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Stephen Hughes: The Brexit vote was a strike against distant Whitehall. Devolution is the answer

Stephen Hughes
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I voted to remain in the EU referendum. I believe the country has taken a catastrophic step into the dark.

I’m so convinced of this that, just as the leavers wouldn’t have given up if the narrow vote had gone the other way, I’m not going to accept the verdict. I’ll do whatever I can, as little as it may be, to get us back in.

Having said that it also obvious that there are profound lessons to learn from the vote, for local government as well as for the nation and they feel starker than they would have if it had been a close vote the other way. It’s more difficult to ignore what people were saying when they spurned the opinion of most establishment figures and almost all expert analysis.

I have heard it called ‘a cry of anguish’. In England, the further an area was from the prosperous south or shining new city centres and the less people had benefited from education, well paid employment and good health, the more likely they were to have voted leave, to stick two fingers up what they see as remote patronising elites. They voted to ‘take back control’.

In the immediate aftermath of the result the political classes were stunned. They even began to articulate positions on the basis that ‘something had to be done’ to address the alienation of people divorced from mainstream political discourse but it was surprising how quickly the old order reasserted itself. The media wanted to cover the personalities in the leadership contest and catch out both leavers and remainers on what they previously said. The politicians obliged as it was much easier than answering the hard questions that the electorate had posed. The state of the markets, low intrigue and the twittering of the Westminster village returned as stock coverage. What to do about the alienated voters was no longer on the agenda.

This matters for local government as both an opportunity and a threat. Just as Brussels can be portrayed as remote and irrelevant to what matters in every town, city and village in the country, so too can Whitehall. That has been part of the key argument for real devolution; local areas can deliver more effectively and efficiently than distant bureaucracies and can tailor services to local priorities and needs.

The ‘cry of anguish’ to take back control is, however, just as likely to be unanswered by the arrangements that are being put in place. Complex city deals that talk vaguely about investment in infrastructure and pooled budgets being delivered by metro mayors, combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships don’t resonate with those who voted leave because they felt left behind. Indeed, there is not much attempt to communicate these deals beyond the small groups of councillors, local government officers, civil servants and businessmen who are involved in negotiating them. Even those who have heard about them don’t know what they are about. It doesn’t dominate the daily news of local papers and regional broadcasters.

The threat is therefore that devolution itself remains detached from the public. It is just another piece of public policy, which Whitehall machinery will be as quick to dismantle as a government department in a Cabinet reshuffle once its perceived usefulness is over. The demand for devolution needs to be grounded in public support - even public passion - if it is not to be just a fad. It requires the sort of passion the Scots show for Scotland and its right to rule itself, or the Catalans or the people of the Basque country.

There is a Yorkshire Party, YorshireFirst, but I don’t think it has any elected councillors. There are similar organisations in some parts of the rest of England. However proud the English may be of their local roots, it hasn’t yet translated into a demand to run things locally. The mainstream political parties have not campaigned locally on devolution. The lexicon is always one of getting the national government to fix things. Unless and until local people understand that national government can’t fix things and it has to be done locally, devolution deals will remain fragile annexes to our constitutional construct.

I am unclear about how the current paradigm can be changed, but I think it has to if we are going to tackle the issues of those who feel left behind. Now is a great opportunity to push the case for devolution as the completion of the Brexit project but it needs to connect emotionally with the public to ensure that devolution happens and can’t be unpicked.

Stephen Hughes, interim director of resources, Brent LBC

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