“the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions”
The Brexit vote represents another victory for campaigns based on the idea that there is something deeply wrong with British society and that people have little control over the decisions affecting their lives.
Despite being on the losing end this time, David Cameron has benefited as much as anyone from this message. His Conservative party ran in 2010 on a slogan of “Broken Britain”. In a speech in 2011, after riots in London, he defined our ‘broken society’ as one featuring
“irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences, children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities”
These words make for effective campaigns because many people do not feel able to influence the decisions that affect their lives.
This was a theme that the Leave campaign played on strongly with lots of talk of ‘taking back control’. Polling shows that themes of control (over decision making in general or levels of immigration in particular) were the main reason given for voting to leave.
While the Brexit and Broken Britain campaigns were successful they have not yet lead to changes to the underlying sense of a lack of control felt by many people.
David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was meant to fix ‘Broken Britain’. Perhaps the nicest thing we can say about that is that the Broken Britain campaign was more successful on its own terms than the Big Society.
We might well predict that the implementation of Brexit will not lead to people feeling a greater sense of control over their lives. Indeed, we might go further and predict that the result will lead to a greater suspicion in Whitehall of the very idea of trying to give people control of their lives, given the establishments well documented opposition to Brexit.
If this does happen we can also predict that the resentment and alienation many people feel about modern Britain will continue to find ways to manifest itself, primarily through campaigns lamenting the state of the world and offering very little practical means of improving it.
Several years ago I saw Umberto Unger give one of the most amazing speeches I’ve ever heard. He offered a different way forward. One which was so radical that I remember inhaling sharply when he said it. He proposed having annual, programmatic referenda.
I think what he meant was to offer the public a different kind of choice than the one that was offered this time round. One of the policy problems with the Brexit vote is that no one agrees what it means. A vote on alternative programmes would be much clearer. People would be given the chance to vote for which programme would be implemented in the coming year. And then the government would have to implement this.
This is an incredibly radical idea and one at which many people would baulk. However, it does serve to make us think about how we could actually give people a greater sense of control of their lives.