Voices: The legacy of the Brexit referendum is a divided, confused Britain

·6-min read
Like so many political promises, Get Brexit Done turns out to have been a false prospectus (Getty Images)
Like so many political promises, Get Brexit Done turns out to have been a false prospectus (Getty Images)

Six years since the vote, and two years since the UK actually left the EU, Professor Sir John Curtice’s poll of polls suggests that 52 per cent would vote in a new referendum to rejoin the EU and 48 per cent to stay out. It feels as if we are fated to be divided by the cursed ratio for ever.

That is why Boris Johnson’s slogan about uniting the country and levelling up sounds so hollow. His premiership is built on division. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. Democratic votes are binary. But there are different political styles. Tony Blair sought to put up a big tent that was so unifying it felt at times as if everyone was in it.

Johnson himself tried to be an inclusive politician when he was mayor of London, twice persuading a Labour city to vote for a liberal, pro-immigration Conservative. That changed in 2016, when he and Michael Gove inevitably became leaders of approximately half of the population, divided from the other half by a fissure that was harder to bridge than most in British politics.

By accident, the Conservative Party nevertheless tried to bridge that gap, electing a Remainer as leader after a succession of Leavers knocked themselves out of the contest in a slapstick comedy farce. Theresa May was in many ways well qualified for the bridging role, having been a reluctant Remain voter, but she was driven by the unforgiving logic of the vote to rule out the compromise option of staying in the EU single market. The Norway model, which would have meant accepting free movement of people between the UK and the EU, would have been one way of bridging the divide, but that would have been unacceptable to most Leavers because opposition to free movement was one of the main reasons for voting to leave.

She crafted a different compromise, tilting the other way, which would have kept the UK in a looser economic association with the EU. Her deal was to keep us in the EU customs union, while pretending that this was only a temporary arrangement, preventing the UK from signing its own trade deals. It fell victim to the interaction between parliamentary and plebiscitary democracy, trapping her in a deadlocked House of Commons that would neither agree a Brexit deal nor allow a new election.

So we ended with the paradox of the 2019 election, in which the country found a kind of unity, agreeing to the proposition that Brexit should be Done, with the unspoken corollary that it should also Never Be Heard Of Again. After the election, Johnson even disbanded the Department for Exiting the EU and ordered his ministers not to use the B-word.

But in order to force the “unifying” election, he had adopted a “hard” and divisive form of Brexit. It literally divided the nation by creating an internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but metaphorically divided it by keeping the issue at the forefront of politics for the foreseeable future – not least by trying to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement less than two years after it was signed.

Like so many political promises, Get Brexit Done turns out to have been a false prospectus. The Brexit vote, and Brexit itself, have already had a huge effect on British politics, and it will endure because the current state of relations between the UK and the EU is far from settled, even if Keir Starmer tactically avoids any suggestion of wanting to negotiate a softer Brexit.

The Brexit vote realigned political loyalties, accelerating some existing trends and creating new ones. For a long time, Labour has been becoming more a party of graduates and younger people, while the Conservatives tended in the opposite direction. In the two elections of 2017 and 2019, the Labour vote became more middle class and the Tory vote more working class, such that the class divide between the parties has almost disappeared.

This has produced some strange cross-currents. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, for example, supports Brexit, which was one of the causes of its break with the Labour Party in 2004. While the activists who run the union see themselves as members of the quasi-revolutionary left, many of their members are Tory-voting Brexiteers.

It also explains the submerged debate in the Labour Party about its strategy, which is focused under Keir Starmer on winning back Labour voters in working-class Leave areas. There are MPs in southern seats who think the party would find it easier to convert Remain-voting, middle-class Tories, and that the party ought to be fighting harder against the Liberal Democrats for these voters.

Therein lies the puzzle of how the Brexit divide will affect British politics in the future. So far, it has played out to the Conservatives’ advantage under Johnson’s leadership – and the advantage was not only that the Leave vote was 1.3 million greater than the Remain vote in 2016.

As Curtice’s poll of polls suggests, that lead is eroding. But what mattered in the 2019 election was that the Leave side was united, while Remain was divided. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party stood aside for the Tories, while Labour and the Lib Dems split the Remain vote. In addition, Johnson was able to pull over more Remainers to his side, on grounds of respecting the referendum result, than Labour was able to hold on to Leavers.

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But future elections might be different. Not only has opinion shifted in favour of EU membership – not much, though, and who knows how people would actually vote in another referendum? – but the growing share of graduates in the population is pushing that way. Without the glue of getting Brexit done, the Leave half of the electorate might not be such a cohesive force as it was last time.

What is more, the tendency of revolutions to devour their own children could mean that there will be differences of view among Brexiteers about our future outside the EU. The Northern Ireland protocol and the European Court of Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU, but extending the principle of refusing to subject UK law to transnational authority) provide scope for purists to argue that real Brexit has not been tried yet.

Meanwhile, the Remain half of the population can use tactical voting to minimise the effect of the split between Labour and the Lib Dems. Brexit might continue to divide the nation, but it will not always be in ways that pull us further away from our continental neighbours.

To mark the six-year anniversary of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, Voices brings you Brexit, 6 years on – a series exploring the impact of the vote to leave

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