Commentary: After Brexit vote, can a divided UK heal?

As you drive across Southeast England, you don’t even have to talk to anyone to see the depth of anger and division the EU referendum has released. In gardens, by roadsides and on farmland, huge pro-“leave” banners read: “We want our country back”.

Local council leaders hold placards during a Vote Remain event at Manchester Metropolitan University's student Union in Manchester, northern England June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Britain isn’t usually like this, not even during a general election. It is a country built, after all, on often messy consensus. There have been periods of polarization before, of course – during the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, again in the immediate run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Never in my lifetime, however, has the population felt so fundamentally divided on such an existential issue.

If you spend your time amongst the internationalized metropolitan upper-middle-class, it’s pretty unusual to find anyone who wants to leave – or, for that matter, thinks such action would be anything other than catastrophic. You don’t have to go far outside London, however, to find the opposite is true – one Whitehall official I know was told by an auto shop owner in Kent that he didn’t know anyone who wasn’t voting “leave”.

Much of the campaign coverage has focused on personalities, particularly the looming confrontation between Prime Minister David Cameron and the man who so clearly wants to replace him, former London mayor and “leave” stalwart Boris Johnson. But while personal confrontations have been toxic enough, the approach that both campaigns have taken to the rest of the population has been even more damaging.

Neither side of the argument, it seems, has been willing to risk even the barest concession that those on the other might have some kind of point. Perhaps worse still, those leading both campaigns appear to have treated the rest of the electorate – both their own supporters, and those opposing them – with little more than contempt. Those on their side, they seem to believe, are only susceptible to the most grossly simplistic – and often crudely scaremongering – messages. While those on the other side, they clearly believe, are barely worth treating as intelligent human beings at all.

For the “leave” campaign, that has meant scraping dangerously close to outright racism on occasion, including posters showing hordes of dark-skinned foreigners apparently only waiting for a “remain” vote to overwhelm the country. For “remain”, it has meant falling back on a string of increasingly over-simplistic warnings about the financial and diplomatic costs of departure.

At its worst – which has been a lot – the “remain” campaign has become arguably as guilty as its counterpart in demonizing people. Those who want to leave the EU, it increasingly implies, are simply racist “little Englanders” who just don’t get how the modern globalized world works.

In some cases, that may be true – certainly, it’s not a terrible description of some of those at the forefront of the “leave” campaign. If one is going to be that reductive, however, one can equally paint many of the “remain” oligarchy as an elite deeply entrenched in the system who have all but completely lost touch with many in the country they claim to represent. Or perhaps worse still, now view them with outright distain, contempt and borderline fear.

Yes, leaving the EU would be a step into the dark. No, there simply isn’t an option to turn back the clock to some imaginary mono-ethnic 1950s Britain in which the messy, multiethnic, multi-polar wider world just goes away. And yes, many of those who want to leave really are uneasy and displaced by the way in which the UK has changed over the last quarter-century.

Free movement within the EU has, unquestionably, turned Britain into a very different country – and the change has been particularly stark since the opening to Eastern and Central European arrivals in 2004. In some ways, it has provided a remarkable stimulus, helping propel London back to its status as a leading global city. Migrant workers – from both in and outside Europe – have been vital to sustaining public services, particularly the NHS.

Not everyone believes the effect has been overwhelmingly positive, however, blaming the change for stagnant wages and swathes of the country left behind. Much of that is down to broader globalization rather than migration or EU membership, of course – but there is no doubt being tied into so many EU structures does limit the ability of a democratically-elected UK government to take its own actions.

What both sides seem to have lost sight of, however, is that actually most voters are reasonable, largely admirable people trying to make a tough decision in an imperfect world in which it’s impossible to know the consequences of jumping either way.

For sure, a Brexit vote is in some ways akin to throwing a hand grenade into an already messy and perhaps even collapsing international and European order. But wanting to restore a greater degree of democratic accountability is not itself a stupid thing. If the UK wants to change its immigration policy, there’s an argument that says it should be allowed to – and if that doesn’t work, it should be allowed to try again to find something that does.

If Britain does choose “out”, there are certainly many – both in and outside the country – who will paint Britons as an out of touch population choosing to quit their place in the modern world. But that would be premature – if that is what the UK population wants, there will be another battle to come. Some of those on the “leave” campaign might want isolation. But there are others who have made it clear they do still want to see the UK taking a strong diplomatic and economic role in Europe and the world. The trick will be marrying both camps together to make that case.

By the same token, if Britain votes to stay, something is going to have to be done to address the grievances and anger of those who wanted “out”. Within the opposition Labour Party, you can already see the beginnings of a realization that even if Britain stays in the EU, there will be forces who want to push for further tightening of borders.

To say this is about migration is oversimplistic, I think. The anger in the country feels as much about the ability or otherwise to actually elect governments that can make decisions on those kind of important issues.

Whether fixing that imbalance is worth the risk that comes with Brexit, of course, is another question. I don’t think it is – and so I want to stay.

Particularly after the murder of MP Jo Cox in an apparently politically motivated attack last week, a vote to “stay” also feels like a vote for tolerance and the status quo. And that, I freely admit, is an instinctive judgment I can’t necessarily intellectually justify.

Maybe holding the referendum in the first place was a mistake – I strongly suspect David Cameron believes so. Maybe we should just have continued as we were. Maybe these decisions are just too complicated for ordinary people.

I don’t buy that, however. I think the British population will make – individually, at least – what they think is the best decision for them, those close to them and the country at large. And then, whatever the answer, we have to make that work.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been an officer in the British Army Reserve. Follow Peter Apps on Twitter @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.