Reflections on Brexit so far

15 Sep 17

More than one year on, CIPFA’s Rob Whiteman offers some thoughts on what last year’s Brexit vote means and how public service leaders should respond

I can’t predict in what form Brexit will occur. It’s a debate with more heat than light.

But looking back over the year since the referendum, I would argue four themes have emerged that may influence the next decade:

1. The nation has very divided values. From polls, observing the campaigns and speaking to people, the half of the public that voted Leave generally wanted to regain sovereignty and control borders, whilst the half which voted Reman is usually more concerned about a negative impact on the economy and our relationship with the rest of Europe. Traditional party loyalties, tribalism and policy differences feel less relevant than openly different values sets. 

2. Political parties are very tactically driven. Holding a referendum was not driven by the public and was conceived to manage the Conservative Party. David Cameron sought to hold his party together against the threat of UKIP. Whatever history will say about Cameron strategically, by tactically breaking conventions to form a coalition and hold referendums, he strengthened his party’s vote share against the SNP, Lib Dems and UKIP. In May 2017 after his departure, the Tories received their biggest vote share since 1979.

3. The public may surprise us yet. The public mood is hard to gauge and nobody can honestly claim to represent a public so evenly divided with, at times, contradictory messages. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, benefited from the revenge of the young Remainers in this year’s general election, even though through a mixture of inertia and gameplay he was a material contributory factor in the vote to leave the EU. I do not know how long his popularity will last. And if Gordon Brown transmogrified from “Stalin to Mr Bean”, according to Vince Cable’s barb, Theresa May changed from Boadicea to Mrs Overall in just a couple of weeks of campaigning too.

4. Referendums are rubbish. Edmund Burke has given way to the X-Factor. Regardless of whether one likes or dislikes the result of EU, independence or alternative vote plebiscites, why are MPs elected to provide leadership if they shirk the biggies? We elect MPs to moderate uninformed public views. Do we live in a representative democracy or not? What next, a referendum on hanging?

Anyway, whatever your reaction to the above four retrospections, here’s the rub of the binary tension we face (flavoured with some annoying footballing metaphors):

Some people don’t like the EU, so want to thrash ‘em 5.0! It is unacceptable to the present public mood, and much of the Tory party, for free movement to continue and for the EU to receive a large divorce settlement or retain any sovereignty over our courts;

Some people like the EU and are worried the UK will get banned from all competitions, and so would prefer a 3.3 draw with hugs at the end. But without compromise with an uncompromising EU, a “hard Brexit” deal may not get through the Houses of Commons and Lords. Home Rule and Tariff Reform redefined party politics a century ago, and so of course the issue of our relationship with Ireland the rest of Europe could do so now.

For Leave and Remain politicians, the solution to this binary choice with 90 minutes fast approaching may be extra time. That is a transitional agreement that defers the penalty shoot out for several years.

But this carries the risk of unintended consequences for Leave politicians. Might it feel that nothing has changed in the years that follow B-Day in March 2019? Or might an unfavourable economic direction affect public views? I can advise that the price of a bucket of sangria can only go up so far before everyone’s had enough of Brexit in my street! 

So on the one hand we have unavoidable tension because the public has competing values sets that mean we are as divided on what Brexit should entail as we were on whether Brexit should happen. And labelling or insulting half the electorate as either “uniformed” or “poor losers” has risk. The public mood will weary of national division by the time of the next general election. After all, who would have guessed that only three years after the Scottish independence referendum the SNP would lose support to the Tories and Labour for this very reason?

And to add another layer of risk here, uncertainty is not good for the UK, either in terms of bringing an evidently divided society together or achieving a stronger economy to underpin our public services.

Putting my personal cards on the table, I voted Remain but think we must exit the EU to honour a legitimate referendum decision. But, if it gets stuck or goes wrong, the public – me included – has a right to change its mind and then history will gloss it over. We choose to forget that appeasement in the 1930s was electorally popular because we are proud the (then) unwanted war defeated Nazism. Chamberlain was cheered before he was reviled.

However, is Brexit the biggest issue?

When Boris Johnson rhetorically asked in the final TV debate why CEOs should earn disproportionately more than their workers, he tapped into the mistrust and alienation felt toward the elite. Theresa May struck a chord in her speech entering Downing Street as PM, and clearly Glastonbury crowds chanting “O Jeremy Corbyn” were expressing a desire for real societal change. Of course, none of this has necessarily much to do with our membership of the EU.

For public service leaders, my advice is to play for the long game and consider addressing the issues of a divided, confused and angry Britain:

1. Get on with Brexit. Assume Brexit happens, so get on with planning for its huge implications on your workforce, procurement, economic opportunities etc

2. Tackle mistrust. Regardless of government policy (or lack of it) fundamentally consider the underlying issues of mistrust in public institutions. These divisions are a bigger issue than Brexit. Sooner or later we will not be asking “Will Brexit happen?” but “Has Brexit worked?” Questions will remain, whether hard or soft Brexit, on how best do we raise skills, economic potential and the supply of affordable housing to build economic fairness.

3. Focus on the big issues. Key to this is the question of whether we are measuring, reporting and intervening on the things that matter most to the many citizens who do not trust that the state is on their side. Policy tends to be directed about economically excluded people rather than responding to their voice. People want a chance, more take-home pay and better housing. If Brexit doesn’t make things better they will still want this.

4. Collectively, you are the Magic Money Tree. Given demography and service demands on health, social care, policing and schools, even if there is more cash via some tax increases in a decade there will probably still be less resources per capita in real terms. A better-run system needs better system leaders that tackle mistrust, focus on the big issues and objectively spend resource as if every penny counts.

5. There will be unintended consequences. My Australian friends tell me that tightening Commonwealth immigration rules may affect the outcome of any close referendum on retaining the Queen as head of state. Prepare for the unexpected.

I thought writing this might make things a little clearer for me and any readers. Sorry…!

  • Rob Whiteman

    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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