One nation divided? The challenge for Britain beyond Brexit

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LONDON, England – There is still a huge appetite for discussion on Brexit three months after the referendum.

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LONDON, England – There is still a huge appetite for discussion on Brexit three months after the referendum. A seminar hosted by the Resolution Foundation in London shone a light on how divided Britain is. The consensus among speakers was that the outcome of the vote reflected an impatience for change.

Deborah Mattinson and Cordelia Hay from Britain Thinks said their research showed a clear split between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. In their survey 44% describe themselves as haves and 56% as have-nots. Have-nots, who felt left behind and were disenchanted with the prevailing political system, were much more likely to have voted for Brexit. Gender did not feature highly as a factor influencing the vote but age did. There was also a big North-South divide. 46 % in the South East described themselves as have-nots. Looking across 378 of Britain’s 380 local authorities, a simple correlation shows that those with higher levels of median pay recorded lower votes for leave.

The main issues governing the way votes were cast in the referendum on June 23 were the health service and immigration. This applied to haves and have-nots. Both sides exhibited comparatively less interest in the economy or trade. There was also a broad consensus that the change promised by the Leave campaign was not happening fast enough.

Brexit is viewed as bringing the divide in the country into the open. Ordinary people feel they now have licence to speak freely. Multiculturalism was seen by some of those questioned in the survey by Britain Thinks as negative. A builder was quoted as saying that he felt he could not go to certain parts of London out of fear of being attacked. A woman felt no hesitation in admitting that her husband was racist. Many blamed multiculturalism for most of the problems in Britain while a smaller number said this was what made them proud of being British.

On the question of whether the Prime Minister, Teresa May, was the right person to lead Britain through Brexit a greater number of those questioned were in favour of her than her predecessor, David Cameron. She was seen as more in tune with the public and scored more highly than the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Now that the nation has made its decision those who voted to leave want to see a timetable leading to exit from the EU and promises kept on reducing immigration. They are also seeking a fair deal for deserving have-nots. People have let go of what turned out to be the false promise made by Brexiteers of £350 million a week going to the NHS.

Matt Whittaker, Chief Economist, Resolution Foundation, said economics mattered for the Leave vote, but it was long established divisions that stood out. He also said demographics were significant – areas with a high number of students tended to vote Remain. Areas with large numbers of home-owners tended to vote Leave. The British divide widened in the 1980s and has not been bridged since then. A new split may be opening up between generations. It is clear that housing is an important factor.

What of the future? Post-referendum the Prime Minister’s tax and benefit policies point to lower and more skewed growth. According to Whittaker, surveys suggest more division than less with a sense that the divide is likely to get worse. Welcome words from the Prime Minister need to be backed up by action.

Heather Stewart, Political Editor of The Guardian, believes politicians are still trying to understand the implications of the Brexit vote. Stewart believes the result shows that people are very worried about immigration. She thinks there is clearly a need to talk about immigration and Labour has not addressed this adequately. The lessons to be drawn are a need for infrastructure development,
more housing and giving people control over their lives

Tim Montgomerie, Columnist, The Times, agreed to a large extent with Stewart. He sees a difference of emphasis between Teresa May and David Cameron. May, according to Montgomerie, is more interested in the struggling class. Montgomerie supported Brexit because he felt the British system needed a jolt. ” I think the EU is fundamentally shot as a concept – we are better out of it.” His recommendations for the future: there should be less spending on welfare and pensions and more on housing. Migrants are here for jobs which local people do not want to take on. Britain is a divided nation geographically and class wise. We do not actually know what Brexit means.

There were calls from the floor to disentangle immigration and to look at its relationship with the economy and health system. It was pointed out that the National Health Service was staffed by a disproportionate number of immigrants. It was suggested that immigration should be examined rationally; myth-busting is required because people have beliefs which trump every fact.

How are you going to bring together divisions in Britain? One speaker said you had to improve social mobility. Reintroducing grammar schools will not help. A member of the audience commented that there should never have been a referendum and there was basic ignorance about what people voted for. For example, Brexiteers were suggesting that an independent Britain could join the WTO. The fact is that only the EU is eligible to join not an individual country.

Montgomerie’s blunt message to those demanding a second referendum was that the vote would not be revisited, “Brexit is going to happen, let us make it successful.” For many Brexit is seen as a magic bullet to solve all problems. Expectations are unrealistically high and will inevitably end in disappointment. The challenge now is to unite a divided nation and this may not be possible.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.