Brexit has already exposed divisions in the UK. For Gordon Brown there is a solution.
If you look at a map depicting the results of the EU Referendum, you’ll be struck by a wall of blue. It surrounds and buffers the south-east (well, London). It floods the Midlands, the North, Wales. These are areas that have comparatively inactive economies. They are often underdeveloped in terms of resources, building and business interest. They are regions which depend on industry, or have done historically. In a speech given at a Fabian Society event in London last November, Gordon Brown outlined the income disparity between these regions and the capital. According to The Economist, those working in central parts of London have a GDP per head nine times higher than those living in parts of Wales. Low incomes, economic prospects and Brexit voting are not coincidental. These areas want change and the Leave Campaign seemed to offer it to them.
According to Brown, the disparity in wealth between regions in England and Wales is due to a core/periphery system. London is the centre of most aspects of British life. It is where the government legislates, where businesses centre their companies, and where most cultural investment is placed. What resources other regions do have are often plugged into London. While, simultaneously, they are reliant on it for funds in many fields. Such dependency is, obviously, unhealthy. It leads to disparity and inequality, particularly because regions are often disregarded and left behind. The vote to leave the EU will only worsen such inequalities. Around 50% of exports are to the EU, which will mean many of those involved in production (in industrial regions) will lose out should we leave the single market (which, as seems increasingly clear, will be the case).
Gordon Brown’s proposal to end such a relationship is, put simply, devolution. He wants a new settlement for post-Brexit Britain. This would see Britain’s government and wealth redistributed. Such a change would be initiated through a ‘people’s convention’ which consults and empowers different parts of the UK. The House of Lords would be replaced by a senate composed of elected representatives from all UK regions. Industries currently under EU regulation (fisheries, agriculture) would be reformed in a beneficial manner. Brown also promised that more than half of the four billion pounds the EU invests in Britain would be replaced with funds from the UK government.
This is an incredibly good proposal. A more devolved yet collaborative form of government would allow policies for improving the situation in industrial regions to be instigated in a way a London-centric system does not. Plans could be put in place to shape the future of these areas in a way that would not just feed the growing wealth of the capital. Such a system would lead to better systems of welfare provision, investment in building and developing homes, commercial areas, and healthcare.
However, Brown did not discuss what the most important aspect of reform should be: modernisation. Many regional areas have not seen much economic action since the collapse of British industry in the latter half of the twentieth century. Others continue to use antiquated, inefficient, and expensive methods. (That is not to say there are not factories or industries which have adapted.) There is no hope of gaining economic success in the long term unless this is faced. The government must make an effort to fund and encourage a regional economy for the present day. This might not necessarily be industrial, but it must be something that can pull its weight against global competition. If antiquated methods are to continue, the state will merely be propping up the dead. If things are modernised, the regions will reach a stage of prosperity which is far more sustainable.
This is, obviously, a complex issue, and one which will divide those living within the regions. For many, industry is a stamp of identity. It is something that has made towns and been in families for generations. But this, above all, should be a reason to change: so that there can be continuity and not, as there is at present, permanent stagnation.
It seems, however, that not only has the idea of modernisation in the regions been dismissed, but even the concept of devolution, or change which in any way could help create a fairer and more prosperous country, has been discarded. Theresa May has recently clarified that we will have a ‘hard Brexit’. This should be taken to mean leaving the EU through leaving all of its unifying institutions. This means we will leave the single market, which will deprive the whole UK, especially exporting areas. More recently still, Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested that the UK economy needs restructuring. It should, according to him, be brought away from European models, and instead become a corporate tax haven. While this will damage the lives of almost the entire population (bar the richest few), one cannot help but think things will be worse in the regions. Away from the capital, where corporate interests are few and far between and there is little comparative wealth, Hammond’s proposed system will leave people behind.
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