Unlimited Shame or Glorious Victory – Britain Divided Over Brexit

UK - Special BREXIT - UK - 23 Jun 2016
Brexit – The Results ++ UK Politics in Turmoil ++ What’s Next? – A commentary. by Alex Braley, Bethany Purrington, Robin Dyck
Brexit – The Results

On 23rd June, an historic referendum saw over 30 million British voters turn out to have their say on whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. Overall voter turnout was very high at 72 %, indicating that the debate had struck a chord with the majority of the British public. Following months of campaigning, polls had shown that the result would be extremely close. In the end, 51.9 % of voters chose ‘Leave’, whilst 48.1 % voted ‘Remain’ – a result which will continue to dominate headlines for the foreseeable future.

Considering the relatively narrow margin in the result, ‘Brexit’ has essentially divided the UK in two. As results were announced early on 24th June, emotions ran high amongst supporters from both camps. Leave campaigners such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of the Conservative Party and Nigel Farage of UKIP (UK Independence Party) celebrated their victory, whilst the mood of those who had fought to Remain was solemn. Looking at the results across the country, divides became more obvious, with the vast majority of Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to Remain, as well as some of the UK’s largest cities, including London, Bristol and Manchester.

Meanwhile, the Leave campaign attracted huge support in the North of England and the Midlands.
This divide can not only be found in terms of geographic location, but also in voter demographic. Generally speaking, younger voters were much more likely to vote to Remain, with 73 % of 18-24 year olds voting to stay in the European Union compared to only 40 % of those aged 65 and above. However, voter apathy amongst young people has been considered a problem for many years and voter turnout has been found to be lower in areas with a lot of young people. This has led to much debate and protest from young people who will arguably feel the effects of this result for longer than older generations.

UK Politics in Turmoil

As the dust is beginning to settle after the highly emotional referendum result, British politics are in disarray about how to take on the current situation. Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation and politics are divided along party lines. Different camps in the ruling Conservative Party as well as the opposition Labour Party are battling for internal supremacy. As Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and an important figurehead of the Brexit movement has declined a candidacy as Prime Minister, many are uncertain about who will lead Britain through the unprecedented process of an exit from the European Union. Home Secretary Theresa May, Member of the Conservative Party announced her candidacy. Many see her as a candidate with good prospects. However, some fear that she will be up against hard-line Brexiteers due to her leaning towards the remain side. As Ian Duncan Smith, a prominent Leave supporter, told the BBC: “Whoever takes up that job … it would be very, very difficult for the public who have voted for leaving the European Union to find that they then had a prime minister who actually was opposed to leaving the European Union.”

Although a majority of voters chose to leave the EU, many Brexit supporters are beginning to regret their decision at the ballot box especially after doubts have arisen about the credibility of election-winning Brexit slogans, such as the promise that Britain would invest the money saved by Brexit into the ailing National Health System (NHS). Also, contrary to Brexiteers claims in the course of the pre-election showdown, an exit would not automatically mean Britain would reduce immigration to zero.

The surprising outcome of the election was partially due to the fact some Leave voters admitted they had intended to use the referendum as a protest vote against the political establishment, believing the UK was certain to remain in the EU. Many Remainers now hope for a second referendum.

All eyes are on Europe

Leavers and remainers alike are now looking closely at the EU`s and other countries reactions to Brexit. Many Leave voters are sure that core Brexit demands, such as access to the European free market, will be met, because Britain is an economic heavy-weight and cultural powerhouse. A common argument in favour is that Germany exports large proportions of its automobile production to the UK and would put German jobs at risk, should it back trade tariffs. The EU could simply not afford not to meet British demands in negotiations. Others are not quite so optimistic. They fear that the EU and remaining countries will go hard on the UK in negotiations, Furthermore, many see the possibility of an all-out exit loom on the horizon as a pick-as-you-chose option for Britain would set a dangerous precedent for the EU`s stability. Many Remainers even hope for a second referendum, especially as `British Regret´ or `Bregret´ for short, could possibly swing the narrow result in favour of the Remain camp.

Apart from the novel nature of the situation, signals from Europe are mixed, and thus, many British are uncertain of what to expect. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for a calm and open debate on the future of the EU – UK relationship, President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, and German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel have demanded a more hardline approach to talks, excluding the possibility of informal talks prior to an official British exit request. Gabriel is quoted as having said: “You cannot be a bit pregnant. Nor have half a pertnership”. At the time of publication, it is not even clear, if and when exit negotiations will be conducted, thus, increasing uncertainty in both camps.

Right-wing parties all over Europe have hailed the referendum result as a victory of national independence. For many brexiteers, such as Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, this moral support is wind under their wings. They hope that other countries will eventually follow suit. Regardless of the outcome of the whole exit process, for many it is clear that the referendum has shown the UK is a divided country. It will take a lot of effort to reunite it again.

What`s next? – A commentary

What our author Alex Braley thinks

Never have I seen my country so divided. The referendum result has exposed deep-running divisions in British society between the young and old, between the North and the South, between different social classes... The list is long and a daunting task awaits whoever chooses to follow in David Cameron's footsteps following his resignation in light of the referendum result.

In such difficult times one would expect our political leaders would live up to their responsibilities and help guide the country towards stability. However, the political parties that run British politics (the Conservative and Labour parties) and should be providing that necessary leadership are also divided amongst themselves. The Conservative party are trying to heal the wounds after a bruising 'blue on blue' civil war which has seen the hard tory right and the more liberal side slug it out over the last four months in the hope of brining a dispute that has plagued the party for over two decades to its conclusion. Meanwhile, the Labour party has hit the self-destruct button with over half the shadow cabinet resigning in protest of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party.

David Cameron's resignation only amplifies this vacuum of political leadership and a new Conservative leader must now be elected whereupon he/she will automatically become prime minister. That person's first decision will be crucial to the UK's future: call a general election or invoke article 50? Both are problematic and carry risks.
Whilst economically the UK will certainly survive inside or outside of the EU, invoking article 50 could bring about serious political and social consequences that would doom any premiership – the Pandora's box of the Northern Irish question risks being re-opened, Scotland would vote for independence thereby effectively ending the United Kingdom and Gibraltar would find itself in an acute situation. If a general election were to be called, the figure-heads of the Vote Leave campaign (Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) would be faced with the challenge of having to actually deliver on the lofty and irreconcilable promises they made over the last four months, seriously jeopardising their chances of winning.

In light of the above, ironically the big winners of this mess could prove to be the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats as well as other marginal parties – if our voting system will allow it. With the establishment looking increasingly untenable as Labour no longer connects with its traditional voting base and the public waking up to the deceptive and undeliverable promises made by the Brexiteers that will be heading the Conservative party, dissatisfied voters will continue to opt for 'alternative politics'. However, sufficient masses of voters will need to make the switch from the status-quo to enable the obstacles of the first-past-the-post system – a system much criticised after the 2015 general election produced a Conservative majority and only one seat for the Greens and UKIP – to be overcome.
The more obvious 'winner' appears to be the Scottish National party that is already preparing a second independence referendum. However, joining the EU will not necessarily be a straight-forward task for Scotland as Spain risks blocking any such attempts out of fears for Catalonia breaking away.

What is most disappointing as a UK citizen though, is that even in a post-Brexit world, the debate has yet again descended into a spectacle of the Conservative and Labour parties.

The Brexit saga has forced the UK to take a long hard look at itself in the mirror and those reflections will continue in the absence of any political leadership as we search for answers to the divisions within the status-quo that this referendum has brought to the fore.

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