Can wounds ever heal in divided UK?

The referendum vote to quit the European Union has left the United Kingdom a more divided society than ever before.

In fifty years reporting politics I have never encountered such shock and anger: the morning the result was announced my phone was red hot, mostly with younger friends convinced the older generation had, through indulging their prejudices, sold them down the river.

Just look at the voting breakdown and you will see why. There were stark divisions between London and the provinces, between big cities and the quieter countryside, between over 50s and the young, between graduates and those without further education.

Perhaps the most obvious division is the one between the people and their elected representatives in parliament. While the nation voted 52-48% to leave the EU, the vast majority of Members of Parliament, the people elected to take such decisions in what has traditionally been a representative democracy, were declared supporters of “Remain.”

The most potent campaigning theme for Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), was his insistence that the referendum was a chance for the ordinary man to get one back on a distrusted political establishment, an echo of the tactics pursued in the U.S. by Donald Trump.

Nostalgia vs. future

That distrust of the political class can only have been intensified by the spectacle of former Conservative Party leaders and finance ministers accusing their own former colleagues of dishonesty and rubbishing the non-partisan interventions of previously respected academics and civil servants.

Referendums are rarely a simple answer to a simple question. Often they become a verdict on the popularity of the person or government posing the question, or on wider issues.

This referendum soon revealed a country divided between traditionalists in rural areas and market towns harking back to a simpler life in earlier days, an emerging “Stop the world, I want to get off” movement and the freewheeling youngsters in globalized big cities unbothered by a faster-moving life and multiculturalism.

In university towns like Oxford and Cambridge, “Remain” did well, and in London the pro-EU campaign took 60% of the vote.

In areas of high immigrant concentration in the East and West Midlands it was roughly 60-40 for “Leave.” The suspension of referendum campaigning for two days after the street murder of an MP was a tacit admission that dark and dangerous undercurrents had been released by the public arguments.

Another significant division was revealed with 62% of Scottish voters opting for “Remain” and only 38% for “Leave,” a contrast which has already raised the possibility of another referendum on Scotland quitting the United Kingdom to go its own way.

Sinn Fein have seized upon the 56% of the vote for “Remain” in Northern Ireland to raise the question of a referendum there too on the reunification of Ireland.

Internal party warfare

If the divisions across the country are widespread, those within the traditional political parties are even more intense.

The Conservative Party has been at war on Europe since its growing hostility to the EU helped bring about Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.

Some Tories became Euroskeptics in a belated pledge of loyalty to her, others because they feared losing their seats to UKIP.

The Tory Remainers will now never forgive David Cameron for failing to stand up to his right-wingers and for staging a referendum — one he completely assumed he would win.

Nor will some of them now ever forgive Boris Johnson for what they saw as his maximum publicity late conversion to become the biggest noise in the “Leave” campaign.

With Labour these days a pro-European party, the Labour Remainers in parliament will never forgive their leader Jeremy Corbyn either, for his lackluster campaigning. He had a long history of opposition to the EU, made no secret of his continued distaste for much about Europe and had the party’s EU loyalists in despair. But Labour has to have deep worries too, about the way UKIP has been vacuuming up its traditional vote.

Internal warfare in both major parties will only intensify.

Fear and loathing

The Liberal Democrats who might have benefited were virtually wiped out at the last election.

And what will UKIP do now the referendum has been won?

Their main financial backer Aaron Banks said during the campaign that the referendum would shake up British politics so severely that the pieces would never fit back together. So what shape will UKIP now assume in Farage’s hour of triumph? It’s hard to think it will now slink off into the shadows: will it now re-brand as the anti-immigration party it has long been in all but name?

Cameron, who had already shredded his authority by saying he wouldn’t fight another election, has fallen on his sword after his massive mistake, but the in-fighting over the succession will only increase the public distaste for politics.

People ask me if the wounds can be healed, if a “Brave Little Britain” can pull together to make its own way in the world despite the fear and loathing stirred up between communities in this rancorous debate.

For the moment, alas, I can offer them no hope.

All the evidence is that post referendum politics in Britain is likely to become increasingly class-based, increasingly bitter and with a worrying divide between the generations for which no quick fix is available.

Editor’s note: Robin Oakley was political editor and columnist for The Times newspaper in London from 1986 to 1992, the BBC’s political editor from 1992 to 2000, and CNN’s European Political Editor between 2000 and 2008. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

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