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Getting over EU: uncertainty and division

01 July 2016

The instability of the past week has shown how fragile the balance of political life is, says Nick Spencer

NOW that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, events seem to be moving so fast that they may have changed since you started reading this article. Among the uncertainties are who will be the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, when his or her Government will actually invoke Article 50 and begin the process of Euro-divorce, and whether the Scottish First Minister will attempt to block that process by calling a second independence referendum, and, if she does, whether the UK would remain intact.

Governmental disarray is matched only by open conflict in the Opposition. The Shadow Cabinet, backed by two-thirds of Labour MPs, has declared war on its leader and, by association, the Labour membership who voted him in, on the grounds that neither he nor they represent, or could represent, national opinion.

In reality, the business of whom Labour represents is the problem. It is not right to say, as some have, that the Labour Party no longer represents its traditional supporters. In some ways, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, and his support from the trade unions, shows how the Party is in tune with its traditional base — and that is precisely what is wrong.

While its old-style supporters could return it to power in the 1970s, later — after Mrs Thatcher had helped to destroy the nation’s industrial base, and socio-economic change had lifted many working-class families into a self-conscious middle class — it became imperative for Labour to reach out beyond its traditional base. This is something that only Tony Blair managed to do. The Parliamentary Labour Party resents Mr Corbyn because he shows no inclination to do this.

Government, the Union, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition — these are the things, lest we forget, about which we should be clear. In comparison, we have simply no idea what the process of leaving the EU will involve: how long it will take to unpick legislation and strike new trade deals; whether our erstwhile partners will negotiate honourably, or take revenge; how much long-term investment will be delayed; or how far any of this will affect the pound, employment, or GDP. We are in a state of uncertainty which few of us can remember previously.


IF OUR uncertainty constitutes one reason to be worried, our division offers an even bigger one. Neither England nor Britain has ever been truly united — except perhaps when Napoleon or Hitler made us so.

Every country is naturally riven with fault-lines, like its rivers, and, over the past 300 years, ours have been variously geographic, religious, and socio-economic. There have always been centripetal forces, however, to counter-balance these centrifugal ones.

The referendum campaign has exposed those fault-lines. On referendum day, Lord Ashcroft surveyed more than 12,000 people, after they had voted, to get under the skin of the outcome. Some of the results will not surprise people.

Older voters were far more likely to have chosen Leave than younger ones (nearly three-quarters of 18-24-year-olds wanted to remain, for example). Similarly, in England at least, the division between Remain cities and Leave in the country was clear. Lord Ashcroft’s polling, however, suggested that the divisions were deeper and more complex than age alone might explain.

Those who voted to remain were more likely to be working full-time or part-time. They were more likely to be from an ethnic or religious minority. In comparison, leavers were more likely to be not working (unemployed or retired), to describe themselves as Christian, and more than twice as likely to describe themselves as English rather than British.

Most telling are the differences in social beliefs and expectations. Leavers were much more likely to agree that “life in Britain today is worse than it was 30 years ago.” They were more likely to say that life in Britain would be worse for children than it was for their parents.

They were much more likely to see social and economic changes as threats rather than opportunities. And they were much more likely to view multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation, and immigration as forces for ill.

Ask someone their opinion on Brexit, and there is a good chance that you could guess not simply their politics, but their age, socio-economic position, and much of their world-view from how they answer.


CONFIDENCE and unity are readily taken for granted — at least until uncertainty and division cloud the land. it is easy, then, to forget that they are achievements, not birthrights.

Confidence demands a degree of forethought, foresight, and willingness to adhere to an order not necessarily of your own making. Societies that think exclusively in terms of immediate or local goals not only lose sight of, but often lose out on longer-term ones.

Similarly, unity always requires a degree of self-sacrifice, a willingness to surrender something of me in order to gain something of us. Communities based wholly on self-interest soon cease to be communities.

And yet short-termism and self-interest have been the register in which much of our economic and social life has been conducted over recent years, and not just during the referendum campaign.

This is not a problem confined to any part of the political spectrum. The free-market Right has championed the alchemy of the market’s invisible hand, wondrously converting base self-interest into public gold, without noticing that self-interest has worked only for those for whom it worked. Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014) suggests, fairly conclusively, that economic inequality had grown significantly in the era of laissez faire, and shows no signs of slackening.

The liberal Left, in contrast, has celebrated rapid, large-scale immigration and the attendant multiculturalism (often for its alleged economic benefits), without paying enough attention to its longer-term impact on communities where it leaves many people feeling alienated within supposedly familiar contexts. The result is that many, for good reasons and bad, feel uncertain and resentful.


ENGLAND, Britain, and the UK have long been oases of comparative certainty and stability, at least by global historical standards. The past week serves to remind us that this need not be true, and that these islands are not immune to severe uncertainty, division, or worse.

However much the young may be resentful of the old for deciding their future against their wishes; or Scots resentful of the English for dragging them out of the EU; or Europeans resentful of the British for weakening the European project; or the unemployed resentful of immigrants for having allegedly “taken their jobs”; or long-standing communities resentful of multiculturalists for having seemingly changed the complexion of their society — everyone is going to have to show forbearance and foresight, self-sacrifice, and generosity, if an already divisive and uncertain situation is not going to get worse.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at the religious think tank Theos, and the author of The Evolution of the West: How Christianity shaped our values (SPCK, 2016).

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