What does the vote for ‘Brexit’ tell us about the UK today?

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has signalled that the UK is on track to trigger Article 50 by the end of this month, following the Government’s decisive win for the ‘Brexit Bill’ in the Houses of Parliament on 13th March. There is no doubt that the process of the UK beginning to remove itself from the EU is a ‘defining moment’ in the nation’s political history, as heralded by Mrs May in the House of Commons. Not unexpectedly, the Government has spoken positively about the benefits of Brexit, with the Prime Minister setting as a core objective ‘a United Kingdom…stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before’, as a result of ‘taking back control’ from Europe. However, it is not yet clear how, or whether, the process of Brexit really can lead to these outcomes for the country, its people and communities. In fact, it is arguable that the UK will enter negotiations as a nation divided both in opinion and opportunity.

In the months since the EU Referendum result last June, there has been a great deal of analysis of the factors that may have led to the UK voting to leave the European Union by a slim (4%) majority. An IPSOS MORI final prediction poll suggested that ‘immigration’ was the number one reason that voters decided to ‘Leave’, whilst the ‘economy’ was the top reason to vote ‘Remain’. Polling by Lord Ashcroft indicated that the main reasons for people to vote to leave was 1) the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK; 2) that voting to leave offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders and 3) that remaining meant little or no choice about how the EU expanded its membership or powers.

According to the Ashcroft poll, the poorest households, people with no qualifications, those not working and those over 65 were more likely to vote to leave the EU. Wealthier households, those with university degrees and those under 25 were more likely to vote to remain. Whilst also reflecting a long-standing ‘Eurosceptic’ culture amongst a sizeable proportion of the population, the suggestion is that the vote reflected disparities in income, education and opportunity, along with different degrees of optimism about prospects for life in the UK: a majority of those voting to leave the EU reported that life in Britain today was worse than 30 years’ ago and perceived more threats than opportunities to their standard of living. In the immediate aftermath of the Referendum, Professor Matthew Goodwin at the University of Kent suggested that the Referendum result could be viewed as a “window through which we can see the deeper divide that will be with us for many years to come”.

Geographers Richard Harris and Martin Charlton, in a paper published last year, have suggested that the referendum has exposed a “less than united kingdom”: “In terms of what the EU Referendum has revealed, the UK is clearly fragmented with notable differences between people and places”. Harris and Charlton go on to suggest that the vote may have reflected a “ganging up” of those lacking in economic opportunity, against elites: “If there was a sense of ganging up, then it was by a large group of politically disenfranchised, largely (but not exclusively) white and broadly working class voters in areas of England and Wales that have seen a decline in industrial and manufacturing jobs, as well as in stable employment, aligning with an older population to vote against the metropolitan liberals and the EU”.

Harris and Charlton go on to argue that “there is some evidence to support an economic interpretation for the Referendum…there is a relationship between decreasing per capita GDP and a greater percentage of the vote being for leave.” They suggest that the outcome of the Referendum vote was due less to a lack of regard for European policy-making institutions and instead a story “of industrial decline and growing social and economic inequality.”

The Casey Review into opportunities and integration in the UK does support the interpretation of a nation divided. Commissioned by then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015, and reporting in December last year, the review found “discrimination and disadvantage feeding a sense of grievance and unfairness, isolating communities from modern British society and all it has to offer.” Dame Louise Casey, leader of the Review, acknowledges that the content, detailing “high levels of social and economic isolation in some places and cultural and religious practices in some communities…holding some of our citizens back”, makes for a hard read. As Dame Casey reports, “social cohesion and equality are not things that we can take for granted” and by acknowledging these challenges, attempts can be made by policy-makers and others to address them.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) convened a public 21st Century Challenges discussion on ‘Integrated Britain’. At this event, examining community cohesion in the UK, Mark Rusling, a Councillor in Waltham Forest and then Political Engagement Manager at the Challenge, stated that “the biggest gap in terms of integration/ segregation is actually between social classes A to E – a gap greater than any two ethnicities.” Whilst there is no doubt that the Casey Review did uncover segregation and separation between different ethnic groups in society, it is socioeconomic segregation and inequality of opportunity between social classes that the Society will examine in a follow-up event on 16 March.

Tomorrow night the RGS-IBG will bring together leading experts to discuss with an audience of professionals from policy, practice and academia, what the vote for Brexit reveals about society in the UK today. The panellists, Dr Faiza Shaheen (CLASS), Professor Eric Kaufmann (Birkbeck), Nat Defriend (Young Foundation), Ralph Scott (the Challenge) and Councillor Cameron Geddes (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham), have contributed their thoughts on the topic in an article in Geographical magazine.

Speakers will discuss how to address the factors that perpetuate structural inequalities in society; for example that some communities and groups remain unheard and invisible when debates take place about social challenges and how to address them. Adopting place-based, localised approaches is one means of dismantling structural causes of inequality. Directing resources, funds and expertise towards hard-to reach groups can help to build aspirational, positive narratives with these communities. This can then move communities away from a focus on dominant narratives of deficit and decline, tackling unfairness and inequity.

In the introduction to her review, Dame Casey called for a Britain in which “every person, in every community…should feel part of our nation and have every opportunity to succeed in it.” The discussion convened by the RGS-IBG is one means to continue the dialogue needed to ensure that these aspirations can be met and that the UK really does become a more ‘united’ Kingdom.

Image credit: Riding the Tube, Timmy_L, Flickr

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