If this week has taught us anything, it’s that Brexit is about power, not policies. Policy outcomes are relevant to whether we stay in the customs union or what kind of immigration framework we have going forward, but they are not decisive. What really matters is who has the power to make these decisions. Who is in charge and who decides they are in charge?
As part of a project called Dear Leavers, I’ve been travelling around the country to listen to Brexit-voting communities about what they want – and the overwhelming message is about a sense of powerlessness. People still don’t feel they have a say in the decisions that affect them. They feel a million miles from the latest dramas in Parliament and are still waiting to get the control they voted for.
Last week, I visited Huddersfield – a beautiful town with an incredibly rich history of manufacturing, music and sport. In the central square stands an iconic statue of Harold Wilson – the man who gave the public our first chance to have a say on our relationship with the Europe in 1975.
The local people I met spoke passionately about the potential of their home town – and how excluded they are from the decisions about its future. They talked about political power but also, on a personal level, about how powerlessness is tied up with the dignity of self-worth. The failure to understand, let alone address this, lies at the heart of all the Remain campaign did wrong. And the same mistakes lead to lazy post-referendum analysis that still frames everything in terms of economics. That suggests poverty, stupidity and anger at loss of income were determining.
The Brexit vote was about so much more than that. It was an objection to powerlessness, insecurity and marginalisation. A backlash against feeling surplus to requirements, against indebtedness and uncertainty – when the digital age and the era of globalisation thrust others’ wealth, opportunity and achievement in people’s faces.
Talk of investment from central Government alone will not calm this storm of rage – as the Prime Minister is learning, you cannot buy your way out of a problem that’s much more fundamental than who has what. This is about who makes the decisions and where the power lies. And for many people who voted Leave, Brexit has become a test of whether they have any power at all.
Recent decades have seen the two largest political parties converge into impossibly broad churches and attempt to forge a consensus built on market values, competition and deregulation as all powerful. Politicians boasted of our democratic credentials on the global stage – but at home, people had few opportunities to affect change.
When the market foundations of our democracy crumbled in 2008, politicians themselves claimed they were incapable of fixing the system that crashed the economy. In effect our rulers proclaimed their powerlessness, screwed the public royally by imposing austerity and told the poorest they were responsible for their own fate. That unbearable combination turned millions off voting at all.
And when citizens were deprived of a credible, representative power that clearly belongs to, or is accountable to them, it led to anger with the most remote authority of all. The EU was blamed for the UK’s structural elitism, and held responsible as the source of all powerlessness.
So when the referendum offered the promise of real change, 17.4 million people took it. And sticking to the decision is Leavers’ last claim on the limited democracy of their experience. So whatever happens next in the parliamentary circus, we have to address power.
A starting point would be a new social contract and exploring new ways of doing democracy – with citizens’ assemblies to give people a chance to engage with real issues and influence how politicians respond to them, with a fair voting system, and with more power for regions.
One person I spoke to in Huddersfield summed it up: “The reason people voted for Brexit was that they felt they were out of control of their own lives.” No one should feel like that in a democracy. If we genuinely believe in a bigger future for our country, we have to redistribute both wealth and power – so people can take back control for good, not just for one vote.
Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion