Brexit – A Nation Divided

CURAs Jonathan Payne reflects on Brexit its causes and its consequences for UK progressives

The people of Britain woke up this morning to a Brexit vote and a country deeply divided and ill at ease with itself and its place in the world.  Democracy, the will of the people, had spoken, but no one was quite sure what the consequences would be.

Cameron’s decision to put the question of Britain’s membership of the EU to the people was less about democracy, however, and more about appeasing the right-wing Euro-sceptic elements within his own party, that have been festering for decades, and heading-off splits in the Conservative vote from UKIP. The people, albeit by a slender majority, have now given their decision, rejecting the views of the  ‘experts’, such as the OECD and IMF, who said this would be bad for the economy and jobs. It was Michael Gove who said, ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’, and it would seem, on that score at least, he was more than half right. Like so much of politics, this has been about feeling and sentiment as much as facts and argument.

There is no doubt that some in the Leave campaign, with immigration its strongest suit, played on many people’s fears and anxieties. Right-wing populism thrives by blaming the ‘outsider’ for problems, the roots of which lie elsewhere: in the lack of investment in housing and public services wrought by austerity and in a neo-liberal growth model that generates profound social inequalities and deprivation. Such populism is a cancer that tears at the very heart of an open, tolerant society, one which history teaches us we should all be deeply afraid of.

Perhaps this is why many are so worried about the visceral tone of the debate and what has been unleashed in the process. And what has been unleashed? If the Brexit vote illustrates anything, it is perhaps the deep sense of alienation and abandonment felt among the most deprived and marginalised sections of the white working class, abandoned for decades by the Conservative and New Labour projects. Some deprived neighbourhoods were, it would seem, literally no-go areas for Labour campaigners for Remain. The argument had been lost a long time ago. Many were fed up with ‘establishment politics’, and who could blame them?

And so a process of healing a divided nation begins. How will such anger and despair, unleashed by this referendum, be dealt with? If one question remains, when all the dust has settled, it is this: can Britain, outside of the European Union, forge a progressive growth model that can reduce inequality and work for all its people, in particular those who feel their voice has been marginalised for too long?  We can only hope that such anger can be channelled into progressive politics and there is the intellectual capacity, will and optimism to do so.

Jonathan Payne is Reader in Employment Studies at De Montfort University and a member of CURA (Centre for Urban Research on Austerity) as well as CROWE (Contemporary Research on Organisations, Work and Employment.