National Change, Local Challenges: Part I

As I write this, the UK is continuing to gear up for its forthcoming (June 8th) General Election, called by Prime Minister Theresa May only two years after the last one, purportedly to enable the British electorate to give the government a clear mandate for its Brexit strategy.  Purportedly this is because many observers believe May's real motive is her hopes of being able to take advantage of the woeful situation in which the opposition Labour Party currently finds itself.

Regardless of the drivers behind the election decision, however, it's true that voters and the country in general continue to wrestle with significant uncertainty regarding Brexit. With Article 50 now having been triggered, there may now be no doubt that Brexit is indeed happening. The UK is leaving the EU in March 2019, but the terms of that departure are still very much up in the air, and the real consequences - economic, political, social, diplomatic - for the nation remain, frankly, anyone's guess.

I recently attended an event in London featuring representatives of local government from across the UK, intended to foster discussion around what Brexit will mean at a local level - and it was immediately clear that at that level as at every other, confusion continues to reign. Again, we have at least the certainty of departure - and the knowledge that a 'Great Repeal Bill' will be drawn up which will ensure that the state doesn't immediately collapse into lawless chaos on Brexit Day by transposing existing EU legislation onto UK law so that the government can then begin to modify that legislation to suit the country's own purposes and desires (rather than having to draw up, ratify and implement thousands of new laws all at once).

So, what's the problem? That seems, does it not, an eminently sensible procedure which should allow for a smooth and gradual transition away from the legislative framework within which the UK has operated over the last few decades into the "independence" which a (small) majority of voters sought in last year's referendum. Indeed, it's hard to see how else such a radical move as Brexit could be put into effect: we can't simply scrap the laws by which the country operates without having other laws to take their place (unless we want to be living in a real-life British version of The Purge). The replacement process will take many years - indeed, it will be a protracted process merely to establish which laws we wish to remove, which to modify and which to keep pretty much as they are.

The problem - one of the problems - is that, to quote myself shamelessly from a couple of paragraphs ago, "the terms of that departure are still very much up in the air.” We do not know at this point what kind of deal the rest of the EU - or, rather, "the EU" (read: the "rest of" will no longer be applicable) will be prepared to make with the UK. I say "deal" but of course it's really "deals" since we're talking about not only the exit process itself but also the framework(s) which will govern the entirety of the future economic, political and social relationship between the UK and the 27 member states on which the former is walking out.

It's obvious that these are questions of indescribably huge significance on a national level - but, as the seminar I attended demonstrated, there are also gigantic ramifications for local government, and for a host of reasons that political tier is especially challenged - more so, no doubt, than the national and devolved regional governments - by the current uncertainty. There's no room here to do more than scratch the surface in terms of analyzing either those challenges or the reasons why local government is particularly vulnerable in this area. I have no doubt that entire libraries-worth of academic work, and whole careers, will be built upon these very questions in years to come. But I wanted to highlight just a couple of the issues that were keenly discussed at the recent event to give an idea of the kind of things which are currently keeping local government officials up at night.

For one thing, nails are already being bitten to the quick as a result of concerns over Brexit's ramifications for staffing. One of the - if not the - biggest factors driving the Brexit vote was immigration - specifically, the widespread sentiment that the UK has let in too many foreign workers in recent decades and a desire to stop that trend if not reverse it altogether. There are currently around 2.2 million non-British EU nationals working in the UK and, much as the more rabidly Fascist elements of British society would love to "kick 'em all out," the message from Westminster is that following Brexit those workers - including the many thousands working for local administrations - will be able to remain in the country indefinitely. This is partly because the UK government is desperate to ensure that the millions of Brits who've set up home elsewhere in the EU won't themselves be kicked out by their hosts in a "tit for tat" measure.

However, while that is the picture right now, it's an unofficial one and there is no guarantee as yet that it will remain the same come March 2019. Moreover, while it's well-nigh inconceivable that the UK would suddenly deport millions of foreign workers in what would be an unprecedented act of socio-economic suicide, even setting a comparatively distant date by which those workers would have to leave would presumably have dire consequences. The departure—even over a long period—would create hiring headaches for local authorities, and the employees in question would anyway be unlikely to work to the UK's timetable at their own expense. Knowing that they'll be out of work and out of the country by date X anyway, those workers would understandably act in their own best interests and those of their loved ones, and relocate when it would best suit them; a scattergun exodus of this type would throw local government into a staffing (and knowledge retention) crisis of epic proportions.

To be continued…

Jamie Liddell, Editor, Outsource

Jamie Liddell is the Editor-in-Chief of Outsource. He is a journalist with extensive B2B and consumer experience, particularly in the sourcing and international property sectors. A graduate of Cambridge University, Jamie worked as Chief Foreign Correspondent for property media company Blendon Communications before moving into full-time B2B journalism as launch editor of the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network. He took over the helm of the Outsource brand in April 2010 and has since overseen its transformation and evolution into the world's leading publication focusing on the sourcing, outsourcing and business transformation space.