Disconnect from globalisation and devolution translated into support for Vote Leave

Ballots pile up in the referendum, which resulted in a Leave outcome

Ballots pile up in the referendum, which resulted in a Leave outcome

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The referendum debate was bitter, divisive and above all emotional – the Leave campaign’s central message settled on ‘taking back control’ – from whom and for what purpose was never just as clear.

The decision to leave was really a protest vote, but not at the state of the EU, but the state of the modern United Kingdom itself.

For me this referendum was really about how successive UK governments have been unable to deal with the most negative out-workings of globalisation and the political dislocations caused by nearly two decades of internal devolution.

The place that has arguably done least well out of the combination of globalisation and devolution is the north of England. The referendum swung on votes in the de-industrialised north (and primarily those over 50).

Millions of people in the north of England and elsewhere, who previously felt they had jobs for life, a real sense of identity and community saw this referendum, as opposed to previous Westminster elections, as their chance to ‘take back control’.

De-industrialisation happened, however, in the major cities of Scotland as well, but Scotland voted unanimously to stay in the EU – why? An argument is that whilst many communities in Scotland lost economic control and an eroded sense of community in the 80s, they gained a sense of political control by the act of devolution. New political power coupled with, for some, a new nationalism helped reduce feelings of dis-empowerment.

In the north of England no meaningful political powers have been devolved and with economic, political and media power residing in London, one can easily see how the disconnect turned into Vote Leave.

Northern Ireland is a place a part again, whilst the devolution experiment has never captured the imagination of the Welsh as much as their Scottish cousins.

The problem is, however, de-industrialisation, loss of identity and sense of control, have not been directly caused by our membership of the EU. Admittedly, EU immigration has profoundly changed the makeup of many communities and this has been de-stabilising, but, as the Leave campaigners are beginning to admit, access to the Single Market and immigration of a reasonable scale are most likely here to stay.

In fact the Leave campaign has said it wants an even more open economy. This is legitimate but certain communities will be even more vulnerable to further outsourcing of jobs and an over powerful London draining all the talent south.

The next prime minister has a major problem on his or her hands and it is as much to do with an economically and politically dislocated England and UK as about extracting the UK from the EU.

Peter Hutchinson, Former researcher with John McCallister, MLA, Belfast