Last week the British people did the unthinkable and voted to leave the European Union. Having spent a week driving from Holyhead, through Wrexham, Coventry, Stratford-upon-Avon, Kenilworth, Reading and onto London, it was not unthinkable to me. Until the last two stops, it was easier to find Leave voters than those wanting to stay in the EU. Equally, however, a traveller could have spent time there and not even known there was a referendum at all. Posters were few.
With the exception of London on results day – where people spoke about little else – the people of Britain were not really talking about the referendum.
Leave supporters I met were, for the most part, not triumphalist. If anything, they were fatalistic, angry and unenthusiastic. Many said they were confused about what they were voting about. The reasons for voting to quit varied. Often they were poorer and/or older. Many felt their lives had deteriorated, even during periods of economic growth, and so they generally distrusted abstract economic arguments.
Politicians were distrusted.
A few Leave voters – usually professionals and business people – felt strongly about national sovereignty and Britain “taking back control.”
Some had utopian notions about what it could mean. One woman saw the resurgence of the Welsh coal and steel industries as a possibility. The most common reason, however, was an antipathy to immigration.
The Leave campaign’s often dubious messages resonated with people more than Remain’s abstract economic reasoning – where even Remain voters parroted debunked claims that EU membership costs the UK £350 million a week.
Equally, they generally accepted the alleged superiority of Australia’s immigration system, the possibility of Turkey joining the EU quickly and popular quibbles about EU light-switch regulations and eco-friendly light bulbs.
Some Remain voters were passionate Europeans and internationalists – more so as London neared. But most were voting Remain because they feared what would happen to the economy if Britain left the EU. A small number of Leave voters were explicitly racist. In Coventry, a woman fretted about hypothetical gangs of Albanian men roaming the streets. Even her equally Eurosceptic companion admitted she had never seen them.
In Kenilworth, outside Coventry, a man railed against London's "Muslim mayor", Sadiq Khan. Some had no qualms about complaining about immigration in front of immigrants. Taxi drivers in Kenilworth joked with their Albanian-born colleague, a UK citizen, that he would have to go back to Albania. In Stratford-Upon-Avon, a cafe owner complained about immigration in front of her eastern European waiter.
Many Leave voters spoke respectfully about immigrant neighbours, friends and colleagues, but had fully accepted a narrative that said Britain was “full”.
Even some immigrants had mixed views. Some older Irish people voted to Leave, principally because they did not view themselves as immigrants. In Kilburn, an Algerian man and a Pakistani man cited EU immigration as their reason for wanting out.
Why were all these people upset? In Wrexham a woman complained her council house has been left without repairs for a decade. In Kilburn, an Irishman complained about a four-hour wait at a GP’s clinic, though he praised the foreign-born doctors who treated him.
It is not too big leap to say that many who cited immigration as their reason for voting Leave were really upset about benefit cuts, poor services, pressure on the NHS, inadequate public housing and lax labour regulations.
Many of the issues could have been reframed by competent left-wing politicians without blaming immigrants, but this never happened. Few dominant Remain voices argued that disadvantaged working-class communities need not lose out. It seems highly unlikely that the issues that really concern people will be addressed by right-wing free-traders at the core of the Leave campaign.
The main thing I learned is that Britain has been divided for a long time. In or out of Europe, this division is the real issue. Britain is divided between young and old, between rich and poor, between city and countryside, between new immigrant communities and more established communities, and between people who feel they have political representation and people who feel they have none. The danger now is those divides will become deeper and more entrenched.
The centre needs to reconnect to the periphery. Troubling rhetoric about immigration needs to be recast by the Left as a discussion about community and how resources are funded. And all of these different groups need to start listening to each other. If policymakers do not recognise what people on the margins are thinking, then people on the margins will continue voting for the unthinkable.