EXPERT COMMENT: Brexit and the Meaning of ‘Taking Back Control’

As the UK Government triggers Article 50 to begin the process of leaving the European Union, Professor Dave Richards, Professor Oliver James, Dr. Kinglsey Purdam and Dr. Liz Richardson offer their reflections on the systemic challenges facing the country as part of their ongoing research into Brexit, governance and populism.

  • Despite its ubiquity, exactly what ‘take back control’ means has never been clarified
  • Citizens’ expectations may have been raised further than a Westminster-focused repatriation of power can deliver
  • The gap between expectation and reality may intensify the ‘anti-politics’ mood that remains a staple of British politics
  • Unless the government urgently fill the gaps in its knowledge, it is unlikely to resolve any of the issues that drove the Brexit vote in the first place

Now that the Government has formally triggered Article 50, it is important to reflect on exactly what is at stake. During the EU referendum, the Leave campaign was organised round a much repeated slogan of ‘take back control’ and a claim to reassert British sovereignty. It is a phrase that has been echoed since by key members of Theresa May’s Cabinet responsible for overseeing Brexit. The scale of the challenges confronting the May Government in negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, compounded by the call for a second Scottish Independence referendum and the fragility of the Good Friday Settlement in Northern Ireland following the recent elections is of course sizeable.

In the light of the issues thrown up by these events, it might appear a distraction to suggest that sovereignty is and always has been somewhat of a mythical concept, a legitimising mythology for state power. The theorist Michel Foucault of course spoke of an ‘imagined sovereignty’ and simulated power relations, while Stephen Krasner went further by suggesting it was an ‘organized hypocrisy’. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the practical questions of what, in the context of Brexit, can meaningfully be understood by the notion of ‘taking back control’ and what do citizens expect?

Debates so far have rarely gone beyond zero-sum rhetorical appeals to a claw back in sovereignty. But how, in what way, and to whom, should control be reclaimed?

Reform and retreat – the broken promises of ‘new politics’ and its consequences

Crucially, yet understandably given the divisiveness of the Leave and Remain Referendum campaigns, little consensus, yet alone understanding, exists over what the public’s views and expectations are on this most crucial of questions.

Whatever settlement is negotiated, it needs to take account both of the ‘big picture’ geo-political questions over what Britain’s strategic place in the world should be, but also address a wider set of issues over the current way in which politics and governance in the UK operates from high profile policy areas such as immigration to more particular issues of local economic development and environmental protection.
Dave Richards, Kingsley Purdam, Liz Richardson & Oliver James

The UK referendum result brought into focus a longer-term set of debates over the way politics is conducted. For more than two decades, the UK has witnessed a rising ‘anti-politics’ climate and a search for new approaches that bypass the traditional structures of political representation. It is of course a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon throwing up numerous UK governance pathologies concerning the nature of power, democracy, legitimacy, participation, and accountability.

Increasing public disengagement with traditional forms of ‘arena politics’ or ‘duty norms’ include long-term trends of declining electoral turnout, party membership and wider political participation in mainstream politics. As the late Peter Mair insightfully observed: ‘…traditional politics is seen less and less as something that belongs to the citizens or to the society, and is instead seen as something that is done by politicians’.

Politicians of course are not immune to such criticism. A pattern has emerged of political party leaders when in opposition – including Blair, Cameron, Clegg and Corbyn – responding to anti-politics pressures by rhetorically appealing to the need for a ‘new politics’. In different ways and at different times each, in seeking office for their party, have called for an alternative, more devolved, bottom-up, deliberative and participatory approach to politics. 

What binds them together is the similarity in the stalls they set out. It invites parallels with Cas Mudde’s notion of anti-establishment or populist platforms often associated with insurgents in the mould of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. An approach that: ‘…considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people’. Collectively, all have invoked similar rallying calls to take on vested powers and interests and change the way politics is done. In the context of the UK, we might frame this as a search by politicians to offer a new social contract of renewal and re-legitimation in response to a growing climate of anti-politics.

Yet, the very same politicians when in power, for a myriad of reasons have continued to work with rather than overturning the status quo. For example, surveying the recent landscape of reform in the UK, change has been limited and where major reform has occurred, for example Scottish devolution in 2014 [alongside English devolution as a corollary] and most recently Brexit, it appears more as an unintended consequence, rather than the culmination of government policy, even less so a new form of politics. Reforms have been predominantly ad hoc, and grafted on to the existing Westminster system. The net result is that the British political tradition’s mode of governance, captured in the Westminster model’s centralising and top-down tendencies has remained ostensibly intact.

A tale of two Brexits – can a new political settlement live up to expectations?

The question which is then brought sharply into focus by the result of the EU referendum is whether the approach to a new, post-Brexit governance settlement should take the form of: a] another series of ad hoc reforms, potentially organised round the re-centring of power to Westminster and Whitehall or b] take account of the longer-term pathologies associated with the rise of anti-politics and with it the need for a different, more de-centred type of democratic governance settlement beyond the Westminster model?

It is here that a potential paradox emerges concerning individual citizens’ expectations of what a new settlement might entail. The early survey evidence on the attitudes and demographics of those voting to leave the EU identify a major driver to be that of a populist, anti-establishment protest vote against ‘out-of-touch political elites’ and a desire for control. A clear strategy employed by those campaigning to Leave was to portray themselves as the voice of the ‘ordinary people’ standing up to what was portrayed as a disconnected and self-serving set of elites, unresponsive to the everyday needs of those they purported to represent.What then has potentially emerged in relation to citizen’s expectations is an evolving paradox of ‘control’:

  • a long established and deeply embedded British political tradition organised round the centralising politics of the Westminster model;
  • the rise of de-centring pressures associated with new politics-style calls for a less elitist, more devolved and responsive way of doing politics as an antidote to longer-term anti-politics pressures;
  • and the current Brexit debate over the commitment to take back control and with it the potential for the renewal of a Westminster-style re-centring settlement, potentially exacerbating the anti-politics discontents that those voting for Brexit sought to break from.

‘Answers mean answers’ – identifying knowledge gaps before it’s too late

In her ‘Brexit’ speech on the 17th January 2017, Theresa May rhetorically committed the Government to ‘take back control’ but what role should civil society have in this? The subsequent publication of the Plan for Britain fleshed out the Government’s vision, but was understandably short on detail. Pressing questions remain over the future nature of a new political settlement for the U.K.

  • Is the current top-down, state-centric approach to politics sustainable?
  • Do citizens and the stakeholder groups representing their interests really want control?
  • Who will be in control across such different policy areas as the economy and economic development, health, education, housing, the environment and energy and at what level?
  • To what extent will either a re-centring or de-centring approach to U.K. governance address a rising tide of anti-politics?

In an era of supposed evidence-based policymaking, these are questions where there is limited understanding available to help furnish the Government’s response. Such knowledge gaps need quickly plugging as the answers are crucial in helping inform the Government’s Brexit route-map for the U.K.

This piece originally appeared on Manchester Policy Blogs.

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