Article 50 has been triggered. We are now faced with a danger and an opportunity.
The difficult negotiations on our departure from the EU will be understood through one of two narratives: an opportunity to re-shape the future of the UK or a looming disaster that needs to be opposed or mitigated. Those who continue to work against the UK exiting the EU believe that “right-wing ideologues” are taking us down an unnecessarily dangerous path, and that the motivation for voting Leave was primarily negative and nativist. Over the next two years, Remainers will point to setbacks and shout “told you so”. We face the danger that this pessimistic political discourse is calcified into a never-ending rerun of the EU Referendum debate, with energy focused on demonstrating failure, not finding a solution.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
The Brexit vote revealed something more profound than the population’s view of our relationship with the EU. The record turnout showed the potential to re-invigorate democracy itself. The revived discussions in workplaces and homes showed that the public has a renewed engagement with the big issues of our time. It showed an active interest in shaping our future. It showed a desire for progress.
The more forward-thinking Leavers are championing free trade and promoting an outward-looking vision for Britain post-Brexit. However, the Brexit vote wasn’t simply about economic arrangements or international diplomacy. It forced us to address our future. It will now force us to define who we are and what role we play in the world.
Since the mid 1990s, general elections have become set-piece campaigns where the big issues are largely avoided and media management predominates. Ahead of the 2015 election, David Cameron sacked two ministers – Michael Gove and Owen Patterson – to avoid the political controversy resulting from their clear vision and a sense of purpose. During the election campaign, the parties relegated the public to their familiar role as passive spectators of media management. Cameron won a surprise victory, but few people can now remember the issues discussed or manifesto policies. The Tories won power, but without a mandate for a future-orientated approach. The democratic process was followed, but in name rather than spirit.
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The EU referendum campaign was radically different. It woke us up. In 2016, the British people were stirred from a political slumber. For the first time in a generation, people across the UK grappled with an issue with profound implications. The arguments were talked over more than at any other time in recent history. Individuals thought about the pros and cons and confronting the meanings of democracy, sovereignty, borders and nationality. Politicians answered penetrating questions directly from ordinary people for the first time in their careers. The debate was not mediated through Westminster journalists. Politicians on both sides of the issue often looked uncomfortable as they had to refine their approach and argument. We knew how we voted mattered, it had a radical impact. As a people, we had a sense of what a thriving democracy could be like.
The EU referendum saw the largest turnout of voters in a generation for one simple reason. Everyone knew that his or her vote counted equally and the result would define the direction of the country. When the results came in, the majority of people had voted for greater democratic control and we re-gained a sense of political engagement.
The reverberations still feel raw for much of the political class because they have yet to come to terms with it. Politicians, advisors and civil servants have pursued their objectives without the need to win public support. They have created their own priorities and sense of purpose. Distanced from the public, they have sought validation from corporate and NGO lobbyists, international political bodies – including the EU – and their own committees and working groups. Policies have not been tested by argument in the public domain or legitimised by public support. The public rejection of the EU was a deeper rejection of a distant governing class with little sense of wider accountability or purpose.
Brexit is the jolt we need to re-invent ourselves. If we are to broaden the discussion beyond the EU, we must re-consider the big issues that will drive growth and transform economic development outside London and the South East. Trade deals across the world will create great potential. The unanswered question is what goods and service will we be exporting in five, ten or fifteen years? We need a new industrial revolution focusing on the technologies that will dominate production in the future. This is the level of ambition that Brexit necessitates.
Theresa May’s government has outlined a vision of Britain as an internationally-focused trading nation. This is a positive start. It needs to be supported with a powerful ambition to transform the economy and create wealth for the swathes of Britain that have languished in post-industrial mediocrity and relative poverty. Radical policies are needed and they can be carried through if a public mandate is won. If politicians map out a clear vision, where people across Britain will benefit, they will win popular support. If they treat the public seriously, they will earn our respect.
Politicians need to think big. We now need to re-invent ourselves. So, here are a few suggestions for the next 12 months.
Reduce the cost of electricity by 50% in the next 7 years.
Create a licensing regime for fracking, which spurs innovation, and allow councils in the fracking areas to collect a fracking tax to win local support. Challenge the £300 billion scheme to “de-carbonise” British economic and domestic life. Invest in R&D for new energy sources, so Britain can lead the way in the global renewable energy market. This will reduce the costs both of living and of industry.
Build 250,000 houses per year
Liberalise the planning regulations for the green belt to reduce the price of land and end the house-building restrictions on local authorities. This will significantly reduce the cost of living, while enabling people to move to where the jobs are.
Massively expand Research and Development
Create a £200 billion for R&D. Create regional centres of expertise for the industries of tomorrow in the de-industrialised parts of the UK: nano-tech, biotech, graphene applications, robotics, new forms of intensive energy production, digital technologies. Orient regional universities, schools and training towards these emerging industries.
Focus on exporting
Create tax incentives for rapid commercialization of new technologies with an export focus. Offer training and support for exporting companies.
Policies on this scale could make the most of the current high levels of public engagement, giving the government genuine legitimacy, a clear direction and a sense of purpose. It would give people a stake in the success of the policy, while the government, universities, local authorities, schools and civic bodies would have a purpose around which they can re-orient their aims. It reduces the influence of self-interested lobbyists and low-expectation civil servants.
Without a broader vision of life post-Brexit, our political life will continue to be defined by our past relationship to the EU. In the coming months, we need to broaden the discussion to address the long-term direction of the country. By arguing for a public mandate on the major issues, we can gain a sense of direction and re-energise our democracy.
We have started on the path to a free-trading global nation. We also have the opportunity to become one of the world’s most democratic and dynamic countries. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity – let’s not waste it.