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.

This isn’t a referendum on the EU, it’s a choice between a moderate right or a hard right Britain

Far from being an exercise in pure democracy, the EU referendum is effectively a power-grab by opportunist forces of the hard right within the Tory party, cheered on by UKIP. Their post-Brexit ‘New Britain’ will be a Disneyland for neo-liberals, big corporations and the super-rich – with much of the social progress we have made in the last 50 years lost forever.

Much has been written about the potential damage that could be done in the event of a Brexit vote. Most of the discussion has been framed around the economy – falling house prices, the pound in freefall and the risk of being pushed to the back of the queue for international trade.

But there’s a far more worrying outcome to a Brexit vote – a substantial shift in the political landscape of Britain, one that could see us lurch drastically to the hard right as a nation. It could well be a shift so severe that it changes the political landscape forever. All that the labour movement has worked for over the last half century could be lost – social justice, social mobility, workers’ rights and equality, all fuel for the potential bonfire of rights that the Brexiters will set ablaze if they get to run the country.

Much of the blame falls squarely at the feet of the Conservative party and its inability to reconcile its natural eurosceptic position with the need to appear as a centrist, modernist party in order to appeal to the electorate.

This identity crisis could have gone unchecked if not for the rise of UKIP – who have blamed rising inequality on the changing demographics of modern society (specifically immigrants). UKIP have successfully sold much of Britain on a promise that Brexit will stop immigration and therefore provide the secure jobs, affordable housing and higher wages that poorer communities in Britain have seen disappear over the last couple of decades.

The opportunist hard right of the Tory party has also flocked to the Brexit bandwagon, with the likes of Johnson, Gove and IDS much happier to blame immigrants for the UK’s breakdown in social mobility than accept that their own brand of Thatcherite, neo-liberal economics is the real culprit.

The Tories still have no answers to this great flaw in their ideology: that more liberalised market economics has ultimately brought about greater inequality, not less. Endless privatisation and austerity has simply exacerbated the problem and many smaller, rural or working class communities (where inequality is greatest), are ready to vent their frustration by taking aim at the target UKIP has painted on the backs of immigrants.

This referendum has become an opportunity for all of those that feel forgotten or left behind to stick two fingers up to the establishment by voting to leave. The more they hear politicians bleat about the risks of leaving the EU, the more inclined they are to vote leave.

But what few seem to be concerned about currently (especially in the midst of referendum fever) is who will build this new post-Brexit Britain if we leave and what will it look like? It certainly won’t be the forces of socialism or any group remotely on the left. It’s going to be the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage.

This ‘New Britain’ will be a Disneyland for neo-liberals, big corporations and the super-rich. The few checks and balances that held these forces in check will disappear – as will the workers’ rights so hard won by the labour movement over the last half century.

The secure jobs, affordable housing and higher wages that the Brexiters promise will inevitably fail to materialise. No doubt PM Boris will blame this on factors outside of our control – an international slowdown in the markets, the EU bullies giving poor little Britain a hard time by refusing to strike trade deals.

By then it will be too late. The Brexit brigade will have achieved their ultimate aim – they will have shifted the political goalposts in Britain irreversibly to the hard right, meaning they can finally fulfil their wildest fantasies: Completely privatising all public services (including the NHS), giving big corporations free reign to buy Britain wholesale and turning the UK into a playground for tax avoiding millionaires from across the globe. Meanwhile the rest of Britain will continue to see their job prospects diminish, their wages stagnate and housing becoming almost completely unaffordable.

‘If they fail us, remove them from power’ you may say – but if there’s one thing that hard right, fascist governments do excel at, it’s corrupting and fixing the system so they cannot be removed from power. Democracy will be the first thing they sell off once they make their big power grab.

If this referendum had been called by a socialist government on the grounds that we wanted to make a Britain that had better workers’ rights than the EU, banned any sort of TTIP deals and abandoned the EU’s acceptance of austerity economics – this would be an entirely different situation. But that’s not what’s happening here – this referendum is a choice between a moderate right or a hard right Britain.

Both the leave campaign’s immigration argument and the remain campaign’s economic argument may leave a sour taste in the mouths of those on the left – but a vote to leave the EU is ultimately a vote for a Tory Brexit and for a Britain that will be a far more unequal, far crueler country than the one we live in today.