Brexit: a turning point for devolution

27 Jun 16

The UK-wide vote to leave the European Union could usher in a moment of genuine constitutional change

Last week’s referendum was a turning point for the devolution agenda. Just as Scotland’s near miss on independence sparked the current round of devolution deals, so the decision to Brexit could spark a new wave of demands for change: and this time, the calls for more local and regional autonomy are likely to be sharper and angrier.

Commentators are rushing to point out that an out-of-touch London elite has not listened to the cries of pain from suffering regional towns and cities. Any plan to address the underlying reasons for the Brexit vote must start by recognising that the British model of economic development is not working for most people. While the capital and wider south east have boomed, regional centres like Birmingham have fallen catastrophically behind. The idea that our economic model can be fixed by the national elite that broke it in the first place seems fanciful. Politically, it will be hard to ignore the need for economic reform.

The need to fix regional economies will be compounded by the deep social divisions that the referendum has painfully exposed. Look at the map of the Brexit vote and London sticks out like a sore thumb; an island of Remainers in a sea of Brexit. Some will say that the capital’s sense of anger and grievance is due payback for decades of ignoring the rest of the country. This attitude will hardly reduce the emotional shock that many Londoners currently feel, an experience that will be replicated in cities like Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool and parts of Manchester. At the same time, the shires are clearly on manoeuvres to ensure that they translate their political power within the Conservative Party into a more generous approach to devolution to counties, ideally without the troublesome requirement for a mayor.

There are two ways to make devolution happen. For the past few years we have been following what might be termed the Whitehall gift model. Local leaders negotiate with George Osborne and, if he likes what he hears, he passes them down a package of new powers. It is a model that is unlikely to work very effectively in a post-referendum world. Mr Osborne is arguably already a lame duck chancellor. Parliament and the civil service face years of Brexit-related legislative congestion. Why would devolution deals be high on their agenda?

If we stick with the gift model, then devolution will stall. Greater Manchester might have enough momentum to carry on, but places like Merseyside and the West Midlands may find themselves struggling to win more powers. The counties may find it even harder to make progress, especially if they remain mired in complex debates about local government reorganisation.

But Scotland did not win its devolved settlement by waiting for Westminster’s beneficence. Its political class mobilised the voters and civil society to forge a consensus for change, before steadily campaigning to make it happen. The SNP went even further, demanding the right to declare independence unilaterally though their referendum last year. The decision to leave has unleashed a sense of grievance across the country that will be hard to put back in the bottle. Local leaders have an opportunity to channel that feeling in the direction of greater local autonomy. The difficult truth is that leaving the EU will not in itself do much to address grievances rooted in two generations of de-industrialisation, especially if the process of leaving brings a recession with it. Parliament may be preoccupied with Brexit, but the country as a whole will be worried about jobs.

The time for gifts may be over, but the moment for building a genuine movement for constitutional change might just be arriving.

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