By Matt Evans, British Ambassador to the EST.
By a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%, on Thursday 23rd June Britain shocked the world and voted to leave the European Union. The result has revealed what many commentators had long feared yet had always resisted to confirm: a highly divided United Kingdom, split along the lines of age, class, education, nationality and race. Since Friday morning, the UK has almost been in a state of paralysis, triggering probably the greatest political crisis since Suez in 1956. While the polls were incredibly tight in the run-up to the referendum, few, including many Brexiters, actually imagined that the electorate would vote to leave. In this article, I will examine some of the splits that have been made apparent following the vote and summarise the general feeling and mood amongst the UK, focusing on younger people.
The turnout of 72% marked the highest percentage of the UK electorate voting in a national election or referendum since the General Election of 1992. This high turnout was crucial in deciding the overall result, with turnout substantially higher amongst the Brexit-leaning older generation compared to younger voters, where in some places it was as low as 40%. Likewise, in Eurosceptic towns such as Boston, more than 75% of those legible voted, whereas in Europhile Glasgow, it was 56%. This gap in turnout only goes to show the vast chasms that have emerged in Britain in the past few years concerning people’s attitude to the European Union and how important an issue it is deemed to be.
Yet while the national vote was relatively close, it was far from that in certain parts of the UK. Scotland, London, and most university cities like Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol voting comfortably to Remain. Meanwhile, rural towns like Ipswich and Carlisle voted unanimously to leave. Perhaps most worryingly from a left-leaning pro-EU perspective is that the North of England, so long a heartland for the pro-EU Labour Party, voted convincingly to leave. This has laid bare multiple splits amongst the British population, most prominently, the urban-rural divide, in which cosmopolitan, liberal cities are pitted rural, predominantly white towns with an aging population.
The general mood and feeling amongst the British people now is one of fear and uncertainty, with the sense of tension and unease that was generated following the tragic murder of Jo Cox showing no sign of disappearing. People (and politicians) are now unsure what happens next, with the government and prominent Leave campaigners clashing over who should take the lead for starting the formal exit process, and when to initiate Article 50. This feeling of uncertainty has reverberated through Westminster, with the Parliamentary Labour Party now imploding and making the position of its leader Jeremy Corbyn look untenable. Likewise, following Cameron’s swift resignation the race for next Conservative leader and, one assumes next Prime Minister, has already begun, with Boris Johnson the clear favourite.
More worryingly, various media outlets have reported a 50% increase in hate crime towards ethnic minorities and immigrant communities. For instance, just yesterday, the Polish Embassy issued a statement on its Facebook page that expressed their concern over this, stating that police area already investigating the serious incidences of hate crime. This, along with the already increasing anti-Muslim attitudes, demonstrate a Britain that looks ever more hostile to immigrants and ethnic minorities, and is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In response to these incidences, campuses around the country have issued statements of reassurance to EU students that they remain welcome to study and live in the UK. However these statements can only go so far. Jessica Dam, a Danish Politics and International student has stated that the referendum result has made her feel less welcome and safe in the country, with increased uncertainty over her status as a whole.
Yet it is students as a whole who feel the most uneasy about the result, with many taking to social media to voice their opinions, and signing the petition for another referendum (which has now reached over 3 million signatories). By far the most pro-EU of all age demographics (approximately 75% voted to remain), many aged 18-24 are concerned about the future effects that they didn’t vote for. Sam Poulter, a Law student about to graduate stressed his concern over the financial implications of Brexit, and whether he will be able to find the funding for postgraduate study. Likewise, of the other students I spoke to, one of the most recurring responses was the feeling of being let down by the older generation, and how this difference in political views by age threatens to damage the harmony of many families as well as society as a whole.
Overall, it has not yet been a week since the referendum and already the impact has been momentous. The analysis of voting behaviour has demonstrated that the country is hugely divided, not just over EU membership, and that these divisions are only likely to be exacerbated in the coming months and years. The biggest effect on the ground has been the sense of tension and anxiety amongst the public, with no one sure what is going happen next. This uncertainty has proved disturbing in some instances, with the government needing to take swift action over the rise in violent hate crimes. This sense of uncertainty is also prevalent amongst students and young people, who will bear the biggest effects of Brexit yet most not voting for it.