A commentary on one borough’s quest to establish what Brexit really means
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In the run-up to the Iraq war, American defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussed “known unknowns” and indeed “unknown unknowns”.
He rather tortuously defined these as: “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Mr Rumsfeld’s categorisation might be applied to any council grappling with the impact of Brexit.
Tower Hamlets LBC has tried to move things out of the ‘unknown unknowns’ category with its independent commission report on Brexit, whose findings it says will interest councils elsewhere.
Elected mayor John Biggs (Lab) set up the commission to advise on preparing for Brexit - difficult when even the prime minister is still none the wiser.
Tower Hamlets voted 67% ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum and there is some understandable nervousness given it is home to the Canary Wharf financial district from which banks have been threatening to move to mainland Europe.
The commission’s report hardly rings with optimism, although it notes that the departure of EU citizens might see more local job opportunities: “There is a high risk of skills shortages in certain sectors; however that also presents an opportunity for local people to fill vacancies created,” it said, going on to note that “impacts felt by the financial services sector are also likely to have consequences across the borough due to the number of local companies that support its work”.
Public sector programmes supported by EU funding “will face an uncertain future” and public finance generally might be under greater strain, while adult social care was “particularly reliant on EU staff”, with Brexit causing “challenges with recruitment and retention and ultimately, the quality and scope of service delivery”.
The report’s civil society section was even more alarming than its economic chapters.
After the referendum, “the ‘leave’ vote created the perception of a permissive space where hate crime, not only targeted at non-UK EU citizens, increased”, it said.
It found concern that changes to immigration, employment and settlement rights could lead to greater discrimination against EU residents, while Brexit had hit EU funding for local charities and had “a negative impact on the voluntary and community sectors’ ability to recruit and retain paid staff and volunteers”.
Many young people “felt xenophobia in Britain had increased since the Brexit referendum”.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the commission’s report exudes the air of a group of bomb disposal officers examining a ticking device – Tower Hamlets is deep ‘remain’ territory and never asked to grapple with Brexit.
It will be interesting to see if any council in a large ‘leave’ majority area produces a similar report, and whether it’s findings are noticeably different.
Mark Smulian, contributor