This week Jeremy Corbyn was labelled a protectionist, an economic nationalist and even a Donald Trump impersonator for arguing that there could be benefits to Brexit. Whilst his focus on manufacturing whiffs of economic festishism, and a weaker pound could hit the poorest consumers, his broader point is a sound one. In the right hands, our break with the European Union could be an opportunity to reset our broken economic and political model.
Brexit was, by and large, an English revolt – the country carried the referendum by voting 53.4% to Leave. In a referendum charged by the desire for laws to be made closer to home, why did a message to take back control resonate strongest in England?
In comparison to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, nowhere in England has been awarded comparable political autonomy, despite containing many significant populations, economies and cultural identities. These are places with their own dialects, cuisines and landscapes. Where I grew up in West Yorkshire, many people would identify first as a Yorkshireman or woman, and a Brit second. We have our own flag, our own way of speaking, and wouldn’t fair badly at the Olympics. But Yorkshire, like many English regions, has wrested almost no new powers from Whitehall’s grasp, despite devolution being an established principle for the rest of the UK for over two decades.
It is clear that England has been politically disenfranchised for too long. Anyone interested in getting tough on the causes of Brexit and stopping further populist advances, be it from the left or right, must recognise this, and address it. With central government acquiring new powers from Brussels, Brexit provides an opportunity to do just that, restoring a sense of agency to England’s often leave-supporting cities and region. Failure to do so would do little to address the feeling of powerlessness that drove so much of the Brexit vote, as distant Eurocrats are replaced by out-of-touch Whitehall mandarins.
How to go about this? As there is currently a process for passing new powers arising from Brexit to the devolved nations, a parallel process, underpinned by legislation, should be established for similar devolution to English cities and region. This would be driven by the principle that, unless there is some good reason, laws should be made closest to the people they govern; ironically, the same idea behind so-called ‘subsidiarity’ within the EU (we can think of a better name).
What would be the effects of such devolution on matters close to the hearts of the English people? Take immigration. Just as England diverged from Scotland and Northern Ireland in its decision to leave, there is strong evidence that London diverges from the rest of England on immigration; only in London do a majority not agree with the statement that the UK does not have enough space to accept more migrants. Devolving immigration powers, something explored by a cross-party group of MPs, to English cities and regions would allow politicians to reflect this divergence and demonstrate to the public that our democracy is listening to their appetite for change.
This approach could also offer a route out of the traditional dilemma policymakers appear to face on immigration – a choice between listening to the public, who are largely in favour of reduced immigration, and safeguarding the economy. Demos analysis suggests of all the English regions, London’s economy stands to lose the most from reduced EU migration. But given the more liberal views on immigration of Londoners, with immigration controls devolved there we could expect to see existing EU immigration levels maintained and, in turn, the economy protected.
As Corbyn pointed towards this week, we may acquire greater power over public procurement rules after Brexit – though our scope for flexibility here will be determined by our eventual trading relationship with the EU (and other nations). Controls here should be devolved to English cities and regions as a means of driving economic innovation and greater equity in local communities. As the Local Government Association has recently suggested, local bodies could specify minimum local living wages for their suppliers’ employees, helping to drive up living standards in local areas. They could also more easily favour local suppliers, potentially building on the recent development community wealth building strategies.
This could be a real force for economic renewal in ‘left behind’ regions and address some of the inequality between regions in England, no doubt another key factor in the Brexit vote. Giving people more control over their local economy is likely to prove a useful counter to populists and their claims that people have surrendered all power over their lives to globalisation.
There are many reasons to despair about Brexit. But it is very likely to happen, and those interested in making it work have a duty to highlight its potential benefits. We must now recognise it’s not just a chance for ships to be made in Britain, but the opportunity for a new political and economic settlement – whereby power is distributed from Whitehall to the great town halls of England’s cities and regions.