Brexit has exposed deep rifts that only inclusive growth will heal

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  • Picture of Charlotte Alldritt
    Charlotte Alldritt
    Director of Public Services and Communities, RSA
  • Cities
  • Communities

Listening to local leaders in Sheffield on Wednesday at the Inclusive Growth Commission’s first evidence hearing it seems that the referendum result wasn’t a surprise for many.

We could’ve told you our communities would’ve voted leave before Christmas,"  said one Councillor, who had heard on the doorsteps of his ward that Vote Leave and its invitation to take back control struck a heavy chord with people who, over the last three decades, have felt disempowered, disenfranchised and disconnected. This time, instead of rioting in the streets, we saw rioting at the ballot box.

The statement of intent from 52% of the British population has rocked the UK’s economic, political and constitutional footing, sending a warning signal across the world. The lesson that UK and international policy makers must draw is that we can no longer afford for inclusive growth to be an aspiration. Inclusive growth will be the only way to heal divides that undermine economic prosperity and social sustainability. If we don’t create the conditions for inclusive local economies we risk our social cohesion and continue to erode the identity, self-belief and agency of communities.  

To do this we need to put place back into place-based policy, capitalising on the distinctive assets of a locality and its role within its functional economic area and beyond. We need to move beyond HM Treasury’s cookie cutter approach to making deals, in which Whitehall effectively starts with what works for Greater Manchester and works backwards - what might be called the ‘Manchester Minus Model’. We need to go beyond the economic narrative, which has been a necessary step in getting thus far, and integrate investment in public services so that – as John Mothersole, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council said, we “see economic and social policy as indivisible”.

Devolution deals have created the platform for enhancing local economic growth, but attempts to combine the social dimensions of economic development – including health and wellbeing, quality housing, skills and education – are either few in number (e.g. Greater Manchester’s devolved NHS spending) or relatively small in scale (e.g. adult skills budgets). Even then it is not clear how these examples will unlock the range and complexity of social challenges in their respective city-regions; “Project Fear over the economy crashing if we voted to leave fell empty on the ears of many people for who the economy crashed ten years ago,” one councillor said.

As many people have argued over the course of this week, failure to adapt within our post-industrial economy has left a deep scar on generations since the 1980s and 1990s. What’s most worrying for policy makers is that, even during the years of plenty, many of the same families have continued to experience the same entrenched levels of poverty. The “confetti of initiatives” has failed. A new model is needed.

If government were serious about inclusive growth it would invest (rather than simply accrue cost) in social infrastructure in the same way it currently does in physical infrastructure, assuming the same long term multiplier effects on the nature and size of economic growth.  Devolution deals based on this approach, tailored to the needs and assets of their place, designed with communities and backed by a mutually reinforcing central governance and accountability structures, would have the potential to create transformational change.

In the wake of Brexit some people have questioned whether the process of devolution will have to be sidelined or slowed. Will the Northern Powerhouse survive the Conservative Party leadership change and Cabinet reshuffle? Will this matter, with cities in the north collaborating formally and informally already? What of other places beyond the major metros? 

Questions such as these and many more will continue to play out over the coming months and years as the UK finds its footing again as a nation – federated or otherwise. The Inclusive Growth Commission has started the process of listening and learning from local authorities, business, think tanks, academics and civil society organisations, across the UK and internationally.  From this we won’t claim to find the answer. Instead we will strive to identify a number of ways places might rebuild their own foundations for prosperity from the ground up, reconnecting our politics and renewing communities’ sense of value, identity, purpose and belonging.  The temptation to fall back into old habits, to steal growth – any growth – will loom large, particularly as the next belt buckle of austerity tightens again post Brexit. But only by creating the conditions for inclusive growth might we begin to heal the rifts within and between our towns, cities and nations of the UK.

Charlotte Alldritt is RSA Director of Public Services and Communities and Director of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission. You can find her on Twitter @calldritt.

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  • I'm struck again about how much of a precursor the Scottish Referendum campaign was for the Brexit outcome. Whilst the Union survived that referendum it was hardly a resounding endorsement of the Union. Approaching 50% of voters in this referendum within the UK opted for the exit doors. That large 'Yes' vote for independence vote was the articulation of those disaffected and alienated sections of the population as described in a UK context by Charlotte and the commentators here. It was what Channel 4 News reporter Jon Snow found during his Scottish referendum campaign reporting to be 'a visceral hatred of Westminster' [note that was *not* a hatred of 'the English' or 'England']. The Westminster political class again betrayed its deeply unlearning, opportunistic and short-terminist mindset on the very morning after the Scottish Independence 'victory'. That morning the UK PM Cameron vaulted onto what he saw as the populist device of EVEL... but what is actually a  constitutional morass. That was rather than addressing delivery of the risible 'Vow' made by Gordon Brown and other Unionists during the referendum campaign (a 'vow' of 'no less than the modern equivalent for Home Rule for Scotland'). In the Scottish referendum another major plank of 'Project Fear' (which was seemingly a Labour Party construct) was the assurance that a vote to stay in the Union carried the certainty of EU membership, whilst a vote for Scottish independence would endanger that membership... and we all know where that had ended up. I would assert that a large driver of the Brexit 'Leave' vote was the same driver that played a large part in the substantial vote for independence in the Scottish referendum. That was what I referred to as the articulation of those disaffected and alienated sections of the population. I have to agree with Michael's view on inclusive growth that, 'This is perhaps the greatest challenge that our generations have faced in our lifetime.' However, it hardly boded well for the Westminster political caste's capacity to face this challenge when for days after the Brexit outcome, the UK Government fell silent and appeared for awhile to have imploded. By many commentators reckoning the only politician with a presence and a gravitas at that time was Scotland's First Minister - who is ironically also the Scottish National Party Leader to boot.  It is because this challenge is so critical that a number of us RSA Fellows in Scotland have formed a network on inclusive growth and we much welcomed the RSA's launch of the Commission. 

  • Post Brexit, I've been thinking along the lines of values and rightly or wrongly have come to the conclusion that Brexit values aligned with a more communitarian outlook whereas Bremain values aligned wih a more liberal outlook. This points to the dynamic between communitarianism and liberalism with the former evoking a need for commnity continuity and stability and the latter evoking a need for community change and growth.

    However, the trouble with liberalism and its need for change and growth is that it is inherently ecologically and socially destructive which is a good thing if change and growth is required but also a bad thing since it is inherently unsustainable. Liberalism, whether social and economic, is fundamentally unsustainable since if all living things had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then we would all starve or else be immobilised by moral constraint. This points to the fact that the sustainability of life is underpinned by life/death relationships but if not properly managed, these life/death relationships will inherently lead to unmanaged competition even if under the liberal framework of individual rights-based entitlements. This is why economic liberalism inherently leads to uncontrolled competition and the formation of monopolies of power and why social liberalism or individualism hollows out communities and leads to atomisation, alienation, identity politics and consumerism.

    In this respect liberalism as a social policy tool has been a good thing in terms of deconstructing traditional communities based on entrenched patterns of patriarchy, gender inequality and class inequality but this creative destruction now needs to be rolled back in order to allow communities to recoalesce on the basis of virtue-based value systems and in particular, ones I argue that are designed to create a sustainable future that is built on a platform of community democracy and community resilience.

    This I think is the true nature of the communitarian backlash against the eu and the globalised liberalism that it supports. Unmanaged liberalism is inherently unsustainable and destructive and whilst it is a useful ideology to deconstruct and reform communities as a social change tool, at some point it is necessary to withdraw the use of this tool in order to allow communities to reformulate around different principles. Quite ironically, with regards the eu debate, the communitarians (brexiters) were using liberalism to support their communitarian arguments whilst liberals (bremainers) were using communitarianism to support their liberal arguments.

    This highlights that liberalism functions as part of a dynamic with communitarianism with the former being used to evoke change and growth wheras the latter is used to evoke continuity and stability. As such, yes the competition of liberalism is as important as the cooperation of communitarianism but each needs to be recognised for the benefits and losses they bring in order to manage social change and social continuity. In this respect, progress for its own sake and the constant social change that liberalism through individualism and self-interest brings in the form of atomized competition is damaging and unsustainable if it is not consented to by all segments of society. In effect, by trying to bring half of a society unwillingly into the liberal mold whether through eu membership or through centralised government imposition is not only undemocratic but also disrespectful of others that might wish for continuity and stability in order to build up community values through decentralised democracy and resilience. Liberalism does not allow for this regrounding of community rights because it relies upon competition or creative destruction in order to constantly change and grow society or in international order terms, it requires a willingness to cooperate in order to compete to evoke constant change and growth on a global level.

    In conclusion, without recognising that liberalism is paired with communitarianism and that the two need to be applied to varying degrees according to consensus then we are not only damaging our ecological and social relations through imposed competition, which arises because liberalism is unable to reconcile the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when expanded to all living life-forms, but we are also damaging our relation with our self since this competitive outlook is internalised to form a divided antagonistic self. So whilst liberalism is an important socio-economic policy tool to enforce change and growth through negative rights, the inherently competitive and unsustainable effects of liberalism needs to be recognised as such and so it needs to be recognised that liberalism has as its opposite a communitarian perspective that enforces continuity and stability through positive rights and so allows communities to cooperate on a platform of democracy and resilience to formulate their own identities and values. However, if over time this continuity and stability creates entrenched inequalities, then liberalism again becomes useful to creatively destroy these entrenched inequalities. As such liberalism and its inherently competitve outcomes and communitarianism with its inherently cooperative outcomes are social policy tools which can be applied to varying degrees to create a managed dynamic between change and continuity in that if continuity (and sustainability) is required then communitarianism needs to come to the fore whereas if change (and unsustainability) is required then liberalism needs to come to the fore. At present I would argue that communitatrianism needs to come to the fore in order to ingrain communities with a sustainable development ethic based on stability which I argue would be best achieved by creating a global cooperative network of decentralised democratic communities which is underpinned by an ethos of decentralised community resilience.

  • Charlotte - Thank you indeed for this insightful piece, which demonstrates that the RSA 'gets it' even if many members of the political class are still in denial. Yes, the stark division between those who have done quite well out of globalisation and those who have not has never been clearer. Rust-belt casualties, countrypeople, fishermen, those with no tertiary education experience and those who own little except a sense of national identity; small business and the self-employed for whom regulation is a terrifying burden that threatens with the future unknown. These are the 17m. Not racists, not fascists, not bigots; just our fellow men and women whose voice we have not heard and who have endured a social and economic gale with patience and fortitude.

    And you're also right that Place is critical. Many of the losers from globalisation are anchored to place, family and community and are ill-equipped for social, geographical or employment movement; Tebbit's bike is for confident young metropolitan graduates with Erasmus II under their belt who can relocate, retrain, reskill and are well equipped to thrive in a global world. But perhaps at the price of having been deaf to those left behind. In the Metropolitan 'bubble' we self-select whom we hear through social media - with the consequence that millions of the 48% were genuinely shocked and stunned by the referendum result. They'd heard nothing from the millions on the other side of the divide.

    So yes growth, dialogue, inclusive policies, training, learning to learn. As a committed Localist I also strongly agree that devolution with meaningful tax and spend powers and a bonfire of restrictions is an essential part of welding the nation. Burke is an unfashionable reference, but it really is in nurturing the 'little platoons' that brings success to the aim that you clearly identify of "renewing communities’ sense of value, identity, purpose and belonging"

    So, RSA, onwards! This is perhaps the greatest challenge that our generations have faced in our lifetime, and I'm confident that our august institute will rise to the challenge. One final quote from the late Alvin Toffler;

    "To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots - religion, nation, community, family, or profession - are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources."

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