Brexit Will Tear Us Apart: The referendum has exposed deep divisions in British society

The Brexit referendum was supposed to represent the common will of the British people. But the vote leaves a country polarised and bitter, with many more questions than answers.

A comment by Chris Ruff

 

It was about 4am when I knew it was over. Watching the BBC live coverage, the blue leave graphics piled onto blue. Town after town, from Wolverhampton to Eastbourne, Barnsley to Swansea revealed themselves to be opponents of the EU, of Europe, the present government, the United Kingdom, elites, David Cameron, or whatever else they didn’t like about modern Britain. The Prime Minister has now resigned. The country, and the EU, plunged into turmoil. The markets have reacted as they always do to instability. And this is instability of the most violent, destructive kind. Who knows what will happen next?

The 2016 EU referendum paints a picture of a Britain divided: from North to South, young against old, London versus the rest, the parties’ leadership undermined by their own members. But most of all it represents a huge collective middle finger to the political establishment from the ‘working classes’, the ‘little people’, those ‘left behind’ in globalisation. Whatever you want to call them. Those with the most to lose from Brexit have been its most vocal supporters. As is so often the case, the weak will suffer from economic instability. It’s just this time they voted for it.

 

A stick of dynamite under party politics

Gibraltar’s fantastically positive yet predicable 96% began the evening on a positive note. An unofficial exit poll had put Remain marginally ahead, and the tension amongst pro-EU activists, not to mention world markets, was momentarily eased. Nevertheless, this false cradle of security was soon wrenched to earth by the initial results coming out of the North East of England. The narrow victory in Newcastle and the devastating loss in nearby Sunderland immediately ramped up the pressure once again. These were solid Labour seats – a party practically unanimously behind Britain’s membership of the EU. This was not supposed to happen.

“On the campaign trail, the social democratic message of protecting workers’ rights just wasn’t cutting through. Immigration was the issue in Labour areas and we just didn’t have an answer.”

We should have seen it coming. Indeed, many on the left will maintain that they did. As I write this, my Facebook timeline is already full of disappointed Labour voters angry at Jeremy Corbyn and the recently elected Labour leadership. A long-time Eurosceptic himself, was he really the most appropriate person to lead this campaign? From my own short experience on the campaign trail the social democratic message of protecting workers’ rights just wasn’t cutting through. Immigration was the issue in Labour areas and we just didn’t have an answer. Up until May this year, MAY!, the party’s supporters didn’t even know what the party’s position on the referendum was. This new situation calls for strong leadership and it just isn’t to be found anywhere in the Labour high command right now.

The historic split in the Tory party on the European issue has been well documented. It is of course the primary reason this referendum was called in the first place. Cameron’s gamble in party management has backfired spectacularly and he was the first casualty, falling onto his sword as dawn broke. A Brexit will probably bring his former school friend Boris Johnson to Britain’s top political job – words I never thought I’d write. We thought we progressives had it bad with six years of David Cameron. Boris’ Britain will probably leave us hankering back to the good old days with Dave.

 

Split UK?

The results speak for themselves. Scotland was overwhelmingly for Remain (62%), Northern Ireland less so. Wales and England in favour of Leave (56%). The already precarious 300-year old union of the English and Scottish nations will surely be tested again in the next couple of years. Certainly, the talented Nicola Sturgeon and her legion of Scottish National Party (SNP) colleagues north of the border will be circling over post-Brexit Britain like vultures, eyeing up an injured beast.

“For the rest of us, the fightback starts now. And it will be an awful lot harder without the Scots’ support.”

And who can blame them? As an Englishmen I wish my Scottish progressive colleagues the best of luck. If I could get out now I would too. Unfortunately for the rest of us the fightback starts now. And it will be an awful lot harder without their support.

London also voted massively for remain, reaching as much as 79% and surpassing the already high expectations. The city versus periphery divide is wider than ever, and more bitter. You suspect that if London wasn’t surrounded by England it would also be eyeing up the British constitution for opportunities to break free.

 

A gaping generational divide

Reading through my social media yesterday and today, it seems like everybody I know was passionately for remain. I’ve had this feeling before, at the general election in 2015, when my own social media timelines made the following Conservative victory incomprehensible. This is of course the huge problem with Facebook and twitter, which act as mirrors. But still it illustrates one of the defining cleavages in this referendum, young versus old.

“We young can only blame ourselves. The turnout figures show that we just weren’t passionate enough about the European project to actually go out and vote.”

Over 60% of 18-30 year olds were in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, with this trend being reversed for the over 65s. Even up to 49 years of age, the remain vote had just edged it. Beyond that, it was Brexit all the way. Even a last minute attempt for younger voters to call their grandparents to vote for remain for their grandchildren’s sake didn’t work. Frustrated with the modern world, older people let their grievances be known in the most efficient way possible: they turn out in huge numbers. We young can only blame ourselves. The turnout figures show that we just weren’t passionate enough about the European project to actually go out and vote.

 

What next?

On a personal level, when you are so convinced of one argument and so many of your compatriots see something entirely differently, then you naturally start to question your own identity. Am I really that out of touch? Clearly.

“Those who voted most strongly in favour of Brexit will be the first to suffer from the impending economic chaos. This really is like turkeys voting for Christmas.”

But most of all I feel genuinely sorry for those most vulnerable people who believed this referendum was going to solve all their problems overnight. As always, people in depressed, deindustrialised towns – those who voted most strongly in favour of Brexit – will be the first to suffer from the impending economic chaos. Furthermore, the referendum result will force a number of moderate Conservatives out of government, leaving behind the most rabid right-wing free-market Eurosceptics. The facetious claim that the money Britain was paying into the EU will be reinvested into the NHS and other public services is laughable when you see who will be tasked with implementing it. To borrow someone else’s phrase, this really is like turkeys voting for Christmas.

The referendum has answered one big question. But like a cockroach crushed under a foot it releases hundreds more, dispersing into the floorboards of the creaking British political system, ready to rear their ugly heads at a later date.  The young and the old, the Scottish and the rest, cities and the countryside, Tories and Labour: This debate isn’t over. It has just begun.

 

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image: http://bit.ly/28VKGAt.

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Christopher Ruff

Der Brite Christopher Ruff hat in Bath, Paris und Berlin im Rahmen des "Euro Masters"-Programms Politikwissenschaften studiert. Er ist Gründungsmitglied von Polis180 und beschäftigt sich mit Euroskeptizismus und der Rolle Großbritanniens in der EU. Er arbeitet als Assistent eines britischen Abgeordneten im Europaparlament.
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