Few would deny that Britain is more divided than at any time...
It is obvious to all, regardless of one’s political loyalties, that the United Kingdom is deeply divided and is no longer a united kingdom at all. Indeed, it is possible that in the foreseeable future Scotland will vote to leave the UK and over a longer period Northern Ireland will vote to do the same and join up with the Irish Republic. The most obvious reason for this is the result of the 2016 referendum on our membership of the European Union and the subsequent attempts to implement or prevent the fulfilment of that referendum.
We joined the European Economic Community that became the EU in 1973 and our membership was confirmed by 67.2% votes in the 1973 referendum. That is worth stating because it reminds us that even then close to a third voted against EU membership. In 2016 that figure had grown to 51.9% but every attempt to agree mutually satisfactory terms for leaving the EU have failed so far and revealed the depths of division both in Parliament and the nation. The government has lost its majority and split the Conservative party whilst the official Opposition is also divided. What has caused the divisions that are paralysing our political institutions?
The biggest single reason people give for wanting to leave the EU is to restore our national sovereignty so that decisions about public policy are made in the UK, not in the EU. Opponents of leaving the EU argue that the major issues confronting us today, such as global warming, climate change, migrants seeking to come to the wealthy nations, terrorism and Russian expansionism are issues we cannot handle on our own but need pan European collaboration.
A second reason for leaving the EU is to regain control of our borders and radically reduce the number of immigrants coming to Britain. The other side argue that we need the skilled labour that European immigrants bring to the NHS, the construction industry and the agricultural sector. Immigrants from the EU are also outnumbered by those coming from non EU countries, fleeing tyrannical Governments, religious and racial persecution and chronic poverty. We have to collaborate with our EU neighbours in handling these refugees compassionately.
There are also demographic factors dividing Leavers from Remainers. The polls reveal that Leavers are more likely to be in the older age brackets whilst younger voters tend to support remaining in the EU. Indeed, if a higher proportion of 18-24 year olds had voted in 2016 the result may well have been different. There also appears to a relationship between educational attainment and voting on this issue. 70% of voters with only GCSE level attainment voted ‘Leave’ whilst 68% of voters who are graduates voted ‘Remain’. Leavers are also more likely than Remainers to be socially conservative and negative about globalisation.
MPs are also aware that support for Brexit in their constituencies is more likely to come from the older, white, socially conservative voters, in poorer neighbourhoods. Sociologists identify such people as the “Left Behind”. In 2016 UKIP drew support from these voters and the Brexit Party will seek to do the same in the next General Election.
The obvious conclusion is that it could take the passing of the older generation for the nation’s divisions to be healed. On her first day as Prime Minister Theresa May spoke about doing more to help those who were barely managing. Had her predecessors done that the nation might have been more united and the Referendum result different. Those in power, whether they are of the Left or Right, have failed them. Christians can make a difference now by following Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbours, especially those who are feeling left out and struggling to make ends meet.