One week on from the shock* of the Brexit result, like many people I have been reflecting on what it means. Not from an economic, or political standpoint. But what people really wanted to achieve by voting to leave.
What seems to have united Leave voters of all persuasions was a desire for control. Control of their lives. Control of their environment.
In some this is expressed through a desire to control immigration. They see their world changing and believe that the people speaking a different language or of a different colour are the cause, not a symptom. In parts of the country where lifelong employment in manufacturing has been replaced by the uncertainties of the service sector there’s an unfulfilled desire for an explanation.
There are those who remember Britain as a global titan, wielding control on the world stage. They see Europe as a shackle on our power, limiting our influence and control. Rather than a suitable home for a state power that is being outpaced by growth elsewhere, including those places over which it used to hold dominion.
For some the imposition of laws from outside of our borders is the issue, particular where those laws impinge on our ability to operate businesses.
In reality, control seems distant from all of our lives today. Westminster politics is precisely the ‘bubble’ that political journalists often refer to, populated largely by the privileged who have waged a lifelong campaign to achieve the power they have. All too many people say they don’t vote because politicians are “all the same.” It’s not quite true but it’s also not entirely unreasonable. If you can’t relate to any of them, they might as well be all the same.
The referendum felt different. A small amount of control was available to us directly. And as the turnout figures show — still nothing to boast about but higher than we have seen in decades — we wanted to use it.
That carries some strong lessons for the future of politics.
I don’t think we should be holding referendums at every opportunity. As the post-vote calamity and unwillingness of the Leave side to push ahead with Article 50 has shown, there were good reasons to remain in the EU. While I believe we will ultimately return to a similar level of prosperity, perhaps with, perhaps without the control the Leavers were seeking, there is probably a tough decade ahead of us. Understanding the economic and social implications of a Leave vote was a significant undertaking. One best left to elected officials who can devote the proper time to it.
What we do need to do is bring control back to the public in a way that they can witness and feel. And this in part is why I am a fan of devolution. For all that we see the digital revolution demolishing global borders, location is still really important. The greater proximity you have to power, the more you can witness its effects.
For me, the problem of control was not best represented by the EU. For all the headlines about excessive bureaucracy, the reality is that the EU acts more like a standards body than a governing body. It defines a common set of rules by which we can all operate and interact, and by doing so allows much simpler cooperation.
Yes, some of those rules define working, safety, and environmental standards that make it more expensive to do business. But I am not one to argue that those are a weakness. And yes, some of those rules promote free movement. But apart from the social benefits, any economist will tell you that we are utterly reliant on immigration to drive growth, as well as to provide so many of our public services.
The EU was not where we lost control. It was the state. Hyper-centralised, disconnected, slow-moving and chaotic. For me the role of the state now should be a very thin layer. Smaller, more agile units like city regions seem much more appropriate in a fast-moving age. Yes, there will be winners and losers in this realignment. But the advantages that should accrue when power can be wielded more quickly and in greater proximity to those voting for its holders and affected by their actions, should more than outweigh the problems.
Leaving the EU will do little, if anything, to return control to those who feel they have lost it. But devolution just might.
*I was shocked but not overly surprised. I always thought the margins were very narrow, albeit in favour of Remain. It was only on the evening of the vote when both markets and bookies seem to have taken a strong view that it would be Remain that I gained some confidence.