The referendum was all about ‘taking back control’ from Brussels. The idea resonated among voters not only because of migration policy, but due to a lack of control over economic and democratic matters, argues Sarah Longlands. With the first anniversary of the referendum, we need to rethink how we approach ‘control’.
The central argument of the ‘Vote leave’ campaign during the EU Referendum campaign was based on the idea that a vote to leave was about ‘taking back control from Brussels’. They argued that “we have repeatedly given away control in the hope of ‘influence’. The loss of control was real. The hoped for influence was a mirage”. In the bewilderment and confusion that has followed the EU referendum result, questions have begun to circulate about why the idea of having more control resonated so strongly with people across the UK, particularly in the North of England, where the majority of voters voted to leave the EU – 52% in the North West, 54% in the North East, and in Yorkshire and the Humber it was 58%. In some areas, like Hartlepool and Burnley, the vote to leave was nearly 70%.
Whilst the idea of greater control over our borders, immigration policy, and legal system was clearly attractive to some, it is becoming increasingly clear that the vote to ‘take back control’ tapped into wider societal concerns. Indeed, the universal appeal of ‘taking back control’ was underlined by how it was easily transferable to Donald Trump’s campaign when he argued that “people want to take back control of their countries and they want to take back control of their lives and the lives of their family.”
So why is the idea of giving people back control so appealing at the current time? Part of the answer is that the referendum result was an expression of many people’s frustration with the political and economic system which they feel actively excludes their interests. Many don’t feel in control of their own lives, whether that’s about their job, income or security of housing tenure. So it’s not surprising that they feel even less in control when it comes to national politics. Indeed, systems of democratic and economic power can actively reduce people’s ‘sense of agency’, i.e. the freedom which they feel they have to shape and influence their own lives, to be their ‘own master’ as Isiah Berlin describes.
Helping people feel ‘more in control’ is therefore not simply a question of the absence of barriers to political participation but about the presence of human agency. The freedom to feel as if you can do something to change, to control and influence the shape of your life. It is also about what we, as human beings in Bolton, Darlington or Scarborough are actually able to do and to be during the course of our lives and the degree to which we can alter the course of our own fate, what we might describe as ‘the alternative lives open to us’.
IPPR North is in the process of developing a ‘Take back Control Taskforce’ to examine the reasons behind the Brexit vote in the North of England by trying to understand the resonance of the ‘take back control’ slogan among voters. The point of the project is to develop a new system of democratic accountability for citizens in the North, particularly where the newly elected mayors are taking charge of combined authorities.
But, crucially, we want to use this project to help start a new conversation about what the ‘presence’ of human agency looks like in the context of the political and economic system in the North. In some ways, taking back control isn’t about redesigning the democratic system – although this might help – but about redesigning the way we think about control as something which is emerges from the freedom and confidence of human beings in society, a sense of taking control which bubbles up from below rather than flooding down from above to sweep everything away in its path.
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Note: This article was first published at LSE British Politics and Policy gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image – public domain.
Sarah Longlands – IPPR North
Sarah Longlands is a senior research fellow at IPPR North, where she leads their programme of work on devolution and democracy. She tweets at @sarahlonglands.
“Taking back control” is/has been the same argument used by:
+ regions of England,
+ nations within the UK,
+ people under the foreign rule of Empire/Colonial nations (ex. India, African nations, Byzantine Greeks against the Ottomans, etc…)
in which this sense of freedom was absolutely applauded, despite economic uncertainties that could/would follow. So why is it frowned upon when the UK seeks independence from the phantom-Government of the Chancellor? Is freedom for everyone but Brits?
I find the idea that an unemployed low educated individual will have more control over their lives post Brexit spurious. We need European labour but there will be visas. What difference will this make in regard to our hypothetical unemployed in respect to “control “? They made have achieved Brexit but they remain as powerless as before. The inevitable economic disruption will reduce the wealth of the UK and reduce the life opportunities for the unemployed and low educated. By voting to leave they may have achieved the removal of EU symbols from passports and driving licences but where is there on going ability to “control”? The only way the 2% ( and more) Brexits who are poor and uneducated can continue to have influence is by more referendi. In parliamentary democracy the poor and uneducated are too thinly spread to have the influence that the 2% had on Brexit. Am I elitist? Proably yes. Anyone want a referendum on hanging?
“I find the idea that an unemployed low educated individual will have more control over their lives post Brexit spurious.”
Did you re-read this before hitting send?
Perhaps you dids as you closed with “Am I elitist?”
Voting for MEPs is pretty pointless:
a) Because 1 vote in a super-region of millions has negligible value
b) They don’t initiate laws anyway.
By contrast, voting for local Councillors is much more pointful (and could be even more so)
a) Only a few hundred local voters (or fewer) can change the outcome
b) A good Councillor can make a difference in your street or park.
“We need European labour” .. is an unsupported assertion.
Even where migrant Labour may be desirable, the true cost of thousands of low paid on the cost of housing and public services is rarely accounted for.
…. Followed by 3 unjustified assertions in quick succession:
1) “The inevitable economic disruption”
2) “will reduce the wealth of the UK” and
3) “reduce the life opportunities for the unemployed and low educated”.
1) Only if the EU prevents “business-as-usual”. Not through any fault of the UK.
2) Crystal ball gazing ? One can just as easily assert that wealth will INCREASE due to:
a) Cheaper imports (absent EU tariffs)
b) New trading opportunities
c) Fewer people, reducing housing costs and less pressure on public services
3) INCREASE life opportunities with less competition from migrant labour
“Taking back control” was never going to happen in our elective dictatorship, save for the government itself and also perhaps a few who are well connected with its top brass. By simply swapping Westminster for the EU institutions, no significant number of the 15,188,476 Leave voters were ever going to gain any extra control at all from leaving the EU. Unfortunately, the UK papers with the largest circulations not only constantly peddle misinformation about almost everything to do with the EU, but they all fail almost totally to report at all, still less provide any useful commentary, on matters that are being discussed at the EU Parliament, in the same way as they do for proceedings in the UK Parliament.
We regularly hear or read in the media that we are subject to undemocratic decisions that are made by unelected people in the Commission, when the truth is that the EU system is now, in my view, substantially more democratic and open to public participation via MEPs, than the legislature at Westminster (admittedly, that was not so originally). Also, the oversight by the UK Parliament of the input by UK Government departments into new EU legislative proposals is pitifully inadequate. The standard UK behaviour seems to be to ignore new legislative proposals when they are up for discussion, and to gripe at the resulting legislation when it is too late. It is understandable that those who know no more than they get from their choice of media think that “taking back control” is desirable, but they are wrong if they think they will generally have any more say in the content of legislation than they do already.
At the other end of the spectrum, it is my impression that people who want to participate in the decisions of the lowest rung of local authorities, the parish council, are very welcome to do so. Where they in practice have far less influence is at district, and still more so, at County Council level, and in their metropolitan equivalents. Generally, save for significant planning developments, the deliberations of these authorities are of minimal interest to the bulk of their electors, in part at least because the options available to the authorities are often subject to tight control from central government.
The solution to giving people more real “control” is far greater devolution from central government to regional bodies. When I spent six years in Scotland quite recently, I was greatly impressed by how accessible MSPs were to their constituents, and equally by the right of electors to present petitions to the Scottish Parliament and the obligations on the Parliament to debate those that have significant, but not necessarily massive, support. People not only have, but feel that they have, a real opportunity to participate in the making of legislation that affects them, and in turn the legislators inevitably take that into account. Where, as in Scotland, a form of proportional representation is used to elect MSPs (though not the form I would prefer to see, namely STV), it has been the norm for no one party to have total control, and this greatly discourages any one party from seeking to push its preferences through without regard to the opinions of other parties. (However, the SNP has, more recently, had an absolute majority, and after the 2016 election it is still predominant with 63 seats out of 129.)
I strongly recommend the adoption of similar devolution schemes for entire regions of England, and their phased implementation as quickly as is feasible. The current round of devolutions just to mayors of various urban authorities is, I believe, misguided. Firstly, the mayors are left largely unaccountable during their term of office. Merely making them stand for election every few years is no substitute for constant effective scrutiny of how they are performing. Secondly, these urban authorities inevitably interact in many ways with a, generally more rural, hinterland. Who is then to be responsible for local and commuter transport, the planning of new housing outside the central area but used by those who work in it, regional hospitals, waste disposal facilities, tertiary education, regional policing, and so on? Moreover, if powers are only devolved to the central urban area, those outside it will feel even more isolated and ignored than ever before, quite unnecessarily. Such arrangements would allow County councils to be abolished or merged into the regional authority, and if carried out nation-wide, would enable a major reduction in the responsibilities and membership of the House of Commons.