Brexit has raised a whole series of wicked issues – and been a proxy for some others. When Brexit is settled – if Brexit will ever be settled – these issues will still be with us, writes Janet Sillett, whatever trade deal is negotiated or no deal or even no Brexit. Issues like identity, devolution, regionalism, trust. Is our current system of government really fit for purpose?
The endless rows and drama about the withdrawal agreement, and which MPs will take which position or whether Theresa May will survive, blot out the wider context – why did Brexit happen; did it expose truths about the divisions between north and south, between the countries of the UK, between different groups of people and generations? Does it reflect growing alienation from politics by some citizens; would it have been a different result if we had a less centralised state?
What is national identity anyway? Do people identify with England, their region, the UK, their town? Does London see English identity different to the West Country or Newcastle?
According to Professor Daniel Wincott (UK in a Changing Europe) English identity is politically volatile and lacks institutional expression. National identities in England are complicated. In a 2016 survey, a clear majority identified as both English and British. In the Brexit referendum, 85 per cent of those who identified as ‘English, not British’ were leavers, as were two thirds of people who feel ‘More English than British’. By contrast, over 60 per cent of those emphasising a British identity supported remain. The identity issue seems to have been important in influencing who voted what.
This question is bound to have an impact on the related questions of regionalism and devolution. Perhaps one answer is to substantially increase the powers and status of sub-national government in England and to strengthen regional and local identity? Easier said than done of course.
Commentators have suggested part of the reasons for the Brexit result was a feeling of being left behind – by globalisation and by political parties: that Brexit is part of a growing populist movement which also led to President Trump’s election. However complex or disputed the analysis is it is unquestionable that some people did indeed feel alienated from the political process. The focus on immigration before the referendum (and still a key issue) was partly fuelled by those who feared the UK had lost its identity (yes, back to identity) as well as by worries over jobs and services. Some areas that had few immigrants voted solidly to leave the EU. Turning around the lack of trust will not be easy and councils have a key role here.
The referendum wasn’t fought on the details of a future trade agreement. I would like to hazard a guess that most of the public hadn’t even heard of the Customs Union back then or pondered the challenges posed by the Irish border (the public outside Northern Ireland anyway). It was in many ways a war by proxy – and that means it won’t be solved by any deal negotiated with the EU or by a new referendum. But it will have made us think – ‘us’ in local as well as national government. Martin Rogers from the British Academy had this to say following a conference on Governing England:
“The issue of identity ran through each session. English identity may be felt by many people to be difficult to define and articulate, but identity is central to questions of governance. Many of the institutions of English and British politics are being reshaped in order to better take account of, or capture, English identity, without general acceptance of who the English are and what they want”.
In discussing how institutions will or should be reshaped and how subsidiarity and devolution should be progressed, we also need to take into account the related thorny issues highlighted by the referendum result – how to challenge the seemingly growing divisions between the countries of the UK, between different areas, between the young and old, between the poor and the well off. Central government over the last few months doesn’t seem to have been doing a good job. Maybe it is time for local government to grasp the nettle, even in these hard pressed times, to start to restore faith in the body politic?
Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Head of Briefings.