that make up that unit. Both fish and Brexit are reminders of that, whether it makes economic sense or not.