A Dog’s Brexit: The UK vote to leave the European Union

On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU). This decision has become known as ‘Brexit’. Since then there have been a stream of comments from many directions on what Brexit means and how people will be affected.

The discussions are taking place in many different areas and are wide ranging in their particular subjects. From these interactions a number of very different viewpoints are emerging. All that is clear, at the moment, seems to be that no one knows what will happen and that Brexit means different things to different people.

Here I parcel the current discussions into four approaches among the many different interpretations currently being offered.

a) It’ll never happen

The result of the referendum was simply a protest vote. People don’t really want to leave the EU and will avoid doing so. Furthermore, leaving the EU will prove impractical and, sooner or later, the government will sort this anomaly out. This overlooks the result of the referendum – it has happened – and focusses on the reaction to it.

In fact David Cameron refused to take part in Brexit negotiations and took little time in resigning. The consequent kerfuffle, while not insignificant, has meant that the UK now has a prime minister who was selected by a relatively small number of MPs, not by the Conservative membership and certainly not by the general electorate.

This view is very passive and may simply be denial. Things may work out this way, they may not. If they do then whoopee. If they don’t then … what?

b) It’s already happened

Within the EU, the UK has blocked social reform, financial integration, and environmental improvement. It has done this because such things are to be thought of as thoroughly un-British, amounting to nothing less than handing control of the UK to a bunch of ‘unelected foreigners’. So it would seem that we don’t have to do anything other than carry on as before.

However, previous UK governments, such as those led by Ted Heath, John Major and Tony Blair, sought to take a full part in the European Project. So rather than act as ‘the voice of reason’ or ‘the awkward squad’, they were happy to transfer a range of powers. This has left the current government constantly saying ‘no’ while handing over large amounts of taxpayers’ cash to the EU.

On this view, Brexit is a ‘quickie divorce’ formalising what has been the case for a long time. Brexit is a simple matter of straightening things out and, once the dust settles, we should all be a few quid better off.

c) It shouldn’t have ever happened

The bedrock of the UK is the continental shelf. This goes under the channel and joins the UK to the rest of Europe permanently and irrevocably. Politically, the UK is joined to the rest of Europe in a similar way. Any attempt to remove and isolate the UK will be catastrophic.

To support this view, several very senior figures spent several months pushing a message of impending disaster. Cameron and Osborne campaigned for Remain. Labour when under Harriet Harman appointed Alan Johnson to lead ‘Labour In For Britain’, if anyone noticed.

The difficulty with this view is that the UK has voted to Leave. What became clear after the referendum was that neither the Cameron government nor the leaders of the Leave campaign had a clear plan for Brexit. They seem to assume it will never happen.

d) The sooner it happens the better

The EU was a drag on the UK and the sooner we’re out the better. The result of the referendum shows that most people in the UK think this way. This is the sort of thing pushed by UKIP.

Theresa May tells us that “Brexit means Brexit” and those who dare suggest that maybe it wasn’t a good idea after all are dubbed post-Brexit whingers. Taking things to the High Court and the Supreme Court probably didn’t help change this attitude but at least MPs will now get a vote on what happens.

On this view the scaremongers will be shown to be wrong because the fall in the pound is a blip and the rise in inflation is ‘worth it’. Either that or Brexit will mean that prices rise, wages fall and there are fewer legal protections in place for ordinary people.

I say tomato, you say tomato

At the moment, three different issues are being mixed together:

  1. Why people voted for Brexit
  2. What Brexit will actually be
  3. When Brexit will take place.

This leaves us in a position where different people attribute different things to Brexit and the government declines to offer any clarity or any guidance beyond saying that they’re working on it. Indeed David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, has so far managed to contradict Theresa May and wants to stay in the European Single Market.

As for the EU itself, there are moves to be tough with the UK, partly to discourage others from taking the same path. For example, if the UK is to stay in the European Single Market, it may need to accept freedom of movement for EU passport holders. So for all the talk of ‘Hard Brexit’ the UK could still have one foot in the door.

The Privatisation of Poverty

It’s a brave person who declares the death of the voluntary sector but just look at what’s been happening.

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at the use of complexity approaches to social issues in urban settings. One clear message I am hearing is that traditional ways of tackling problems, such as local government interventions, simply aren’t making much difference.

One reason for this is that grant funding for community organisations is becoming a thing of the past. Local government sources of money and support have dried up with senior local figures now declaring that they don’t do that anymore. This shameful disavowal of responsibility means that local community organisations are either relying on volunteers or closing.

At the same time bigger organisations have secured large contracts that shut out smaller and more local organisations.If questioned, these bigger organisations often complain that they are having to compete with large private sector organisations and say that they are better than the private sector alternative.

This means that voluntary sector organisations that employ staff are having their funding squeezed or removed. The funders, sorry contractors, will pay according to the cheapest reasonable offer. The good old notions of best value and the contributions of social value are ignored in the fight to secure the biggest bang for the buck.

This also means the end of the voluntary sector group part-grant funded, part-volunteer run. These groups face a stark choice either to fold and be left with nothing or to opt for one of the private sector options such as the Community Interest Company or CIC (“kick”). CICs are in essence just like any other company but with certain breaks in recognition of their community contribution. ‘What community contribution?’ you may ask. Aren’t these people paid? Well yes they are. So what’s the difference between a CIC and a limited company? Nothing that directly benefits local communities, so far as I can see.

The march towards the removal of grant funded organisations continues and is nearing completion. People who could have volunteered for voluntary sector groups are now volunteering for private sector companies.

Since the Coalition government of 2010 grant funded organisations have faced two choices. The first is to go out of business either by ceasing activity or operating ‘below the radar’. The second is to somehow form themselves into private sector organisations such as CICs. This second choice, you will appreciate, is rather like telling a fish to ‘get on your bike’. Not surprisingly, very few local groups have managed this or at least managed this and retained their local specialisms.

Alongside the elimination of effective local community groups has been the economic rationalisation of larger groups. The most ‘successful’ of these groups have managed to secure enough funding to ‘save’ certain activities while diversifying and expanding their own business.

If we accept the value of local activity and the contribution of local people coming together for the betterment of society then we will find the resources not only to keep this going but to increase it over and over again. Don’t forget that it was David Cameron who praised the virtues of localism and his government that legislated to create legal powers for communities.

Before we get too misty eyed about Dave remember that he’s responsible for the very problem under discussion: The removal of local groups who help the poorest people in our communities by providing them with opportunities to improve their lives while treating them with decency and respect. That’s what this government is busy taking away.

So where can the money be found to carry out the necessary social activities that hold our communities together? Well the European Social Fund still provides a lot of funding for locally-run activities in places where they are needed. I’m not saying it’s perfect but it is an awful lot better than nothing. It’s interesting to see that no one on either side of the referendum debate, Remain or Leave, seems very keen to point this out. Nevertheless the European Union has a lot of money that could be used for investment in just the sort of local organisations that are desperately needed. Think about that when you put your cross in the box.

Council Budgets and Public Wellbeing

The Tory government continues to cut public sector budgets. In particular, the amount of money available to councils has been reduced and continues to be reduced. In response to this councils have been looking at ways to cut their budgets and reduce their costs while providing services in a way that is acceptable to the local population. Many have held budget consultations with local people about this. Some have gone so far as to look at restructuring the way the council works. All in an effort to balance the budget cuts versus service provision see-saw.

On top of this, while making cuts to council budgets, central government is issuing injunctions to maintain council services and releasing statements that give the impression there is plenty of money in council coffers. They have said, for example, that more than £3.5 billion has been made available to councils to support social care for the vulnerable and older people. At the same time and in the name of budget savings, many councils are commissioning inadequate services such as 15 minute social care visits. How much, you may ask, can be done in 15 minutes?

These central government actions are making things difficult for councils of every stripe. All the more reason for councils to include everyone involved and to think very carefully about the best possible ways to use all the available resources. This includes meeting with and listening to service users, residents and businesses in an on-going conversation. Apart from clearer budget setting, improved service design and better service provision, it is surely good PR to have the public on your side opposing central government cuts to their services.

So what is actually happening? Let’s look at one of the Core Cities, Newcastle upon Tyne. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” sets out Newcastle City Council’s budget for 2016-17. It proposes reductions to budgets and cuts to services. These reductions and cuts appear alongside a set of broad principles and general commitments. There is, however, little connection between the principles and commitments, and the reductions and cuts.

Worse still, there is a gap between the council’s position and the people affected. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” appears on the council’s website alongside a number of Integrated Impact Assessments and background documents. Taken together this documentation represents an internal service review. There is no place for people who use these services and no place for people living and working in Newcastle. This may seem surprising given the council’s role in governing, representing and being accountable to these very people. Take wellbeing and health, a major area of public concern. What the council documentation shows is that many wellbeing and health services are to be reduced and responsibility for the consequences is to be passed to health providers, community groups and families. Newcastle City Council no longer view local wellbeing and health as their responsibility.

Other councils have not taken such a ‘like it or lump it’ approach to their budget. Other councils have not decided that the wellbeing and health of their residents has nothing to do with them. Some have undertaken a revision of their approach to both budgeting and to budget consultation. Some have asked their public not ‘which services should we cut?’ but ‘how are we going to maintain and improve the services you need?’. By doing this they are able to reprofile their spending plans and reallocate their resources. Some councils have undertaken a whole systems review in order to reduce the impact of central government budget reductions and improve the suitability of the services they provide.

Considering the national situation and the necessity of public involvement it would be better for councils to think again and to reconsider their options. Indeed it would be better for the whole public sector to work with services users, residents, local groups and businesses to find both a different way of making budget savings and a better way of providing wellbeing and health services for local people.

The Benefit of Benefits

The current Tory government likes to paint a picture of a nation of hard-working people paying off debt incurred through the fecklessness of others. The task of paying off this debt is made harder, they say, by foreigners claiming benefits, by the unemployed scrounging benefits and the sick who simply won’t try to contribute.

But is this true? Is this analysis based on a careful understanding of the modern state or is it a case of politicians indulging in opportunistic rabble rousing? And more importantly, is the government acting for the people or to serve their own interests?

To examine these questions we should step back and look at how we came to live in neighbourhoods and to form a society that each of us can value. And we can do this through the account of society given by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse On Inequality, 1754. For Rousseau;

“The philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there. Some of them have not hesitated to ascribe to man, in such a state, the idea of just and unjust, without troubling themselves to show that he must be possessed of such an idea, or that it could be of any use to him. Others have spoken of the natural right of every man to keep what belongs to him, without explaining what they meant by ‘belongs’. Others again, beginning by giving the strong authority over the weak, proceeded directly to the birth of government, without regard to the time that must have elapsed before the meaning of the words ‘authority’ and ‘government’ could have existed among men. Every one of them, in short, constantly dwelling on wants, avidity, oppression, desires and pride, has transferred to the state of nature ideas which were acquired in society; so that, in speaking of the savage, they described the social man.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

So Rousseau’s desires sustainable and accountable communities where everyone contributes and no one is left out. He goes on;

“I should have chosen a community in which the individuals, content with sanctioning their laws, and deciding the most important public affairs in general assembly and on the motion of the rulers, had established honoured tribunals, carefully distinguished the several departments, and elected year by year some of the most capable and upright of their fellow-citizens to administer justice and govern the State; a community, in short, in which the virtue of the magistrates thus bearing witness to the wisdom of the people, each class reciprocally did the other honour.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

Sounds familiar? Furthermore;

“I should have desired only, to complete my felicity, the peaceful enjoyment of all these blessings, in the bosom of this happy country; to live at peace in the sweet society of my fellow citizens, and practising towards them, from their own example, the duties of friendship, humanity, and every other virtue.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

But, alas, Rousseau sees that we are very far from this happy state, and says we only have ourselves to blame;

“The great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labour of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented; these are too fatal proofs that the greater part of our ills are of our own making.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

So where did it all gone wrong? Well;

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and  found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’?” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

In other words, for Rousseau, political equality means abolishing the ownership of property rather than propagating it and focussing on the development of each person in society rather than grouping people as either hard-working or feckless.

“All the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

In taking this position Rousseau adopts an ethical viewpoint at odds with that of the Tory government. For;

“ … moral inequality, authorised by positive right alone, clashes with natural right, whenever it is not proportionate to physical inequality; a distinction which sufficiently determines what we ought to think of that species of inequality which prevails in all civilised, countries; since it is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

In other words, the way to improve the communities in which we live is to form an equal society free from property rights, oppressive legislation and blatant privilege. For Rousseau, this improvement stems from consideration of our natural state and not from looking at the latest opinion polls or reading tabloid headlines.

What’s Really Going On?

DL - Northumbria Research 2015

How Complexity Science Helps Us Understand Communities
Northumbria University Research Conference, 20 May 2015

The application of complexity concepts to communities gives a rich and accurate picture of the neighbourhoods examined. This includes those living and working in the local area, the organisations involved and the infrastructure that is present.
This differs from standard approaches by using the knowledge of those involved to build the evidence produced by the research. This is done by applying concepts taken from complexity science as ‘interaction’ and ‘emergence’.
These are used to place those living and working in a community at the centre of the investigation and analysis of the community. Asking these people about their experiences yields a powerful sense of place and shows the factors that really matter. This is exemplified here by two communities, one in the west and one in the east of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Social factors, such as trust and willingness, are found to determine the success or failure of community activities. Though present, economic factors are found to be less important. Such a finding differs from the standard economic approach to community analysis and intervention.
Listening to the people involved, and using a complexity informed approach produces an understanding of how a community works that may be built on to improve life for those living, working and visiting the area.

Thoroughly Modern Miliband?

Modernisation is widely regarded as desirable yet, at the same time, no one seems sure exactly what it means.
The drive for modernisation in government began under Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and gathered pace under John Major (1990-1997). The pace increased under New Labour, first with Tony Blair (1997-2007) and then Gordon Brown (2007-2010) (Giddens, 2007). David Cameron picked up on modernisation as part of a drive for government savings to sit alongside his austerity programme (Maude, 2013). Now Ed Miliband is promising further modernisation as part of Labour’s One Nation policy review.
For New Labour modernisation was about changing governance to address cross-cutting policy issues such as child poverty, community cohesion and employment that required co-operation from more than one department (New Policy Institute, 2013). Further they sought policy solutions based on trust in external organisations, formed from networks involving both government and relevant groups (Klijn & Skelcher, 2007). However, trust takes time and forming networks requires willingness to take part. Following slow progress with inter-departmental co-operation in central government, New Labour’s second term of office adopted a more straightforward top-down approach. Cross-cutting targets originally co-ordinated from Downing Street and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) were transferred to the Treasury and became closely linked to expenditure (Cairney, 2009).
Since 2010, Cameron’s Coalition government has been implementing their version of modernisation. Where Blair and Brown saw modernisation as increasing efficiency, for the Coalition modernisation is focussed on reducing inefficiency. Hence it is used as a banner for cuts to government and government services. The rationale for this is that it is in tune with Britain (Maude, 2013). In practice this means fiscal caution, free market promotion and a smaller state that is Eurosceptic and pro-business (Bale, 2013).
Shrinking the state may be beneficial to those who do not rely on the state or are not employed by the state. But what about those whose well-being depends on public services? What about those whose livelihood is provided by the public sector? These are the people who are set to lose out from such an approach (Reed, 2011). Nevertheless, the Conservative part of the Coalition sees modernisation as evolutionary and hence on-going and never ending (Maude, 2013). This means that Tory modernisation mixes symbols and substance. In terms of policy development it is an attitude rather than a reasoned position or manifesto (Room, 2012).
The Coalition is working towards a post-bureaucratic age. By this they mean that technology and our desire for more control over our lives, together with a growing unease about centralised, top-down solutions, has led to a demand for services that are locally determined, locally accountable, more flexible, delivered faster, and that are tailored to the needs of individual service-user. Putting this form of modernism together with its own brand of localism, the Coalition can see the potential for an unmediated relationship between local people and central government, and the government-funded services they receive (HMG, 2013). At the same time, however, the Coalition has been making big cuts to public expenditure so removing resources and reducing capacity that could have been used to create or enhance local networks and embed the Big Society (Pugalis & McGuinness, 2013).
At the moment, it is not clear that the Coalition really intends this to happen. It may be that their brand of modernisation is about simplifying the processes of government rather than about policy. In other words, it is not so much what they do as how they do it. For example, the Contestable Policy Fund and the Government Digital Service have cut some middle-ranking officer posts (Maude, 2013). But how much support there is for this sort of modernisation is not clear (Bale, 2013).
So what’s next for modernisation? Where will it go after the 2015 general election? Well, maybe the time has come to leave modernisation behind. Maybe what we need is a clear view of what is happening now and a set of policies to deal with the current situation. After all, the commitment to a modernising ideal is so twentieth century.

References

Bale, T. (2013) ‘What the Modernisers Did Next: From Opposition to Government and Beyond’, Juncture, 20 (2), London: IPPR.
Cairney, P. (2009) ‘Implementation and the Governance Problem’, Public Policy and Administration, 24 (4), pp. 355 – 377.
Giddens, A. (2007) Over to you Mr Brown. Cambridge: Polity Press.
HMG (2013) The Coalition: Together in the National Interest: Mid-Term Review. London: TSO.
Klijn, E. and Skelcher, C. (2007) ‘Democracy and Governance Networks: Compatible or Not?’, Public Administration, 85 (3), pp. 587 – 608.
Maude, F. (2013) ‘No Resting on Laurels’, Juncture, 20 (2), pp. 144 – 145.
New Policy Institute (2013) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Pugalis, L. and McGuinness, D. (2013) ‘From a Framework to a Toolkit: Urban Regeneration in an Age of Austerity’, Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal, 6 (4), pp. 339 – 353
Reed, H. (2011) The Shrinking State: Why the Rush to Outsource Threatens Our Public Services. London: Unite.
Room, G. (2012) ‘Evolution and the Arts of Civilisation’, Policy and Politics, 40 (4), pp. 453 – 471.