In the not too distant past, the British press and commentariat would make cheap jokes about Italy, Spain, Germany because of the fragility of coalition governments and the frequency of elections. In the last 2 and half years we have had 2 General Elections, 2 Prime Ministers, 2 Tory leadership elections and a referendum. The country is still divided and will be whatever the outcome.
This blog does not seek to rehash the old arguments but to understand the causes, begin to explore what might begin to heal a broken nation.
Let me take you back to some of the former mining villages, or manufacturing towns from Bristol, Belfast, Liverpool,and Glasgow. In the 1970 and 1980s a young person could grow up in theses areas, in the knowledge that is was highly likely they could enter skilled work, with good incomes. More importantly, they could aspire to, probably buying a place of their own and ultimately being better off than his or her parents. This wasn’t just about education but structure and opportunity.
Roll forward to 2016, the children of that generation see a different landscape. Unless you happened to be born into the south east of England, opportunity, work and the ability to earn above the level of your parents is a distant dream. Home ownership for the youth is now dependent on bank of mum dad. The towns and cities that were once the centre of industrial Britain are hollowed out shells. There has been no major replacement of industry in these proud industrial towns.
What does Brexit and division have to do with this? It has just exposed fault lines in our political and economic set up that whatever happens, need to be addressed if we are ever to heal the schism the referendum has caused and ultimately, keep the United Kingdom together. I split them out below into clear categories but they are linked. They are not meant to be party political, but of course, I may be criticised, probably from both sides of the divide. Debate and argument are welcome but not ideas driven by ideology that has proved false, or hypotheses that can never be realised. I aim to encourage critical analysis and discussion with an open mind.
Firstly, Devolution. Over the last 20 years, we have experienced devolution to regions of the UK. But it has been piece meal and lacks real teeth. This includes to the English regions. Too much power has been centralised into London, resulting in feelings of anger, and criticisms of remoteness and our politicians being out of touch. This is also a contributory factor in the vast inequality between the south east of England compared to the rest of the country.
I would suggest, more powers of tax raising and investment decisions to local authorities, mayors, and National Assemblies, and ultimately making Westminster a strategic player in ensuring projects are joined up, rather than bulldozing local policy makers.
Secondly, a written constitution. A cross party committee of politicians, political philosophers, legal minds and representatives from the public to finally codify our constitution. This can give direction on powers of executive, judiciary, citizens rights, powers of the media and privacy. Also then use of different instruments in our polity, such as referenda, roles of politicians at different levels of government and the role and boundaries of a second chamber, hopefully curtailing patronage of any of the parties in packing the chamber with cronies.
Electoral Reform – our current electoral process encourages tribalism, entrenched positions and discourages diversity of thought. We need a system that reflects the broad opinion in the country, while encouraging accountability and transparency.
At all levels of government we also need to find a way of encouraging more diversity into our political parties. This is not just about defined characteristics but also encouraging more participation from working class communities. In Italy the Five Star movement has done this, through the use of technology and social media, not old structures of party management. The London School of Economics suggests their output and productivity is equivalent to that of more experienced politicians, once they understand the role they are asked to play.
These are some initial ideas, not simple to implement, after all why would the Westminster turkeys on all sides of the divide, vote for Christmas. However, if we don’t begin the debate and begin to ask the questions of our politicians and officials, these divisions will never heal and ultimately, even those wedded to an idealised view of Britain, and our institutions, may find the years ahead are riven with paralysis, slow decline and ultimately more division.
It’s time Britain started to modernise rather than look at a very narrow view of history that one side of the political divide want to glamourise, and the other wants to blame for all our ills.
Let’s be grown up and debate the evidence with an open mind – hopefully this can begin a renewal process that really shapes Britain and can influence the thinking in other nations, rather than us being considered a joke.