BOOK REVIEW

Britannia Unchained

by Kwarteng, Patel, Raab, Skidmore and Truss

Front cover of Britannia Unchained
Book cover for Britannia Unchained

The title of this book and the list of authors made me expect that the chains created by our membership of the EU would be the essence of the book. All the authors are committed Conservative Brexiter MPs, four are senior members of the government. Liz Truss had backed Remain in the Referendum. As the book was published in 2012, four years before the Referendum, I expected clarification of the ways that membership of the EU had allegedly inhibited our economic and political life. 

Global lessons for growth and prosperity

Not a bit of it; the authors hardly mention the EU. Instead they identify and describe a large number of well-known facts and influences which have adversely affected the UK’s economic and political life in the 70 years since the second world war. They rightly pay attention to Sir Nicholas Henderson’s famous valedictory despatch from Paris in March 1979. In it he stated that “Our economic decline has been such as to sap the foundations of our diplomacy… I believe that during the same period, much of our foreign policy has been such as to contribute to that decline… We are not in the first rank even as a European power.” 

Name those chains

What are the chains which have held us back? The authors argue that they are excessive public spending funded by too much borrowing, poor educational aspiration, a poor work ethic and insufficient risk taking. These are not original. They have featured, in varying degrees, in any list of British weaknesses since the second half of the 19th century. In fact they feature in analyses of our problems by those who advocated entry to the EU and to the EEC earlier. Remainer and Leavers were both in general agreement on identifying many of our problems.

The first chain which the authors identify is the serious indebtedness of the UK in the early 1990’s. They compare this with Canada, which was deeply in debt, mainly due to politicians such as Pierre Trudeau offering the voters increasingly expensive welfare benefits without increasing taxation. Deficit financing continued for several years and was only reduced when the governments of Mulroney and Chrétien critically examined each aspect of government spending. In the UK the authors’ great heroine, Margaret Thatcher, started the process but with insufficient success. Brown and Balls persevered in critically examining Government spending, but when the Financial Crisis of 2008 occurred, total debt was still too high.

Britons are bad at sums

The authors pay close attention to the UK’s insufficient focus on scientific and maths education. Our persistent low ranking in international tables has not acted as the same stimulus to our thinking as Germany’s low ranking in 2000 had on their thinking. The authors recognise that this educational malaise affected numerous countries but the UK’s response was particularly weak. They worry that many senior people in business and government do not have a good enough working knowledge of scientific and mathematical disciplines to assist their proper understanding of business and big projects.

…and they don’t like work

The work ethic of British people in comparison to the work ethic of our European neighbours comes in for some severe criticism by the authors. High tax rates and a poorly designed welfare system in the UK are judged responsible for discouraging individualism and encouraging British people to rely too much on state support. 

The British venture capital industry is judged to be too risk-averse and, by comparison with US and Israeli venture capital industries, to have too great a fear of failure. 

Looking forward with optimism

The authors are optimistic about our future, despite the serious shortcomings described above. The recent increase in our birth rate, unlike all other European countries, makes them believe that the necessary reforms will take place and that by 2050 our population will be the largest in Europe.

The authors fail to mention the effects of the cost to the UK of the crucial role we played in achieving the Allied victory in 1945. In addition the cost of our post-war commitments in Europe (the British Army of the Rhine) and in the retreat from Empire were heavy. At the same time British politicians committed the country to financing the major expansion of the Welfare State. All these costs contributed to creating our regular serious balance of payments crises in the second half of the 20th century.

Were they Inners or Outers?

The failure of the authors to mention the alleged disadvantages of membership of the EU only four years before the Referendum prompts this reviewer to wonder how sincere they are in supporting our exit. Perhaps they became big enthusiasts for Brexit when the prime minister invited them to join his government.


Britannia Unchained by Kwasi KwartengP. PatelDominic Raab , Chris Skidmore, and Elizabeth Truss