According to John Rentoul, writing in The Independent at the weekend: “Brexit is distracting the centre of Government – No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury – from attending to the pressing problems facing the country.” You can see his point. The demands exerted by negotiating a Brexit deal in Brussels that neither party wants, while fending off a Remainer-dominated parliament in London, is hardly conducive to solving big and worsening domestic problems.
He is rightly sceptical about the government’s ambitions to build the millions of houses the country needs; and who isn’t outraged that 22,800 elective operations were cancelled in England as a consequence of ‘winter pressures’? But neither is the fault of Brexit. They are just the latest instalments in a long line of policy failures that existed long before that delicious jolt to the system intruded on the banal politics that existed before 23 June 2016. Does he really think that government would have got its trowel out by now and built the 250,000 homes a year it has been promising? Or that it would have got its act together and solved the social care crisis, and in turn solved one of the underlying causes of the NHS crisis?
No, Rentoul is wrong. Brexit isn’t a distraction from more pressing matters. However big the crises of housebuilding and in the NHS – and they are as considerable as they are longstanding – Brexit, and the crisis of democracy we face if it is not implemented will be that much bigger. But if we get it right – and it is a mighty big ‘if’ given the concessions already made by the UK negotiators - and those who seek to undermine it fail in their attempts to sabotage the popular will, Brexit has the potential to genuinely transform the agenda across public policy.
Even if it is thwarted as sovereignty and independence are sacrificed in the name of maintaining a relationship with the supranational body we are supposedly trying to leave, the popular sentiment behind Brexit can’t so easily be put back in its box. Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, it has the potential to be the catalyst for replacing the managerial target-setting that has plagued public services for decades with a culture of political contestation over competing visions of our collective future. Policy-makers, once deprived of the shelter provided to members of the EU from their respective citizenry, will become more exposed - as they should - to the pressure to act that comes from the questioning and debate generated by the public’s critical engagement with those who govern in their name.
None of this is automatic of course. The disengagement of the masses from politics in the UK has been a decades long process with its roots in the failure of past political projects of left and right. Also, the technocracy, restraint and risk-aversion that played a part in voters rejection of the elites at home and abroad and their reawakening as political subjects, continues to dominate public life. And it continues to stifle progress in building lots more houses and ensuring fewer beds are blocked, as surely as it inhibits those negotiating our exit from the EU or failing to plan for our post-Brexit future. The stasis that was with us before the summer of 2016 is still there if less seemingly immovable. It is only by truly involving the people in the policy process - an old mantra amongst policy wonks curiously absent of recent - that we can finally shift it.