Referendums present us with apparently simple choices, but the binary nature of the questions they ask masks layers of complexity. Their outcomes are shaped by votes cast with a wide range of motivations, many unrelated to the issue on the ballot paper. They attract protest voting. And they are incapable of answering the follow-on questions to which their results inevitably give rise.
The EU referendum was no exception to these rules. Unpicking the strands which account for the Brexit vote will take time and careful analysis. When the history is written, it will be shown to have multiple and complex causes.
However, this complexity should not be an excuse for ignoring what is already obvious and requires no further study. Some things really are quite simple. The pattern of voting tells its own clear story.
This is that while the referendum question was about the EU, the result reveals less about Europe than it does about the nature of the constitutional arrangements within the UK itself. These, especially in England, are fundamentally unfit for purpose.
The outcome of the referendum was forged not in Brussels, but in London.
It’s Inequality, Stupid
The chart reproduced below should be seared on the consciousness of every politician in the UK. It shows, for each country in the EU, the distribution of wealth (in terms of output per head) between the poorest and the richest regions.
In most EU member states, the national capital generates the greatest wealth. But in no other country does the disparity between the richest and poorest regions come remotely close to that of the United Kingdom. This is true even of countries famous for their geographic inequality. The economic gap between Milan and the Mezzogiorno, or between Munich and the Länder of the former East Germany, pales into insignificance when set against the chasm that exists between London and the rest of the UK.
Indeed the position is much worse than this chart shows. On the chart, the UK’s median per capita GVA appears to be comfortably above the EU average. But London so skews the numbers that this is misleading for almost everywhere outside the capital and its narrow south-eastern hinterland. The majority of the English regions – 75% of the country – fall below that average. So do Wales and Northern Ireland.
The question is not how this has happened, but why it is allowed to continue.
The forces that have driven the growth of London and the relative decline of the rest of England are well-understood. What London traditionally does (finance, services) has been a growing part of the economy. What the other areas of the country traditionally do (raw materials, agriculture, manufacturing) has been in decline or under severe strain.
These represent profound and long-term processes. However, they are economic factors, not laws of nature. They are not inevitable. The particular problem faced by the UK is that London’s success has become a cause of failure elsewhere, as its gravitational pull distorts normal economic possibilities in the rest of the country. In the resonant phrase used by Prof Tony Travers of the LSE, ‘London is the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy’.
Travers’ next sentence is ‘Nobody quite knows how to control it’. It would be more accurate to say that nobody has tried. Since the situation is plainly unhealthy, why is this?
The answer is simple. Power in the UK is even more unequally distributed than wealth. If it were possible to map political power in the same way as economic output, the chart shown above would not even begin to represent the extent of the geographic disparity.
This is true most especially in England. Aside from a minimal layer of local government, stripped of resources so that it can provide only basic services, the country is governed almost entirely from London. The control mechanisms of soft power – media, financial, cultural, commercial, legal – are similarly concentrated in the capital. In England, power is centralised to a degree unmatched in any other major economy in the western world.
This has two implications. First, those who run the country, a narrow metropolitan elite, lack any incentive to change the current distribution of wealth, from which they are the principal beneficiaries. Meanwhile, those outside the capital who have a desire for change have none of the political power necessary to deliver it.
Second, power and wealth exist in symbiotic relationship. Power creates the opportunities for wealth, and increased wealth generates greater power. In England, the process which concentrates both wealth and power in one place has become self-perpetuating.
The Geography of the EU Referendum
The geography of voting in the referendum is represented in the map below.
London voted solidly to remain in the EU. There were also strong areas of Remain voting outside the capital – in the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, in the better-off county towns (Winchester, Warwick, York, Norwich, Exeter), and in an arc of southern England where London’s money goes home to sleep for the night (Hertfordshire, Surrey, mid-Sussex, the posh bits of Kent, Berkshire, the Chilterns, the Cotswolds).
Almost everywhere else, the vote was to Leave. Of the eight English regions outside the capital, not one, taken as a whole, cast a vote to Remain.
In most of the larger English cities, the ballot was evenly split and the result decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other. In a few, those which have experienced the greatest urban regeneration in recent years, there were stronger votes for Remain. The regeneration effect, however, was never more than skin deep. Almost everywhere, the second tier of towns and cities – the heartland of post-industrial England – voted by clear margins to leave the EU.
Manchester provides a clear example. No English city outside London has done better at attracting public and private investment over the last two decades. The City of Manchester voted unambiguously for Remain. But its less-favoured twin city Salford, its poor eastern neighbour Tameside, and the entirety of its northern satellite towns (Oldham, Rochdale, Bury, Bolton, Wigan) – places in which the benefits of regeneration are marginal if they exist at all; the large majority of Greater Manchester – voted Leave by clear margins.
Equivalent patterns can be seen in the West and East Midlands, the North East, South and West Yorkshire, Merseyside, the South West. Whatever support for Remain existed in the major cities was never sustained in their wider hinterland of former industrial towns.
Interpreting the English Vote
A complex mix of demographic factors shaped the overall outcome of the referendum. It is already clear that age was a major factor, as was education. Questions of sovereignty and national identity were important to some voters. Attitudes to migration mattered greatly to others.
Nonetheless, the meaning of the geography of the referendum results, taken as a whole, is unmistakeable. In England, those who are doing best under the current system voted to retain the status quo. Those who are doing poorly voted for a change.
The principal argument of the Remain campaign, that leaving the EU would put at risk the UK’s national prosperity, failed to win the day not because it lacked economic credibility, but because it did not persuade the large number of people who were surprised to hear that they were supposed to be prosperous already. Whether leaving the EU will improve their position is open to question. But their feeling that they were not enjoying the benefits of living in a ‘successful’ economy was not irrational. Mapping the Leave vote in England against those areas of the country with output lower than the EU average shows a degree of overlap that is no coincidence.
In the astute conclusion of John Harris, a journalist who has written more intelligently about these issues than most, the referendum vote represents ‘a country so imbalanced it has effectively fallen over‘.
The Devolution of Power – Two Case Studies
What is to be done? The current geographical distribution of wealth in England is divisive and unnecessary; the constitutional arrangements which give rise to it unsustainable in a modern western democracy.
There is no reason to believe that the underlying geographic inequalities of England can or will seriously be addressed unless there is a dispersal of political power outwards from a centre in which it has become overly concentrated.
The vote for Brexit highlights a fact that should have required no emphasis – this is the most important constitutional question currently facing the UK.
The Case of Scotland
Over the last two decades, the part of the UK which has most successfully challenged London’s national hegemony is Scotland.
Devolution to Scotland was a major political concern in the 1970s. It was the subject of a referendum under the Scotland Act 1978. However, after 1979, it was off the agenda for a generation. When it finally emerged from its long Thatcherite winter, the agitation for devolved government north of the border had become irresistible. In his reforming first term of office, Tony Blair complied, introducing the Scotland Act 1998 which established a form of Scottish home rule.
Since then, the institutions of devolved government in Scotland, supported by the explicit threat of secession, have been able to accrue more powers under successive pieces of legislation – the Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016. The most recent of these declares the permanence of devolution as a part of the UK constitution. In Edinburgh, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has established itself as the natural party of government.
Underpinned by these developments, Scotland has been able to lock in a favourable public spending settlement. It benefits from £10,374 of annual public expenditure per head, 20% higher than the English equivalent of £8,638 (source). Its per capita GVA is above the EU average. And it voted strongly for Remain in the EU referendum.
The Case of England
In arguing for devolved powers, Scotland benefited from its history as an independent nation, its distinctive systems of law and education, a strong institutional framework, and a unifying sense of national identity.
Nationalist narratives have also played their part in devolution to other parts of the UK – in Northern Ireland (where, however, the position is infinitely more complex), and Wales (where the devolution settlement has been shallower and more tentative).
Deprived of that basis to argue for a decentralisation of power, or any clear sense of their own identity, the regions of England have achieved nothing. Areas of the country with a population and economic output comparable to Scotland’s can deliver almost nothing of substance without both sanction and funding from central government. They exist in an essentially colonial relationship to the administration in London.
Against this background, there have been two recent attempts to devolve powers to the regions of England.
The First Attempt – Prescott
The first was by led by John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister in Tony Blair’s administration during his second term of office. Prescott was responsible for a Draft Regional Assemblies Bill, presented to Parliament in July 2004. This would have provided a statutory basis for elected regional assemblies in the English regions, to serve as a vehicle for the exercise of devolved powers.
The attempt was a complete failure. Prescott had an ambitious vision, but he lacked the political delivery skills, or wider support within government, to achieve it. The policy was designed to be put to a series of regional referendums, starting with one in the North East in November 2004. There it faced a series of headwinds. Blair himself was largely absent, his attention already having shifted to the international affairs that define his legacy. The proposed assembly had few powers, allowing it to be dismissed as a political talking shop. The Labour Party failed to sell the idea even to its own supporters.
After a desultory campaign, the proposal was defeated by a substantial margin, and the policy hastily abandoned. There were no referendums in other regions, and the Draft Bill, stillborn, never reached the statute book.
The Second Attempt – Osborne
The second attempt has been the personal project of George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer since 2010.
Osborne’s approach differs fundamentally from Prescott’s and avoids the political pitfalls into which his predecessor fell – there is not even the hint of any referendum, and the necessary enabling legislation, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, is already in force.
Instead of devolving power to regions, the policy proceeds on a sub-regional basis. Groups of local authorities, coalescing around established geographies, may form a ‘combined authority’. These can be allocated powers transferred from Whitehall through ‘devolution deals’ enshrined in secondary legislation. Osborne has made it plain that significant deals will require the combined authorities to have directly elected mayors, creating figureheads with the political authority to argue for the case for their areas. In addition, business taxes raised locally will, for the first time in decades, be retained where they are raised instead of being paid into central funds in Whitehall.
The advantages of this approach are also its weaknesses. It is incremental, asymmetric, and builds on existing political geographies. Areas can proceed at their own pace, or not at all. It does not require public consent, or the creation of administrative regions to which the electoral lack any sufficient sense of belonging or allegiance.
It is also slow, and the transfer of powers inadequate. So far even the strongest devolution deals (Greater Manchester) have produced only mild enhancements of local government, far short of the substantial change that is needed. It has entirely failed as an exercise in public engagement, and been criticised as such by the relevant Select Committee. It better suits the existing geography of some areas (Greater Manchester again) than others.
In short, its chief merit is that it is better than nothing. However, at a time when London continues to accelerate away from the rest of the country (as recent analysis by the Centre for Cities shows), it does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge.
Moreover, after the extraordinary political self-immolation of his punishment budget, it is not clear that Osborne will be around to see through the policy, or that there is an appetite for it within the wider Conservative government on the part of anyone with the authority to pick up the burden. As for the Labour Party, English devolution is a subject on which its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – self-styled purveyor of a ‘new politics’ – has had literally nothing to say.
The irony is that the only region of England so far to achieve any meaningful measure of devolution is Greater London itself. Following the Greater London Authority Act 1999, it was given an elected assembly and directly-elected mayor. In a further Act of 2007 their powers were enhanced. After the vote for Brexit, London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, wasted no time in demanding greater autonomy for the capital.
For those who wanted to remain in the EU, this was not a propitious time to put the question to the population of the UK. In its treatment of Greece and the refugee crisis, the EU has had its more dysfunctional elements visibly on display. It remains trapped between the logic of further integration and the lack of popular support for that course. It risks falling victim to the anti-establishment mood in the air on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this context, as I wrote during the campaign, even its strongest supporters struggled to articulate any positive narrative about the UK’s future role as part of a European Union. Moreover, by their sullen and resentful reaction to the democratic vote – the apparent absence of critical self-reflection – leading officials in Brussels did not encourage the hope that they can absorb the lessons of Brexit and save the EU from further damage.
But if they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, much the same could be said of the political and economic establishment within the UK itself. In its complacency about its ability to engineer a vote for Remain, it neither anticipated nor prepared for the vote to Leave. Following that unwanted result, false narratives and distractions abound. The media and political class have turned inwards, obsessing over the Jacobean drama of Westminster politics. The causes of Brexit are attributed to everything except that which is self-evident. Issues of further devolution are on the agenda almost everywhere, except in the parts of the country that most clearly need it.
What the referendum reveals is that the UK needs a significant recalibration of its internal constitutional arrangements, especially within its biggest constituent nation. This is a huge task to be undertaken at the same time as difficult exit negotiations with the EU. It is, however, no less necessary for that fact. A constitutional convention with the remit to examine these issues from first principles would be the right place to start.
In the meantime, as Martin Kettle of the Guardian reports, ‘the north of England awaits its own SNP‘. In these fissile political days, that at least ought to focus both Tory and Labour minds.