“Take back control” was the message that propelled Vote Leave to victory during the EU referendum in 2016. The campaign’s success was partly in that it spoke to people’s anger about the past and their concerns for the future, engendering a sense of hope and agency, just as Remain was pushing “project fear”. But, crucially, it was because it re-enforced a message repeated by a generation of politicians: that Britain’s problems originate in Brussels rather than in Westminster. That if only we could become more British and less European, life would be that little bit better.
It didn’t seem to matter that so many of these problems – wages failing to keep pace with the cost of living, poor public services and housing, and an inability to get on in life – were a thoroughly British affair. Nor that they derived more from the neoliberal “straight jacket” adopted by a generation of both Labour and Conservative politicians than from any constraints put on us by European bureaucrats. All the voters knew was that a vote for Leave was a vote for change – and that’s what they wanted.
Two years on, while Brexit is delayed – and could potentially continue to be even beyond the current deadline of 31 October – the most likely outcome still appears to be some form of deal with the EU. But, as many experts have consistently warned, this won’t solve the pervasive social and economic problems that we face as a nation. Instead, we will have to make change happen for ourselves, by grasping the nettle of social investment and bold reform.
This will not be possible without “ending austerity”. Speaking at last year’s Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May told voters that after eight years of cuts, their “hard work has paid off” and that “the end is in sight”. But, aside from a new funding deal for the NHS, we have seen little evidence of this. There are still significant cuts working their way through the system, which, on the current government’s spending plans, will continue well into the 2020s for the “unprotected” areas such as social security, local government and prisons.
This cannot go on: the social devastation caused by the cuts is too great. Crime is on the rise. More than four million people a year are now using foodbanks. Homelessness has more than doubled. And poverty rates have been growing once again, with a fifth of the UK population, including one in three children, now living below the official breadline. In the deluge of statistics, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these are real people, families and communities who rely on government support to get by.
Furthermore, there is also now overwhelming evidence that austerity has done significant damage to our economy, with its impact still being felt today. Recent estimates from the New Economics Foundation find that the cumulative effect of the cuts has been to shrink the economy by £100bn compared to what it would have been without them. That is worth a staggering £3,600 per family this year.
Of course, those on the right will argue that more government spending is unaffordable. But this is exactly the type of “straight-jacket” thinking that has resulted in so much of the public dissatisfaction experienced during the period leading up to the referendum. To recast Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase: “there is an alternative” to austerity.
How can we be sure? Because our neighbours in Europe have long embraced a less austere state that is more active in addressing social challenges. In fact, as IPPR has recently demonstrated countries of a comparable level of wealth and size to the UK in Europe, spend, on average, over £1,800 per person per year more on health, education and social security.
Of course, there is no magic money tree: these countries also pay significantly higher taxes. But given that they experience, on average, lower levels of poverty and inequality, and consistently outperform us in terms of health, education and life satisfaction, this may well be a price worth paying. Furthermore, contrary to the predictions made by conservative commentators, this doesn’t appear to come at the expense of economic growth, or alongside particularly higher levels of debt.
So, while we may well end up leaving the EU, to really enable people to “take back control” we must become “more, not less, European”.
Harry Quilter-Pinner is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR, the UK’s progressive think tank. This is an abridged version of a long read article available here.