Opinion

We're counting the cost of failing to prepare for a post-Brexit world

Technology was offered as the solution to Brexit concerns - but technology can't drive lorries. Editor Paul McNamee says a lack of preparation is to blame for driver shortages.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates there is a shortage of more than 100,000 HGV drivers. Image: Peter O'Connor / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates there is a shortage of more than 100,000 HGV drivers. Image: Peter O'Connor / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s not exactly Convoy.

For Kris Kristofferson it was all CBs, staying one step ahead of the law, brawling, being a bit lusty and leading a long line of trucks across a desert to the Mexico border.

Forgive the ancient reference. That film made quite an impression. The reality is a bit different.

HGV driving is long, long hours on low wages, hard miles away from family, packed roads and fears about personal security while parked up. There is little talk of Rubber Duck and Ali McGraw.

We know that many EU-based drivers left when Brexit hit and made it impossible for them to work in the UK. And now we’re all paying the price, with empty petrol pumps and dwindling supplies in shops.

The call for the army to step in – whether to drive ambulances or deliver fuel – has become so commonplace that soon a generation will wonder if army personnel are little more than supersubs in fatigues.

It is easy to blame Brexit for the mess we’re in. But that’s not quite it. It’s the failure to properly prepare post-Brexit that has led us to where we are.

The galloping, cock-sure politicisation of the pro-Brexit position during the period between the vote and implementation brought us here.

Any challenge to the Get Brexit Done mantra, any suggestion that things would be hard and should, you know, be considered in preparation was shouted down as the worst sort of anti-democratic remoaning. It allowed a lot of tough, necessary questions to go unanswered.

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One of the solutions offered to most concerns – from the Irish border, to the mountain of paperwork now needed for even the smallest import and export – was technology. Presented as some sort of god-like hand waving magically and free, technology was going to fix everything.

And who knows, maybe given time the right programmes will be in place to help.

Despite all that is happening around us, it’s unlikely there will be immediate political will to do much more

But the thing that was missing in all conversations was people. In the short term, in the medium term, and even in the long term, people were forgotten.

One of the favourite mantras of John Hume, the great politician and peacemaker, was that you can’t eat flags. In the polarised crucible of Northern Ireland his meaning was clear.

Waving your emblem and knocking lumps out of somebody because they had an opposing emblem was fine, but it didn’t get into the guts of the problem or help fix the standard of living for all.

And that’s where we’re at now. To mangle Hume’s saying, technology can’t drive trucks. The standard of living of many, many people is heading south.

To ameliorate the driver situation, the government, quick in moving people out, is going back asking for help from the people Britain showed to the door. Rather than improve the lot of all, which was one of the claims made in favour of Brexit – supply will force up wages and British people will then take jobs in the industries they baulked at before – we don’t know what pay and conditions will be like in the short term. Or the longer term.

And in a really brassneck move we’re asking the overseas workers to drive our lorries and pluck our turkeys just until Christmas Eve when, like a Scrooge/John Bull hybrid, we send them packing.

Despite all that is happening around us, it’s unlikely there will be immediate political will to do much more. A YouGov poll last week said the majority of people blamed the media for the petrol crisis. I suppose you could argue Boris Johnson is a journalist.

But we’re teetering. All of us who can must keep pressure on to make sure that lives, about to be hammered by rising costs, particularly for energy, fearful of post-furlough futures with concerns over keeping a roof over heads, are protected. It’s what our Stop Mass Homelessness campaign was set up for.

We can’t all break for the border like big Kris.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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