Brexit ‘has unleashed such a set of demons’ on the UK
How does a society that has been so badly fractured begin to heal?
St George flags in the windows and a “Vote Leave” poster on a house in Redcar, northeast England, in 2016. Photograph: Scott Heppell/AFP/Getty Images
To stay or to go is no longer a binary question in Britain, if it ever was to begin with. Between those two poles, there are myriad shades of opinion. There are the remorseful Leavers. The regretful Remainers. The more-hardline-than-ever Leavers. Those who are so fatigued by it all they no longer care what happens.
Then there are the uncategorisable views: like that of the Romanian-born, German-raised, British-dwelling recruitment consultant I spoke to this week, who brings workers in from eastern Europe to do the jobs British labourers won’t, and who still thinks Britain should leave the EU because he’s nostalgic for the old days. It was easier to make money back before the UK’s borders were fully open to eastern Europe, he says.
Or the thoughtful and articulate secondary school students who would have supported Remain if they had been old enough to vote, but now feel Britain should leave regardless of the consequences, because it can’t be seen to be weak. Or the university student who is too young to share Nigel Farage’s view of the “real” England as a place of verdant fields and cricket pitches, but does anyway.
Or the immigrant communities in Bradford who are perplexed by Brexit, and see it as an “elitist, London” thing. Or the woman I met in Hull, who voted Remain but couldn’t talk about it to her husband, and was secretly hoping for Leave. Or the schoolboys in Bradford who were angry at older Leave voters. “It’s like someone else choosing a movie for you on Netflix, and they leave halfway through, and you can’t change the movie. That’s what old people voting for Brexit is like,” one of the boys said.
The man in his 20s checking me in at my hotel in Leeds voted Remain; his girlfriend Leave. He is frustrated with the leave-at-any-price conversations he is hearing. “You wouldn’t say I’m sick of trying to sell my house, it’s taken two years, so I’ll sell it for any price.”
After the shuddering, drawn-out Brexit earthquake finally comes to an end, all of these people will still have to live together, some of them under the same roof. How does a society that has been so badly fractured begin to heal? And what does all of this mean for what constitutes British identity in a post-Brexit Britain?
“The wider ramifications of Brexit on national identity are huge. A whole generation of people will identify politically not in terms of which political party they support or oppose, or by whether they are left-wing or right-wing – political identity will be shaped by the position taken in the 2016 referendum,” says Dr Parveen Akhtar, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University and the author of a book on political participation among British Pakistani diasporas in multicultural Britain.
One of the lessons from all of this is “be careful what you wish for”, says Prof John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. “We spent 20 years worrying about people not being engaged in politics. Now we’ve got a population that’s heavily engaged.”
And, it could be argued, a country that is more divided than ever. Curtice points out that those divisions are not unique to Britain, but “part of a wider debate that’s going on about the process of globalisation”. What is emerging everywhere is “a divide between that section of our society for whom freedom of movement is an opportunity, and those for whom open borders are a threat, and immigration is something that happens to them.”
Most observers of British politics and society I spoke to believe that what happens over the next few months may prove crucial in determining how deep the rifts run.
Prof Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool, who is the co-author of a book about the DUP, believes that, ultimately, a “second referendum may come to be seen as the least evil option”. But that’s not to say it’s a good outcome.
Then again, nobody here is talking about good options anymore. A second referendum, says Tonge, is in many ways “a horrible option, that would be monumentally divisive and would tear the country apart. It would cause a great deal of anger. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented.” He cites referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales, and the Lisbon treaty in Ireland.
Whatever happens, he is not optimistic that the divisions created by Brexit can be healed within a generation. “With Brexit, David Cameron has unleashed such a set of demons on this society. This cannot be healed easily. It’s horrendous. If you talk to people in Scotland, they’re still smarting from the independence referendum. You need to multiply that several times at least to understand the impact of Brexit.”
Prof Rob Ford, who specialises in the areas of public opinion, electoral choice and party politics at Manchester University, believes that Britain, ultimately, is unlikely to crash out without a deal, but that negotiations will go to the wire. And while the politicians battle it out, the divisions in society are deepening.
“We’re seeing an increasing weariness and growing entrenchment among the voting public. On the Leave side there’s a substantial chunk who think leaving with no deal is desirable. On the other side, there’s a chunk of Remain who want the whole thing overturned,” he says.
“The identities of Leave and Remain have lodged themselves very firmly in the public consciousness”, and have created an environment where the discourse from each side is passionate, focused and increasingly polarised.
Hope from Scotland
The example of Scotland gives Ford hope that the ruptures appearing in British society may not be as permanent as they now seem. “Although the independence vote still weighs heavily there, the referendum had a limited mark on the identity Scottish people have about themselves.” It divided society, but “it didn’t change how the Scots saw themselves in relation to the English”.
It is “quite possible,” he says, that Brexit “leaves a lasting mark on our politics, but it doesn’t necessarily change how the British see themselves”.
There are some who believe a shattering of the notion of British identity would not ultimately be a catastrophe. Javaid Iqbal, a legal professional working in the multicultural city of Bradford, says that perhaps people are too quick and too eager to define what Britishness is.
“They want something they can hold on to, they can clasp, they can say ‘This is what it means to be British’. But I don’t think there is any single definition of it any more. We can’t use the Farage idyll of pubs and sheep and valleys and farmyards any more, if it ever existed.
“Britishness is defined by a set of values and ideals, rather than race, religion, class or background. It’s patience, inclusivity, democracy. For me that’s Britishness.”
Whether even those values can survive the Brexit earthquake, however, is far from certain.