What does Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016 have to do with political decentralisation? On the face of it, we might imagine it to be not very much. However the key link is with regards to the campaign mantra that a vote for Leave was about taking back control. Back in 2018, Parliaments’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) argued that part of the problem was the unequal nature of English devolution compared to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
This had led to people in many English regions feeling increasingly unable to make their voices heard in a Westminster-centric political system.
In other words, the way that English politics is arranged meant that voters felt they had little control, the implication being that the EU became the scapegoat for this disenfranchisement.
In a piece of research conducted in Cornwall between January and May 2017 we shed more light on this observation, and highlighted the possibility for more coherent English devolution, and thus for strengthened local government.
As the most accessible layer of institutionalised democracy that tackles issues in our neighbourhoods, local government plays a key function in democratic engagement, and an opportunity for us to shape the spaces in which we live and work.
However, what we also see is that whilst the main problems that people felt they were experiencing exist at a local level, respondents conceptualised a strong ‘Britain’ in such a way that makes a strong local government actually quite problematic.
186 Leave voters responded to our qualitative questionnaire, which was constructed on the basis of three focus groups (totalling 15 participants) and nine one-on-one interviews. In our questionnaire, we asked respondents for the reason(s) for their vote, and about the key issues affecting their lives, the region they live in, and the nation.
We identified a relationship between responses that called for increased control, greater levels of democracy, and a desire for a strong Britain, paired with the fear that the EU made Britain weak. This desire for increased democratic control over decision making was present in 131 of our responses, amounting to nearly three quarters of the overall sample.
When asked for the reason for their vote, participants made statements such as ‘to take back control of how we live and spend our money etc, and to freely be able to make decisions based on our own needs’; ‘not to be governed by unelected bureaucrats’; and ‘to see more control of what happens in Cornwall to remain within the UK’.
This last statement was particularly interesting. Part of the reason that we chose Cornwall was because of the region’s particularly strong support for political decentralisation and long-running campaign for a devolved Assembly.
Given this situation, we would have assumed that Cornish participants would have been calling for more English devolution, and more local democratic control. However, only three responses fell into a category that ‘it is better to control locally’.
Significantly more (14) were actively opposed to EU federalism, which under the Europe of the Regions agenda, creates pressure for stronger regional governance. In this context, the statement ‘to see more control of what happens in Cornwall to remain within the UK…’ feels both consistent, but also strange.
So what was actually going on?
Part of the answer lies in the relationship identified above between desire for more control, and a desire for a strong Britain. Many of these responses constructed an emotional register that claimed that the EU stopped Britain from doing the things that it wanted or needed to do: that it was the EU which inhibited democracy in the UK, and that democracy was being imagined at a national, rather than a local level.
This is why the last quote was that control over what happens ‘in Cornwall to remain within the UK’, rather than just wanting more local control. Participants were actively trying to protect the nation state, which they saw as being vulnerable to an ‘unelected foreign elite’.
However, with regard to the things that either affected them personally, or affected life in their region, the themes of ‘good public services’ and ‘accessible jobs’ reverberated throughout responses. With the exception of the natural environment, most of the factors that concerned interviewees on a day-to-day level fell well outside of EU competencies.
On the other hand, many of these day-to-day concrete concerns fell within the remit of local authorities and the infrastructure of local government to remedy. This would indicate a viable space for institutions of meaningful English devolution to fill with regards to public engagement with local democracy – including things like local elections.
However, this has to be positioned against the zero-sum perspective of power threading through responses. Here, power is finite and the more that one entity has, the less another has.
The risk is that as they construct their worlds, the participants in our study might consider that local government risks taking power away from the nation that they were seeking to protect. Contrary to the PACAC report, they didn’t recognise the link between loss of control, and a centralised England.
Instead for them, increasing English devolution risked diminishing the strength of the nation, rather than improving the possibilities for all of its regions to be able to contribute effectively. That this study was conducted in a region with a strong tradition of campaigns for increased local democratic control makes this fear a little more tangible and warrants further investigation.
The task for greater English devolution is to make the link between a strong, decentralised local democracy where our needs are met, with a strong, dynamic and forward thinking Britain. It is only if our regions are strong and have the ability to effectively respond to their needs, that Britain can achieve this potential. But for that, we need a coherent message combined with genuine political devolution.
By Dr Joanie Willett, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter. This blog draws on research published in British Politics.