ZOE WILLIAMS on a series of Brexit impact reports for five different locations, which lay bare some simple, damning truths and no easy answers.
Sometimes, I feel like the fitting response to the Goveian era of post-expertise is to give up on information altogether. Just go with the feels; all the feels. You want sovereignty, I want it too! You’re bored of Brexit, and so am I. We can reunite these stricken isles just with our open hearts.
Then someone does some research, and I realise afresh what the point is, of all these experts, this data, this pointy-headed thinking: insight. The referendum didn’t come along like a bad sprite, and divide us all for sport: all it did was reveal divisions, and highlight, quite radically, that they couldn’t be ignored forever. And if they can’t be ignored, they must be healed: in which the first principle is mutual understanding.
The London School of Economics has done some Brexit impact research on five places, all with different stances: Mansfield, among the hardest Leavers in the country, where 70% voted for Brexit in 2016; Southampton, which voted narrowly to leave, at 53%; the London borough of Barnet, which voted Remain, by 62% – conclusive nationally but not high by London standards; Ceredigion, whose vote was split between academics and farmers, but was one of only five Welsh areas to settle on a Remain vote (54%); and Pendle, in Lancashire, which registered a Leave vote of 63%.
All the reports – Understanding Brexit: Impacts at a Local Level – bring intricate and unreported local detail, of which more in a minute, and settle on some broad drivers of the vote which remain constant across the country. Yet the focus of the reports is 2019 and beyond: how could each of these areas make a success of Brexit? What would success look like in practical terms, and what would success look like in relation to delivering what people wanted from it? What would it take, especially in Southampton and Ceredigion, to bring the opposing sides back together, and is there any available Brexit that could do it?
Fascinating details emerge: Wales has typically been identified as strongly Leave, with Remainers mourning the fact that voters there clearly didn’t realise how much EU membership benefited them. But a strong sense of Welsh, as opposed to British identity, was mainly associated with being pro-EU. Of Welsh speakers, only 16% voted Leave. It was actually the EU’s support for small stateless nations – Brittany, Catalonia, Cornwall, Sardinia – and not the farming subsidies, that had cut through. Pro-Brexit feeling in Wales prevailed mainly in areas with high internal migration from England.
In Southampton, meanwhile, one in 10 residents is Polish. The Leave vote was strongest in areas with fewest migrants, a fact often observed and held to be paradoxical, when actually it’s quite natural that you mind foreigners the least when you live next door to them: but it does highlight an injustice we don’t often remark, of who was enfranchised in this vote. Scottish referendum rules were that residents of a country had a more important stake in it than those who happened to be born there.
Quite why this principle was brushed aside in the EU referendum, and EU migrants not allowed to vote, is lost now, in the mulch of bad decisions made. In Pendle, the headline threat of Brexit is all to its aerospace industry, while in fact it is the small businesses who sell to BA and European Airbus who are mainly threatened. Also in and around Pendle, there is evidence of degradation of workplace rights – low wages, zero-hours contracts, dehumanising hyper-surveillance of staff at large-scale employers – with no evidence that migrant labour was driving it.
Mansfield, conversely, is 15 minutes from the Sports Direct warehouses where agencies supplying Eastern European labour were legitimately thought to be driving down workers’ conditions. In Barnet, the Leave vote (which didn’t prevail) was much more interested in sovereignty, and sticking it to the status quo, than EU migration, which was preferred anyway to that from non-EU countries.
But if immigration emerges as a talking point, wages and rights are overwhelmingly at its root. As academics labour diligently to suggest immigration policy that meets public demand while not capsizing the NHS, or manufacturing, or agriculture, it seems absolutely plain that any government that opted instead to address conditions at work could dissolve this Gordian knot. More interesting still is the finding that EU money, which flowed, at varying velocities, to all these areas, went not just unappreciated but was often actively resented: in Southampton, regeneration became a concrete signal of unresponsive central government – if you can afford that gigantic shiny building, why can’t anything be done about the shortage of places in primary schools, about galloping rents (which went up 12% in the space of a single year), about poverty?
In manufacturing towns, meanwhile, the regulations on what EU funding could be spent on – culture but not retail, regeneration but not public services – meant again that it failed to reflect or ameliorate people’s lived reality. In Wales, many of the farming subsidies were purpose-built to benefit larger farms, while smaller ones felt themselves already at a disadvantage. This is, in short, a story about Westminster failures, which were merely highlighted by, yet were ultimately blamed on, the comparative generosity of the EU.
The same story unfolds as suggestions are made for a post-Brexit future: Wales will be fine if the UK government can match EU farming subsidies and European research grants; in Mansfield, the government will have to match EU spending on local development, and rekindle abandoned apprenticeship schemes to plug the skills gap. It is unlikely that it will – on the Barnet formula alone, Wales can only look forward to 5.6% of any government subsidies, while it receives 9.4% of like EU funding. But the bigger picture is nearly a decade of austerity: whether the persistent underfunding of schools, the unmanageable cuts to local government, the abandonment of youth services and apprenticeships, the causal blind eye to an accelerating housing crisis, the tolerance of stagnant wages, all these tributaries were the result of government policy.
One rather obvious point emerges: Brexit will create a new trade, migration and public spending environment, which will have a range of impacts on local economies, none of them, so far, identified as positive. While there’s no evidence that it will, the government could, in theory, mitigate these new conditions, match previous funding and subsidies, train UK workers, support the knowledge economy. But the more important picture is of a persistent neglect and carelessness from central government, which has worsened people’s lives. In this context, we should see the referendum result as a blessing; it has forced conversations which previously the party of government was able to wave away with misleading employment figures and brute confidence. It is rammed home – the reality that you actually can’t bleed money out of public services and local government forever; one way or another, democracy will bite back and chaos will ensue. Brexit was, and remains, a Tory-confected folly: the plucky, chin-up suggestions of these reports will only galvanise those of us who want to overturn it. But that fight will be meaningless without a bigger political move against austerity.