When the Brexit wave has finally passed over the UK, it will have profoundly changed the country’s politics and institutions – whatever the effect on relations with the European Union. The nature of political parties, Parliament, the civil service, relations between Westminster and the devolved nations, the media – and people’s trust in all of these – are in flux.
Some of those changes could be for the better. The question is whether, in the acrimony and uncertainty, politicians, officials and voters can recognise that potential and seize it.
Start with the political parties. The Conservatives and Labour are barely acting as traditional parties any more. The fractures within them are visible. That is most evident over the Leave-Remain split, of course. But the splits also run between generations, regions, cities and rural areas. In 2011, voters showed little enthusiasm for electoral reform in the referendum that year. But that question is unlikely to disappear (even though neither main party will champion it) as parties struggle to map themselves against the concerns of so many kinds of voters.
Parliament itself has changed. MPs are more conscious of their power. That might be true of any period of minority government. But the Brexit debates have strengthened the select committees in their sense of their power and the contribution they can make. They may have failed to extract substantial impact assessments from David Davis on the effect of Brexit on different sectors of the economy, but they embarrassed the then Brexit secretary in the process. That arguably contributed to the government’s willingness to produce much more useful economic modelling in November.
The need to move MPs and peers out of the Palace of Westminster in the coming years, for an anticipated seven year refurbishment, may also have unanticipated consequences. MPs and peers have been working closely together on Brexit procedure. But being in physically different places, under the current plan, might strain that.
Brexit has clearly changed the civil service too. In bald terms, recruitment has added more than 8,000 jobs, reversing some of the cuts in total numbers since 2010. But many senior officials report the benefit of departments having to work together. There has been more rotation of staff in some departments, driven by the demands of preparations. That can have damaging effects on institutional knowledge and continuity (as an Institute for Government report to be published in January will show). But it can also drive a sense of how to work together better.
Brexit has also shone a fierce light on the quality and prominence of official advice at the top levels. The prime minister has chosen to ask Olly Robbins to take a leading role in the negotiations. This has led to criticism that the deal with the EU has been crafted by officials rather than ministers, and that this has politicised the civil service. In retrospect, it is likely that the deal will be seen to be very much of the prime minister’s making; she has persistently explored whether the EU would grant the UK a “middle way”, despite equally persistent rebuttals, and the deal reflects those compromises. In retrospect, too, however, there may be pointed questions about whether officials indulged her too much in that pursuit across inhospitable territory.
There are benefits which might be preserved from many of these changes in practices and institutions. In one area, however, Brexit is proving a strain with few consolations: on the constitutional arrangements for devolution. The difference in political views between Scotland and Northern Ireland (both voting Remain) and England is one source (and Carwyn Jones, the outgoing first minister of Wales, said at the IfG that he thought Wales would now vote Remain).
“In retrospect, there may be pointed questions about whether officials indulged Mrs May too much in her pursuit of a ‘middle way’ across inhospitable territory”
Just as serious, the proposed future relations with the EU may conflict with the devolved nations’ rights to control environment and agricultural policy under the devolution settlement. They have been vocal on this point, but inevitably find it hard to get their voices heard in the clamour.
Whatever the outcome of Brexit, we are likely to look back in a decade and see how much it has changed of the way that the country goes about government.