Two nations: the Brexit chasm

Two nations: the Brexit chasm

Many people my age will have been captivated as children by André Maurois’s fable “Fattypuffs And Thinifers”, in which two brothers descend underground to find themselves in a world where the plump and the skinny are divided into separate realms.  The two sides eventually go to war before a compromise is eventually reached.

In the last few months Britain also has descended underground and the populace divided at the ballot box between Leavers and Remainers.  Leave won by a small but decisive margin.  As yet, however, there is no sign of reconciliation between the two sides.  Indeed, the vote seems to have exposed a faultline in British society that if anything is widening.

Leavers and Remainers do not just differ about the subject of the EU.  They cluster geographically (inner London councils routinely racked up Remain tallies of 70% and more, while a swathe from the West Midlands to the Lincolnshire coast scored Leave tallies of over 60%, with the fenlands and south Essex hitting the 70% mark).  They are divided by educational attainment – the worse the education levels, the more likely a voter is a Leaver.  They are divided by class – the hornier-handed the voter, the more likely he or she is to have voted Leave.  They are even divided by preferred brands.

Unlike the Fattypuffs and Thinifers, Leavers and Remainers are not competing on the same axis.  Leavers tend to regard national identity, protection of wages and defence against immigration as of paramount importance while Remainers tend to see free trade, economic growth and international co-operation as the chief goals.  Each baffles the other.  As a result, many Leavers see Remainers as treacherous degenerates while many Remainers see Leavers as at best stupid and at worst as having an indelible stain on their character.

What makes it worse is that while Remainers are sure that they have lost, Leavers remain nervous that their victory might yet be stolen from them. To look at the Remainers first, it is astonishing that a point of view that was espoused by 48% in June is so poorly represented in politics now.  The government is committed to Brexit.  The main opposition party is simply not functioning.  The Lib Dems, while vociferous in favour of reopening the question, are simply irrelevant (and in any case many Remainers accept that is not practical).  Remainers have not begun to undertake any serious thought about what they want next.

You would think that the Leavers would be much happier.  Yet worries persist that they will be ratted on.  Three out of the top four positions in government are held by Remainers, while the fourth is held by Boris Johnson, who is scarcely trusted by Leavers for his fixity of views.  Government policy on Brexit remains sketchy.  Having voted Leave, they have not yet taken control.

The end result is that far too many on both sides have contempt for each other, no interest in understanding the other’s point of view and are constantly looking for ways to sabotage their opponents.  It need hardly be said that this is unhealthy.

How is this to be resolved?  Campaign made some suggestions in its article about the brand divisions as to how the two sets of values could be united.  This is futile until a political resolution has been reached.   At present, there isn’t much indication that many voters on either side have changed their mind about their voting decision.  Instead, views will become more entrenched.

A heavy burden lies on the government to come up with a coherent plan.  The government will need to show both that it respects the formal result of the referendum and the substantive messages behind that, while simultaneously not riding completely roughshod over the nearly 50% of the population that felt differently – and then to persuade our erstwhile European partners to agree to that plan.  Good luck to it with that task.  It is clear what the referendum vote was against but it is far less clear what it is for.  With a tiny majority in Parliament and a questionable mandate for any approach, the likelihood of still greater bitterness in the months to come is high.  We might well see a large majority of voters feeling betrayed either by their fellow countrymen, by their government or by both. The internal squabbling among the Brexit ministers does not augur well while the focus on process rather than substance (who should trigger Article 50, Theresa May or Parliament?) gives no ground to hope that balm is going to be poured on the nation’s riven soul in the form of a statesmanlike settlement.

Anyway, there are betting implications stemming from all this.  If you take the same view as me that the bitterness and alienation is going to persist, you should expect populist parties of all stripes to do well and the Conservative party to decline in the polls once the government sets forth its plan and disappoints a sizeable chunk of its current support.  Neither Corbynite Labour nor UKIP currently look as though they are under competent management but both look as though they are catering to substantial sections of the electorate.  And the gap in the centre is now achingly empty: who are centrists who hold Remain values now supposed to vote for?  The party that can articulate their hopes and present a way to develop their values in post-Brexit Britain is set to reap major rewards.  The Conservatives’ best hope for an overall majority at the next election looks likely to be to hold that election early.  Since Theresa May seems apparently set against that, betting against that outcome looks wise.

Alastair Meeks

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