A Nation Divided


Imagine, for a moment, the scene had the markets – and even the 10pm polls – been correct, and the United Kingdom this morning has woken with a 52-48 vote to remain in the European Union.

The faces on the talking heads might struggle to conceal their satisfaction, but the language would be of reconciliation, and the desire to re-engage with the 48 per cent – whose sense of disenfranchisement and alienation from Westminster have been laid so bare over the course of the campaign.

Celebrations from the In camp would have had to swiftly turn to ask, “How did we come so close to the brink, and how do we win back the trust of those who didn’t heed our warnings?”. Cameron would likely have urged pro-Brexit Cabinet members to stay, and with UKIP edging up in the polls, the need, and determination, to address concerns about immigration, wages and pressure on services would have been impossible to ignore.

Let us return now to reality. In his first speech after the announcement, Nigel Farage drew on archetypal populist rhetoric to claim that this vote represents a “victory for decent people”, against the out-of-touch, liberal, cosmopolitan, financial and political elites.

There is absolutely no doubt that Westminster as a whole, and its successive political leaders, must shoulder its share of the blame for allowing such stark divisions to fester over many years. But we come no closer to understanding, nor healing, our evidently segregated country by dismissing the views of the “indecent” 48 per cent as sub-standard or illegitimate.

It wasn’t just MPs, bankers and Hampstead socialists that voted to Remain – it was millions of ordinary citizens across the country. We talk about Brexit and the “left behind constituencies”, but I doubt the residents of the Brixton estates I was canvassing last night – almost unanimously Remainers – feel like they’re at the front of the queue.

When you compare local results in England with relative deprivation, there is a small positive correlation between deprivation and votes to leave, but the picture is far from uniform. The muddiness is illustrated in the graph below. We can agree that the concerns of those living in councils towards the top left (high leave vote, high deprivation) have been ignored for too long, but those towards the bottom left (low leave vote, high deprivation) are inhabited by ‘real people’ too – people who weighed up the arguments, risks and opportunities and made a decision to vote to stay in the European Union.

Brexit graph

Overall, of the 100 most deprived council areas, 26 voted to remain, while 74 voted to leave. That’s pretty much in line with the overall picture, where 80 English councils (25 per cent) voted to remain and 246 councils (75%) voted to leave.

Another way to think about it is: yes, the polls show higher socio-economic groups were more likely to support Remain, but millions of people living in poorer households voted Remain too. Any efforts to negotiate the terms of our withdrawal, to find new political consensus, and to establish new plans for growth must strive to be inclusive, rather than see us entrench new forms of generational and class warfare.

A fierce debate over Scotland’s future lies ahead. But so too has the regional picture within England been called into question. It’s well documented that Londoners are the ‘global citizens’ of England – but this younger, more cosmopolitan culture permeates England’s other cities too – most of which backed Remain last night. Just as London has become the UK’s economic powerhouse, its urban counterparts have spearheaded the nation’s economic recovery after the financial crisis. This connected picture of prosperity and a desire for global connectivity – and its contrast with the views of so many English and Welsh towns and rural communities – is difficult to ignore.

With the news of Cameron’s resignation, there is an assumption that the Chancellor will also be leaving his post – and taking his ‘devolution revolution’ along with him. It is important that the gains that have been made here in terms of creating opportunities for more localised, representative government are not left by the wayside – particularly when one party continues to be so politically dominant, we need to defend any mechanisms to better represent minority concerns.

So devolution must continue – but there is a clear impetus for us to broaden thinking beyond our major metropolitan centres, and to ensure that its benefits – particularly in terms of economic growth – can be shared more widely across regions, to encompass the towns and villages surrounding them.

Westminster has just experienced a profound shock, which has shattered the status quo. Change will be coming – let us ensure that it is a change based on consensus, pluralism and reconciliation.