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Brexit’s Unanswered Questions

Children and staff in a cafeteria
Students line up for lunch in Morecambe, England, on May 2, 2018. © Laura Boushnak/The New York Times/Redux

Editor’s note (February 13, 2019): An earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that the majority of voters in Newcastle voted Leave. While Newcastle had a sizable Leave vote, the majority of its voters selected Remain.

It has been 27 months since UK voters decided the country should leave the European Union. Since that seismic shock, British politics has been dominated by the rights and wrongs of the decision and by fierce argument about what Brexit is going to look like. For all the talk of Brexit’s future, however, insufficient attention has been paid to the question of why voters opted to leave the European Union in the first place.

But the reasons for Brexit need to be investigated and responded to. They’re still present, and they’re not going to disappear on their own. This is the focus of a new report, The Causes and Cures of Brexit [PDF], which features more than 20 essays from prominent political figures, journalists, activists, and academics who analyze the multiple systemic failures that led up to Brexit, and offer “Brexit-neutral” solutions that can be applied regardless of the UK’s status in Europe.     

The report looks beyond the rhetoric and examines some of the lived experiences of people caught up in the Brexit debate, such as the people we met in Salford, Newcastle, and other areas with a sizeable Leave vote who told us about their lived experiences and feeling excluded from the chance of a better future. Their vote was a reaction to what they saw around them: the growing number of working poor, the precarious lives of people impacted by health and mental health concerns, the lack of housing, and the rise in homelessness.

One theme that recurs is the profound inequality in the UK, “a country so imbalanced it has effectively fallen over,” in the words of the journalist John Harris. The cost of living has risen, earnings have fallen, and personal debt is being used to bridge the gap. The 30 regions identified in Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 report as the worst “coldspots” for social mobility all voted Leave. As politics remains mired in the mechanics of Brexit, inequality will only continue to increase.

Brexit was characterized by Leave campaigners as a chance to “take back control,” but the UK should look to its own overly centralized decision-making process as causing a failure of democracy. Brexit was, according to Ben Lucas, who works with cities on devolution and inclusive growth as director of Metro Dynamics, as much a rejection of Westminster as it was the EU. The system appears rigged, enabling wealth and power to be concentrated in too few hands—mostly in London and the southeast—while marginalizing other regions and communities. For Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth and Shadow Cabinet member for the Cabinet Office, England’s towns and villages “haven’t been left behind, they have been held back.”

The report includes many ideas for a devolved, modern political system that gives decision-making and spending power to local assemblies and communities. The use of proportional representation, for example, could help transform democracy in the UK. “Democratic faith can only be restored when we’re only ever as powerful as our fellow voter,” says Frances Foley, the campaigns and projects coordinator at Compass. The benefits of devolution are manifold: UK immigration policy, Atul Hatwal, director of the Migration Matters Trust, argues, would be much better tackled at a regional rather than a national level.

Many of the solutions proposed by the report are far-reaching. To Neil McInroy, chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, it is important to restore the understanding that the economy is a social construct which citizens and civil society can remake and reset. Grace Blakeley, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, contends that we must de-financialize the economy to create a sustainable, prosperous and equal system. Adrian Harper and Alice Martin from the New Economics Foundation talk about restoring the status of a new trade union movement, reworking collective bargaining, and preparing for a future where up to 30 percent of existing UK jobs could be impacted by automation.

Above all else, the report is solution-oriented. It is about balance and fairness in the economy, investment and better treatment for people in public services and a political system that is accountable and responsive to all voters. What type of country do British people want to live in? Unless the UK addresses the causes of Brexit and asks and answers this question, there will likely be other convulsions like Brexit in its future.

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