Brexit’s Unanswered Questions

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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I work in some of the most socio/economic deprived areas
with children's center staff who are in the front line of assistance to families. This government has no insight upon what the austerity measures have done to our society.

and nor do I suspect that they have any interest in the adverse impact of their ideologically-driven 'Austerity' on ordinary people throughout the country.

We have a word for what people with no hope, faith or trust in the society which they are unequal participants and recipients in. Alienation. This same alienation promotes create an apathy which renders them vulnerable to those with the motivation and resources to exploit their situation and manipulate opinion. The very same people with the same motivations ( greed for wealth and power) who have alienated them in the first place.

I suspect many people who have been suffering under the austerity programme and could see no likelyhood of things getting better felt that they had nothing to lose by voting for change. I believe that almost everyone will be worse off after Brexit and I would like the chance to vote on the deal that has been agreed between Mrs May and the EU.

I think you are right, Gerald but, unfortunately it is these very people in society who will find that Brexit does them the most harm. Rising prices and inflation, job losses etc will all have a greater impact in these areas.

Most people I know voted out as the EU is run by an unelected commission that is Undemoctratic !!! Simples !

Not true about the unelected commission part, but then Leavers never let facts get in the way of a good argument.

Are you saying the Commission IS elected then?

So which commissioner did you vote for ?

I must have missed that election.

You do realise that WTO is even more undemocratic, and more unaccountable to the general population than the EU? Most of not all WTO members have the right of veto over our proposals? We have not yet negotiated our stand-alone membership of this body? Objections have already been raised by, among others, Australia, to our rolling over the EU schedules of tariffs?

But the WTO is not a government!

...only this isn't actually true. The decision makers in Brussels are ALL elected. Just as our Cabinet Ministers are all elected. Once with the parliament, they are chosen to undertake various tasks by their other elected co-workers. I hear this utter nonsense over and over again from people... that we are being controlled by unelected people. They were ALL elected by various member nations, including our own and once installed they end up with other tasks too.

Sigh. No it is not “simples”. Stop parroting slogans. We elect our MEPs to the European Parliament. Didn’t you vote for yours? If not, why not?

Sigh. The only people in the EU who can frame and propose new laws are the Commission - it even states that on the EUs own website. Sigh.

The EU is run by a combination of the Council, Commission and Parliament.

The Council is made up of the democratically elected governments of the member states.

The commission is mostly the civil service - with Commissioners appointed by the Council and approved by the Parliament rliament.

The Parliament is elected by all of us.

All this undemocratic stuff is just guff.

At its core the EU is democratic and is governed as such by article 2 of the EU treaty.

Get your facts right, each country appoints a Commissioner, so our elected representatives here appointed our commissioner. We directly elect our MEPs. The commissioners are like our civil service and work to put the ideas of the European Parliament into action.

Maybe "Simples", but if so (that most people voted leave because you EU is undemocratic) they were misled.

This was another one of the Brexit lies ("ruled by unelected officials ") perpetrated by some sections of the UK media over many years, and it is important to correct it.

EU laws are made by the Parliament (directly elected) and the Council (formed of ministers from the elected national governments).

The President of the Council (Tusk) is also elected by the national governments, and the President of the European Commission (Junckers) is elected by the Parliament.

You have put forward a very strong argument for a second referendum, this time based on the facts.

Nothing about brexit is going to solve any of these self made problems. It has nothing to do with Europe, the state of our nation is firmly in the hands of ineffective weedy politicians who are too busy lining their own pockets. The damage that will be inflicted & the lack of trade with other nations coupled with cost increases will destroy the very people who voted for brexit. What little the poor have will be devoured & the rich will just stand by & do nothing. Even if we are lucky enough for a left wing labour government, the aims of the party will be subsumed by the vortex of destruction caused by leaving. The right wing press will feed off every disaster, blaming labour for every little problem.

Sums it up nicely, Phil!

All of my friends voted for Brexit as did our parliamentary constituency. The main reason given from everyone I spoke to was immigration leading to gross overpopulation and the loss of our culture and community. Second reason was paying billions to Europe and massive foreign aid.

Spot on most of the people I have spoken to who voted leave all say the same, the biggest problem seems to be the politicians who do not want to listen or act on how their constituents have voted which is wrong.

The billions paid to Europe represent less than 1% of GDP. In many cases a few pence per person per week. Less than a bar of chocolate.
In terms of immigration, the areas that voted most on this basis are among the areas with the lowest immigration. It's sad to see in these comments that most of the reasons given are factually incorrect. But that sums up brexit!

Kate could it be that even though these area's are low in terms of immigration this could still be one of thier main reasons for voting out. I live in an area that has doesnt have many people from different ethnicity backgrounds and would honestly say it is quite a racist area and xenophobic. Most people I know that voted out did so due to immigration.

I do agree that immigration was a significant reason for the vote to leave the EU. However, the government still intends to allow lower skilled workers to come to the UK- those immigrants instead will come from outside the EU. But you can’t separate the issue of immigration from the issues identified in the article. People’s opposition to immigration is as much about high levels of deprivation and growing inequality- they’re just targeting the wrong culprit. It’s ironic that it was the UK that opposed an EU financial transaction tax which would have reduced inequality and the financialization of the economy.

One of the key factors is/was the deliberate manipulation of information by the media. Especially venerable newspapers trusted through generations by the middle classes - who had no idea that those organs had been completely swallowed by the ultra-far right capitalist "cabals"

Interesting read ...been around for a couple of months but slipped my personal net...

This government didn’t have any choice about austerity measures as once again after following a Liebour government , they spend the next 2 sessions trying to clear up the mess.

The coilition Govt came in 2010. Barely 2byears after the financial crisis in 2008, caused by irresponsible bankers. Whom the treasury had to bail out. That was the financial "mess" that austerity had to try and sort out, not mismanagement by Labour.

The areas for and against brexit can be broken down into affluent service/financial sectors and old industrial areas. This country needs to start rebuild its manufacturing industries again and be able to export without restrictions. Only then will we have a more balanced country overall. This is why people voted to leave.

A nice thought but in the global economy of today it’s just a pipe dream.
The industrial economy that made this country rich has long since moved abroad and there just isn’t any economic justification for recreating it.
Today’s growth economy is the Tech industry. Low costs compared with manufacturing industry, low carbon footprint, high value, high skill, small scale but numerous. Changing the mind set of the working population and adjusting the system of education needed for the future must be a priority for any government.
There really is no point in looking backwards. That’s history. The world has moved on.

A little research will show that Newcastle voted remain. It was Sunderland that voted to leave. But if you live in London that is a bit like the difference between Romford and Richmond.

An interesting read. The irony is, if all these recommendations were implemented, it would leave the country looking much more like the other leading countries in the bloc we have voted to leave...

Well put.its always about trying to make a better society.

It’s anout time the there was Some focus on thunderlying issues , I hope this report will generate interest and debate

I think it's a bit inflammatory to put a picture of a young lad with wild expression and St George Cross face paint on the cover of your causes and cures document. In small size he appears to be gripped by nationalist fervour, gazing upwards to some illusory sunlit uplands. . . Closer examination reveals he's slightly drunk, looking up at a big screen and is part of a pub crowd watching a football match on the big screen. very obvious button pushing by your photo editor.

I have read all the articles and agree with much of what they are telling us.

However, many of the writers still hold to the neoliberal ideas which, along with Capitalism, hold down the working class.
You can see it it their liberal self satisfied sudden enlightenment as they promulgate a new understanding of what brought about the Brexit vote.

None of these writer, like our politicians, yet fully get it. Sure, austerity measures, low income, no-where going jobs, high rents, nil future hopes all have a bearing on the vote.

But these alone are not the cause of Brexit.

What these writers, our politicians, and the neoliberals generally do not see because for them 'life is good, with prospects for the future' is people outside their caustic lifestyles of material wants and caustic spending are those of us who desire a fair society for all - for those.

Capitalism holds down the poor, those with no voice, and goes about its every day business of commodifying every possible means to accrue money.

This is a revolution greater than Brexit alone, a quiet one, admittedly, but if the politicians do not recognise it as such and work to change this divided society, it won't remain a quiet revolution for long.

What is your alternative to Capitalism?

Spot on post Mr Stokes. Nail on head.

I regret not voting in 2016, my reasons were, not knowing
what and how leaving would work out for the country.
I honestly thought the vote would be to remain.
Since the vote, seeing and reading more truths about leaving , worries me, I so want to vote now.

I regret not voting in 2016, my reasons were, not knowing
what and how leaving would work out for the country.
I honestly thought the vote would be to remain.
Since the vote, seeing and reading more myths and scaremongering about leaving , worries me, I so want to vote now. - FIFY

stop crying about it you had your chance and didn't bother you have no right to complain because it didn't go the way you thought it would when you didn't vote yourself

No good crying about it now you had your chance and must take consequences I was 6 months too young to vote in seventies original referendum but accepted decision. you had a choice as did many abstainers. to ask for a vote now is selfish and undemocratic

The EU project has seen many industry's suffer in the UK during our time since the Lisbon Treaty. The vote to leave was the largest turnout in our electoral history.. It voiced the opinion that we were sick of being ignored by piticians and unelected people in the Brussels EU project.. Since the vote the EU record has not been put under minute scrutiny in any way.. Emotive words..Crash Cliff and the like have been alowed more prominence than the Truth about the WTO system..Vested interest from lobby groups and Mays insistence that her deal is the only choice is a lie. May went behind the actual negotiators backs..Hence this deal that is totally against the vote leave principals.. Out means a return to our pre-EEC status as a totally FREE and SOVERIEGN STATE..No Deal is a myth. We return to WTO rules on 29.03.2019..'That's what is written into our law 80% of Parliament voted for that. Give us the Leave that was promised..NOTHING LESS.!

No we don't return to WTO rules. The WTO did not exist when we joined the EEC. We belonged to GATT with has been incorporated into the WTO, but we joined WTO when the EU did in 1992

One of the main reasons why brexit succeeded was Tony Blair's refusal to hold the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty although those in the know say it was a treaty and not a constitution this was lost on many and allowed UKIP to flourish and make capital. Also his allowing immigrants from Easter Europe to enter the UK before other countries did not help. Without these two things UKIP and Nigel Farage would at the most be footnotes in the history of the UK's relationship with the EU and brexit would be a dream for a few.

All rubbish people voted leave because we were lied to in 1974 we don't want to be ruled by Europe the democratic vote was out. Get used to it the consequences of trying to overturn it could well destroy our democracy

The real intent of Brexit is to dilute the social and human rights protections for the working people of Britain, to make it easier to explit us and for foreign interference into teh democratic process of the Country.

Just to clarify, there was a majority vote in Newcastle upon Tyne to Remain not to Leave.

Well for me, 1, the UK government should be dissolved and a new government formed where all MP,s must of worked in the job that they would like to do for the government ?.like transport health ?. Also the right to pensions for 4 years work should only go to the PM, not MP,s, migration of all.forms should stop untill we house every UK citizen and have 100% employment for all that can work, no more EU, the WTO is the way forward and also re nationalise gas electricity water trains busses phones and the post office and any other company that was the peoples befire thwy where sold out,

well said I totally agree. we are governed by people who have never done a proper days work in their lives and only look after their own interests their salaries expenses and perks prove that. they want a pay rise for extra work berxit has caused now that is ridiculous.

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