I am British. Never before has the phrase “I am British” elicited so much pity. I come from an island where many of us like to believe there’s been a lot of continuity over the last thousand years. We tend to have historically imposed change on others but done much less of it ourselves.So it came as an immense shock to me when I woke up on the morning of June 24 to discover that my country had voted to leave the European Union, my Prime Minister had resigned, and Scotland was considering a referendum that could bring to an end the very existence of the United Kingdom. So that was an immense shock for me, and it was an immense shock for many people, but it was also something that, over the following several days, created a complete political meltdown in my country. There were calls for a second referendum, almost as if, following a sports match, we could ask the opposition for a replay.
Everybody was blaming everybody else. People blamed the Prime Minister for calling the referendum in the first place. They blamed the leader of the opposition for not fighting it hard enough. The young accused the old. The educated blamed the less well-educated. That complete meltdown was made even worse by the most tragic element of it: level of xenophobia and racist abuse in the streets of Britain at a level that I have never seen before in my lifetime.
People are now talking about whether my country is becoming a Little England, or as one of my colleagues put it, whether we’re about to become a 1950s nostalgia theme park floating in the Atlantic Ocean. But my question is really, should we have the degree of shock that we’ve experienced since? Was it something that took place overnight? Or are there deeper structural factors that have led us to where we are today?
So I want to take a step back and ask two very basic questions. First, what does Brexit represent, not for my country, but for all of us around the world? And second, what can we do about it? How should we all respond? So first, what does Brexit represent? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Brexit teaches us many things about our society and about societies around the world.
It highlights in ways that we seem embarrassingly unaware of how divided our societies are. The vote split along lines of age, education, class and geography. Young people didn’t turn out to vote in great numbers, but those that did wanted to remain. Older people really wanted to leave the European Union. Geographically, it was London and Scotland that most strongly committed to being part of the European Union, while in other parts of the country there was very strong ambivalence. Those divisions are things we really need to recognize and take seriously. But more profoundly, the vote teaches us something about the nature of politics today.
Contemporary politics is no longer just about right and left. It is no longer just about tax and spend. It is about globalization. The fault line of contemporary politics is between those that embrace globalization and those that fear globalization. If we look why those who wanted te leave – we call them “Leavers,” as opposed to “Retainers” – we see two factors in the opinion polls that really mattered. The first was immigration, and the second sovereignty, and these represent a desire for people to take back control of their own lives and the feeling that they are unrepresented by politicians. But those ideas are ones that signify fear and alienation. They represent a retreat back towards nationalism and borders in ways that many of us would reject.
What I want to suggest in the picture is more complicated than that, that liberal internationalists, like myself, and I firmly include myself in that picture, need to write ourselves back into the picture in order to understand how we’ve got to where we are today. When we look at the voting patterns across the United Kingdom, we can visibly see the divisions. The blue areas show Remain and the red areas Leave. When I looked at this what personally struck me was the very little time in my life I’ve actually spent in many of the red areas. I suddenly realized that, looking at the top 50 areas in the UK that have the strongest Leave vote, I’ve spent a combined total of four days of my life in those areas.