Why did people vote to leave the EU? My hunch is that there are three groups:
1. The idealists. We should never have joined the EU in the first place. Under no circumstances should Parliament ever surrender its sovereignty to a higher body. It’s a matter of principle. We must take the opportunity to leave, regardless of the short-term consequences.
2. The pragmatists. The EU played an important role after the war, but it is no longer fit for purpose. For example…
Democratically, it is a bloated, unaccountable bureaucracy that is unable to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of a modern Europe.
Regarding immigration, the free movement of people is putting immense pressure on local communities in terms of jobs and integration, and is stirring up tension and discord.
Economically, the EU is an old-fashioned trade bloc, which is no longer necessary, and is actually a huge hindrance to growth and prosperity. We would be better off if we were free to form our own trading partnerships, without the restrictions imposed on us by the EU.
But it’s becoming clear that there’s a third group:
3. The chronically disaffected and disempowered. For decades (and on-and-off since enclosure and the Industrial Revolution) the establishment has poured filth on their heads. Traditional industries have been allowed to collapse, leaving whole communities unemployed and without hope. Since 1979, those in power have been completely out of touch. The Labour Party first failed them, and then betrayed them. Not since 1992 have they had the chance to vote in an election that has given them the slightest inkling that things might, actually, get better as a consequence. As austerity has really started to bite, the metropolitan elite has been prospering at an unprecedented rate. City centres have been renewed and gentrified, while ordinary people have been pushed out to the margins, their estates filled with student accommodation and their towns inflated with vast immigrant populations. Into this void, the anti-establishment sentiment provided fertile soil for Euroscepticism, and people who were perhaps barely aware of the EU found themselves pressing to leave it, as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with politics in general. You’re asking us to fight back against a distant elite, whom we didn’t vote for, and who impose their will upon us and make our lives miserable? Bring it on!
And along came the EU referendum. All of the establishment figures stood together on one side, and handed out boxes of eggs. ‘Please don’t throw these eggs at us, or there will be consequences!’ Yeah, right. As if we’d believe you! Voting never makes a difference, does it? You lot will all vote to remain anyway. It’s a foregone conclusion. The polls can’t be trusted either. But thanks for the eggs, we think we know what to do with them…
And so the working classes actually did make a difference. A rather big one.
What makes me think this narrative might have some truth to it? There’s been a lot to read recently, but some examples would be:
- Lord Ashcroft on How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why. People from the lowest social groups voted strongly in favour of leaving the EU (by a 28% margin) – even more strongly than people aged 65+ (a 20% margin).
- BBC News article on Brexit: Reaction from around the UK. ‘For many this wasn’t just about Europe, it was about a metropolitan elite telling them what to do. And then rebelling against it. … In a town where seven out of 10 people backed Brexit, one man I spoke to in Hartlepool summed up the general mood: “It’s been a vote against the establishment”. Unemployment here is 9.4%. People feel hard done by.’
- Most significantly, this fascinating feature in the Guardian by John Harris: ‘If you’ve got money, you vote in … if you haven’t got money, you vote out’. ‘“If you’ve got money, you vote in,” she said, with a bracing certainty. “If you haven’t got money, you vote out.” We were in Collyhurst, the hard-pressed neighbourhood on the northern edge of Manchester city centre last Wednesday, and I had yet to find a remain voter.’ Or, if you prefer his videos, try this one (12-minutes) from the day before the referendum: EU referendum: welcome to the divided, angry Kingdom, or this one (11-minutes) from the week before: The Labour supporters backing Brexit in Stoke-on-Trent heartland.
What might we learn from this?
First, we need to take on board what this referendum has revealed: that we live in a Disunited Kingdom, where there has been an extreme breakdown of trust between different communities. This is something for which we have a collective responsibility.
Second, we need to make systemic changes to begin to put things right. I’ll give just one example here. People who have been so thoroughly disempowered need to be given a voice again. There is clearly a lot of popular support for ‘Old Labour’, as can be seen with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. But there are relatively few places in the country where this kind of politics will win you a seat in the House of Commons, and there is no chance of Old Labour getting an overall majority in a two-party system. If we want to see these people empowered, and if we want to work towards ‘One Nation Conservatism’ (or ‘One Nation Anything-ism’), then we must move towards proportional representation. (This is why I’m a member of the Electoral Reform Society, which I suggest you join too.) If the Conservatives want to rebuild our nation (and, also, if they want any hope of gaining more than one or two seats in Scotland or in vast stretches of the North), then they should put proper electoral reform firmly in their next manifesto, and let people vote for it through the General Election. Please, not another referendum. Build some proper convictions on the issue, and have the courage to stick to them.
Third, on a more local and individual level, we each need to work to build bridges between these divided communities. Here I have a particular challenge to Christians. Do you live in a working class area, but commute out of that area to get to a big middle-class church somewhere else? Then at least consider changing church. Or do you go to a middle-class church, which is just down the road from a working-class church? What can your churches do to enable these two communities to engage more (recognising that people’s choice of church is only rarely a purely theological matter)?
It’s going to take a lot of effort to bring something good out of Brexit. But Brexit has ‘brevealed’ these deep divisions more clearly than ever before. Will it be the kick up the backside we all need, in order to start fixing our ‘broken Britain’? I hope so.