The UK needed a referendum – not on EU membership but on devolution

The EU referendum saw a forgotten, marginalised segment of British society send a vote of no confidence to the political establishment. Devolving some genuine democratic power back to these communities would be a positive show of respect from a distrusted elite.

The Brexit vote was a shock for most. But the outcome would have been the same for nearly any wing of the political establishment that dared to present itself for public judgement. That the EU happened to be the chosen bogeyman for this particular exercise in binary democracy is almost immaterial. A referendum ballot that read ‘do you have faith in the British Parliament to effectively carry out the will of the British people?’ would have probably fared no better.

For a long time, the perceived wisdom of modern politics was that the status quo had a built in protection – that when confronted with a choice between the safe, understood reality and the unknown, risky alternative – people would follow their human instincts and choose the path they already knew. For people to go against their nature, to ignore their leaders and experts, shows just how utterly broken status quo politics must have become in Britain.

Much of the support for Leave came from some of the poorest, most rural, deprived, working class communities in Britain. These communities have been in decline for decades. The disappearance of the UK’s heavy industries (mining, manufacturing, steel works, ship building, etc.) over the last 30+ years began this trend, but continued lack of investment from successive governments only worsened it.

When UKIP started banging the drum of immigration and EU membership, these became simpler targets to blame than the complex economic realities of liberalised markets and globalisation.

But rather than defang the political establishment and take back some control, this referendum outcome is empowering an even more centralised, authoritarian and right wing government.

Much of marginalised today’s Britain finds itself in a similar situation to Scotland during the 80s and early 90s, when an entire country was being unfairly penalised by a remote and unrepresentative political class – a class of people imposing their will on those they neither represented nor had any affinity to. In the case of Scotland this discontent sowed the seeds for the eventual rise of the SNP who now dominate Scottish politics.

The EU referendum was primarily about immigration, that is clear. But a great deal of the language of the debate was focused on power – where it resides, who wields it and whether those people are accountable. Imagine that the referendum in June 2016 had not been about leaving the EU but had instead been about devolving power to the UK regions. The electorate would have had a genuine opportunity to strip some of that perceived power away from the Westminster elite and back to them locally. Framed in the right way, this would have been an easy argument to win – a clear message about the nature of power and the positive values of sharing and democracy.

In France, Germany and many other European nations, a decentralised, federalised infrastructure already exists – where regions have genuine autonomy over their local economies and decisions. A devolved Britain would be a fairer, more equal society – both financially and socially. Gordon Brown is one of the few mainstream politicians to champion this view. Sadly he is not being widely listened to by others.

The so-called Northern Powerhouse project championed by the Tories was never more than a crowd pleasing slogan adorned with a few empty promises. And though there are some so called ‘devolution deals’ being offered to regions in the UK, in reality they are piecemeal financial tokens – worth only a tiny fraction of the actual tax revenue generated by each region. But these attempts show at least a vague awareness that Britain needs a better, fairer system of sharing economic and democratic power outside of London.

Westminster politics are often referred to as a bubble. Outside of this bubble, the rest of Britain (and especially those who have lost their opportunities for social mobility) live in a political void. Their only hope is for a mainstream political party to be brave enough to burst the bubble – to share power with the people they represent. This would not diminish the power and effectiveness of parliament but rather legitimise it.

Releasing control to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions would not only be a show of faith in our democracy but also one of respect to the people who live within it – because inviting people to participate is surely a better solution than ignoring them and waiting for them to revolt, which is exactly what happened when Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23rd.