One might characterise Gordon Brown as a man who sulked for a decade because he wasn’t prime minister, only to finally enter Number 10 without much idea of what he wanted to do.
Similarly, in the past 21 months, it has regularly felt that many of the main protagonists of the Vote Leave campaign, having banged on (in the words of one David Cameron) about Europe for decades, have had no vision about what they want to do upon achieving their goal.
This is perhaps unfair in that many of the main protagonists have a vision – often involving a radically reduced state and (for some) reduced immigration.
However, political expediency in the referendum campaign meant the falsehoods of £350m a week for the NHS and 76 million Turks potentially moving to Britain were the messages Vote Leave instead brought to the fore. The fact that many of these leading lights of Brexit are now subject to collective cabinet responsibility in a minority government has numbed their ability to articulate a positive vision of post-2019 Britain.
The government, led of course by a remain-voting PM who refuses to say how she would vote were the referendum held today, has been unable to demonstrate how Britain should change. Sure, we had a deal on the transition period on Monday but this is more nuts and bolts, not the vision thing.
Theresa May’s comically vacuous call for a “red, white and blue Brexit” was about as close as her administration got to offering direction during the first year of the EU withdrawal process.
It is the failure to move power closer to the people that – for LGC’s readership and beyond – constitutes perhaps the most astonishing failure.
In the turbulent days after the referendum, then communities secretary Greg Clark told the Local Government Association conference that Brexit should herald “a much bigger role for the local in our national life”.
However, talk of powers moving from Europe to town halls has largely evaporated. And LGA chair Lord Porter (Con) has now conceded local government will not have a significant voice in the shaping of the final Brexit deal.
The “take back control” slogan resonated with a significant portion of the electorate, especially those cut-off from London-centred growth.
For many, Westminster feels almost as remote as Brussels: the people are not taking back control if power is being hoarded there.
Top-down governance has held back the economies of outlying regions and to continue this model will only exacerbate decline; a Whitehall straitjacket has prevented public services from being responsive to local needs.
It is not too late to avoid missing the opportunity of Brexit. If the government is not articulating vision then local government needs to do so, albeit more effectively than it has done so far.
A case can still be made for power to be democratically held close to the people. We must not allow the biggest constitutional change in our lifetime to entrench our biggest problem – stale centralism – rather than empower communities across England.