Leaving the EU to control our borders, our money and our laws has become the now familiar battle-cry of the Leavers – summed up in the three-word crusading line: take back control. It’s a message that cut through – but it’s not the control left-behind, Brexit-voting Britain needs.
Its effectiveness was that it spoke to their sense of disempowerment and bitterness, and which animated the Leave vote. Seven of the poorest regions in Northern Europe are in England. All voted Brexit. England’s 30 social mobility “coldspots” all voted Brexit. They feel marginalised, convinced the future will be worse than the past and have no line of sight on power or control. They voted against the processes - based in Brussels as they were sold and which they came to believe - that had not delivered. It was a social revolt, but aimed at the wrong target.
For the EU’s “control” is not their enemy. The control they lack is minted at home by Britain’s governance arrangements that centralise power to an unparalleled and unique extent. The local is a cipher; it raises only £5 in every £100 it spends. The much criticised EU “controls” are collectively to protect European citizens backs at work and in the environment, and to create common standards so goods and services can flow around our shared continent. The money the EU spends is to promote shared European goals, from frontier research to relieving desperate regional poverty – and from which we benefit. There are plenty of measures Britain can take to assure itself it knows who is crossing our borders and why; a national system of identity cards along with proper checks and monitoring at our border would eliminate illegal immigration and offer assurance that we are monitoring immigrant numbers. The EU is not the enemy: it is left-behind Britain’s friend – if only it knew it.
The real control Britain’s constituent nations, regions, cities and towns need is more power to act for themselves wrestled off Westminster and Whitehall – not Brussels. Scotland, Wales and London have a measure of political and economic power with their devolved government and London mayor with results that speak for themselves. The rest of England is ruled essentially as a colony from London. Even the recent innovation of “metro mayors “is only a baby step, with delegated powers still less than London’s mayor. We need empowered mayors all round, breaking the feudal relationship with London and with serious powers to tax, spend, borrow, plan and organise everything from training to transport so towns and cities can reinvent themselves. It is no accident that London, with its independent corporation of London and mayor, has built so effectively on its natural advantages. Every part of England deserves the same.
Britain needs a statute of self-government that empowers its localities – and they in turn need representation nationally. The House of Lords should be replaced by a Federal Senate. Like the German senate (Bundesrat) it would bring together the elected leaders of our great regions and cities; it would include the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, mayors of all our cities and city regions along with directly elected members. It would not only be a legitimate revising chamber: it would be a locus of discussion on everything from transport to housing, economic regeneration to training that so impact on our local areas and on which they are so marginalised. The Senate would be based in Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds – all within easy reach as early as 2030 when the high-speed rail network will be operational.
This would be the catalyst for the vital effort needed to tackle the ills that so beset left-behind Britain in general, and left behind England in particular. England’s smaller urban towns and cities – from Mansfield to Wigan, Weymouth to Sunderland - all voted Leave. They were right to protest that the current system has led to their stagnation. The day after Brexit next March – if it happens – should be when Britain initiates a Constitutional Convention to set about root and branch reform. Along with creating the institutions of Federal Britain, it should set down every citizens economic and social entitlements, from education to data privacy. And it should contain a commitment to engage with the EU. Brexit-voting Britain must be heard, and the pain and sense of loss of control addressed. Leaving the EU was never the answer. A new federal settlement – accompanied by a major programme of economic and social reform – is by far the better way forward.
Will Hutton is a political economist and writer. With Andrew Adonis, he is co-author of Saving Britain: How We Must Change To Prosper In Europe, published by Abacus Books