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‘The Battle of Britain’: How Brexit opens dividing lines in the United Kingdom

Brexit has created massive waves, hitherto unseen in contemporary British history. The referendum in 2016 and the successive negotiations have opened dividing lines that are far more extensive than the British people’s relationship to the European Union. In other words, the defining referendum moment in 2016, deciding the Union’s (UK) relationship to the Union (EU), was inevitable, as are its consequences.

This article argues that the Brexit referendum was a culmination of several decades of divisive British domestic policies. Since joining the European Economic Area (EEC) in 1973, Britain has always been EU’s difficult partner and the British electorate have had an ambiguous attitude towards the continent. Breaking down the referendum results from 2016 shows territorial, political, social and economic divides of which the majority are historically determined. Britain’s image of itself was present in the referendum and is clearly visible in the negotiations. Can Britain once again be ‘Great Britain’? And is the road to future glory to leave the EU?

The (dis)United Kingdom

Britain’s relationship to Europe and the EU has had its ups and down over the centuries. Opinions differ greatly throughout the Union, and they have clearly changed over time too. In the Brexit referendum, two of UK’s four nations voted to stay in the EU while two voted to leave.

The strongest resistance to the European project has always come from England, the largest nation in the UK. In the referendum, 53,4 % voted to leave and the majority of these voted ‘Leave’ because of an increasing Euroscepticism in recent years. Ultimately, immigration and sovereignty were reported as the major reasons for the growth in EU scepticism, and in the end these two issues overshadowed that of the economy.

At the other end of the spectrum is Scotland, that overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU. 62 % of the Scots wanted to remain, but due to Scotland’s place in the UK they need to accept that the English desire to leave, casts them out too. Scotland had an independence referendum in 2014, but in that vote a majority decided to stay in the UK Union. However, the anticipation is that Scotland will stage a second referendum when the Brexit process has been completed. The Scottish Parliament has on several occasions voiced dissatisfaction on being dictated by English voters.

Wales and Northern Ireland have small populations and are therefore demographically subject to the large English population. Wales, like England, voted to leave with 52, 5 % while Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain with a remain margin of 55, 8 %. As is clear from the polarising results in the referendum, the people of Britain have differing aspirations as to what they see as the best solution for a future Britain. The question still remains whether people around the country were conscious of their choice and whether they had enough knowledge about the alternative option to continued membership, namely the leave scenario.

The Conservative Problem

The UK role within the European Union has been a strong divisive issue in British politics, and particularly within the Conservative party. The party is a staunch defender of the UK Union but has been split right down the middle on Europe since Britain joined the EEC in the early 1970s. Thus, the referendum and the Brexit question must be regarded just as much as a domestic issue as it being part of Britain’s foreign policy.

Until Margaret Thatcher became party leader in 1975, the Tories were more pro-European than Labour. But with Thatcher, and her election victory in 1979, anti-European attitudes were introduced. After 11 years in office, Thatcher’s Euroscepticism and her attitudes to party colleagues who supported the EU, triggered her resignation in 1990. Her successor John Major inherited a party at war with itself over Europe. In 1994, a core of right-wing Tory Eurosceptics opposed Major’s policy on the Maastricht Treaty, and effectively undermined the government. Amidst party antagonism, Major stepped down as leader and forced a new leadership election, bidding to remain with a ‘put-up-or-shut-up’ campaign. Major was re-elected leader, but led a strongly split party until the Conservatives were soundly beaten by Tony Blair and Labour in the election of 1997.

The party suffered from splits and unpopular leaders in the following elections, and indeed showed signs of political fatigue after having been in government for 18 years (1979-1997). On Europe, the most divisive issue for the party, many awaited an initiative to attempt to get the party back into position.

Hence, party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron’s desire to hold a referendum on Europe needs to be seen in a historic light. But it must also be seen in the light of the political situation he was in when announcing the party’s commitment to a referendum. The 2010-election had returned Cameron and the Tories with a minority, and the party eventually formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Many voters, especially Eurosceptics who normally supported the Tories, had defected to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and boosted the anti-Europe campaign. UKIP’s challenge was widely seen as the main reason why the Tories did not manage to secure an overall majority.

Cameron, as part of a political strategy to stop the party’s leakage to UKIP, announced in 2013 that the Conservatives would be committed to an ‘in-out’ referendum on the EU if they were returned with a majority in the next election, planned for May 2015.  A freshly negotiated EU-pact should be the foundation for the poll, an attempt to better British EU membership conditions at the time. And, moreover, all with a clear intention in mind: to get back the Conservative majority, and once and for all, bury the party’s major dividing line, the one issue that had torn the party apart for so many decades. Clearly, Cameron was confident of victory for the remain side in 2013.

But leaving such a hugely controversial decision in the hands of the British electorate, was a gamble, not only seen retrospectively, but also at the time of announcement. When Cameron and the Conservatives secured a small majority in the 2015 election, the referendum was made politically binding, meaning that politicians had to abide by the poll’s outcome.

Divisions

There is no doubt that the EU question has divided people for decades, and that the result of the referendum entrenched differences in British society. Geography, class, gender, age and income are some of the domestic parameters that divided the British people on the issues that dominated the campaign and the immediate aftermath of the referendum. These issues, several reports have testified, were immigration, employment, the economy, sovereignty and EU bureaucracy. Currently, these areas are still important in formal negotiations and informal domestic debates, but they now revolve more around how these questions will be addressed in a country leaving the EU. And not least, how these dividing lines will be played out in post-Brexit Britain.

However, a future deal or relationship with the EU does not seem to have erased British divisions, or nor does it seem to have healed divisions in the political establishment. On the contrary, it seems as if the whole Brexit issue has just cemented the existing divisions and indeed added new ones, to further complicate matters. Into an uncertain future, it seems that the old British slogan – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – is needed more than ever.

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April 2018

ForfatterbildeJan Erik Mustad er førstelektor ved Universitetet i Agder, Institutt for fremmedspråk og oversetting. Han er en erfaren og etterspurt kurs- og foredragsholder om temaer innen politikk og samfunnsforhold i Storbritannia, med Nord-Irland som særskilt interessefelt. I tillegg til å være lærebokforfatter, har han også publisert en rekke andre faglige arbeider, avisartikler og bøker.

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