After the Referendum: Britain divided?

Saturday 22 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Garden Room State of the Nation 2016
Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

In the run up to the UK’s referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the EU or leave, the country saw an enormous expansion of political discussion and debate around a range of issues, from sovereignty and rights to the economy and immigration. For the first time in decades, people could be heard discussing politics passionately up and down the country - in the workplace, at the shops and other public places - and families and friends were often very split. Indeed, much of the debate since the referendum has concentrated not so much on the issues as the demographics, on who voted which way, where and why. Questions were raised about the core motivations of various categories of voters and about the extent to which people had understood or been convinced of arguments and facts.

Many were shocked by the outcome - with 52 per cent voting to leave the EU - especially dismayed Remain voters in cities like London, who had assumed their liberal, pro-EU views were shared by the majority of Britons. Some said they did not recognise their country any more; some Leave voters retorted that now metropolitan liberals knew how the rest of the country had been feeling for years. In geographical terms, the broad divide seemed to be between the Midlands, the north of England and Wales - which largely voted Leave - and the south of England, the major cities across the country, plus Scotland and Northern Ireland, which largely voted Remain. While the demographics are complicated, it does seem that large numbers of traditional working-class voters voted to leave the EU, while more middle-class voters tended to vote to stay. This has been variously interpreted as a revolt by the ‘have nots’ against the status quo, or as a case of the uneducated being misled by propaganda. Matters are complicated further by the fact that younger voters were mostly pro-Remain, but did not turn out to vote in large numbers. And while many saw the referendum as being primarily about immigration, and the case for Leave even motivated by racism, many voters from ethnic minorities also voted to Leave.

So is Britain split down the middle, or even split into numerous ‘tribes’? Is the split best understood in terms of class or more cultural factors? Was the referendum about inward-looking xenophobes versus cosmopolitan liberals, or ordinary people trying to take back control of their lives from an aloof cultural elite? Is the white working class reasserting itself against multiculturalism? Are the youth entirely cut off from older generations and even the millennials from Generation X? Is Britain hopelessly divided, or can some kind of national unity emerge in the aftermath of the referendum?