And so it has come to pass. The UK has voted to leave the European Union by 51.9% to 48.1%. Even these bold figures illustrate the extent to which this vote divided the country. But the divisions run much deeper, provoking an existential threat to the very idea of a United Kingdom.
An early post-referendum poll conducted by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft revealed the extent of the demographic divisions[i]. An overwhelming majority of young people voted to remain – 73% of 18-24 year olds and 62% of 25-34 year olds in the Ashcroft poll. By contrast, a majority of those 45 and over voted to Leave, with the largest majority (60%) to be found among the over 65s. These disparities would have been amplified by the effects of differential participation. Pre-referendum polls suggested that around 85% over those 45 and over – and around 90% of over 65s – were certain to vote, compared with around 60% of the more pro-European 18-34 year olds. If nothing else, the referendum result should provide a lesson to young people in the value of political participation and the costs of abstention.
The UK is also divided along class lines. Among those in social grade AB – in other words, in managerial, administrative or professional occupations – support for the UK to remain in the EU was convincing. The post-referendum Ashcroft poll recorded a Remain vote of 57% among this group. By contrast, those in skilled manual jobs, lower skilled jobs, casual workers and the unemployed voted Leave by a margin of 2:1. Clearly, the Leave campaign tapped into a sense of grievance, of dissatisfaction with the political system and perhaps of life itself, of mistrust in political institutions, evidence and ‘expert’ opinion, and a fear of the consequences of ‘uncontrolled’ immigration. In other words, it was not simply a judgement on the EU. But it poses a challenge to the EU and to Member States to find ways to reach out to those groups with limited direct engagement with the EU, and limited tangible experience of the rights and privileges that EU citizenship offers. For those who already feel alienated, the invitation to ‘take back control’ proved seductive.
The geographic divisions within the UK have also been starkly revealed. For some time now, it has been difficult to discuss UK politics as if it was one political phenomenon. Northern Ireland has always had a distinctive political and party system and recent elections in Scotland have underlined the extent of political fragmentation on the British mainland. These divisions were exposed dramatically in the EU referendum.
A clear majority across England voted to Leave the EU. Across each of the regions outside London, the Leave vote ranged from 51.8% to 59.3%. In the capital, by contrast, almost 60% voted to Remain. While the vote in Wales resembled the UK-wide vote, both Northern Ireland and Scotland stand out.
55.8% in Northern Ireland voted to Remain, despite the largest unionist party – the Democratic and Unionist Party – advocating a Leave vote. Brexit poses serious challenges to relations on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to share a land border with another EU Member State. Already, Sinn Fein has called for a border poll on Irish reunification, though there is as yet no evidence of popular backing for such a poll on either side of the border. There is a risk of opening wounds within the North, too. In contrast to the DUP’s support for Leave, the nationalist and republican parties strongly favoured Remain. The Good Friday Agreement, which underpins what remains a fragile peace in Northern Ireland, is explicitly an international agreement between two EU Member States, and may need to be amended. The EU has invested heavily in the Northern Ireland peace process, not least with substantial funding through the Peace programme and Interreg. Accommodating Northern Ireland in the negotiations to follow will require great care from all sides.
But the greatest existential threat to the UK may come from Scotland. The result of the EU referendum has catapulted the issue of Scottish independence right back to the centre of political debate. 62% of Scots voted Remain, compared with 38% voting Leave, with a majority vote for Remain in every one of the 32 local authorities across Scotland. This was the biggest endorsement of the EU in any nation or region of the UK. It illustrates what perhaps many in the EU’s institutions struggled to grasp during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 – the compatibility between the ambitions for Scottish independence with support for European integration.
Amid a leadership vacuum at the heart of UK politics – both in government and in opposition – Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was quick to act. The morning after the poll, she expressed her determination to secure Scotland’s ‘continuing place in the EU, and in the single market in particular’, insisting that her government be ‘fully and directly involved in any and all decisions’. It’s hard to envisage any deal for the UK that would be compatible with Nicola Sturgeon’s ambitions, and there is little prospect of Scotland retaining EU membership while the rest of the UK – or England and Wales – withdraws. So, another independence referendum is back on the table. It’s not inevitable, nor is it certain that independence would win. But if it did, Scotland would be faced with negotiating its own EU membership in a context made much more complex because of Brexit.
With or without independence, the conditions and features of Scotland’s relationship with the EU would be shaped by the kind of relationship that evolves between the UK and the EU. One of the most staggering outcomes of the referendum is the lack of clarity and leadership with regard to the next steps. The UK may have voted Leave, but neither the government nor the leaders of the Leave campaign seem clear on what Leave means. The Prime Minister’s decision to resign from office pending the election of a new Conservative Party Leader has left the UK government without a hand at the tiller. The absence of a plan is palpable. Early indications from Boris Johnson indicate his preference for retaining access to the internal market, but without the obligations such access is likely to entail. Such a scenario is unlikely to be acceptable to the European Council.
There are few certainties on the path ahead, and many a rocky road. We are all in for a bumpy ride.
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[i] See http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/
Nicola McEwen is Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. She is a guest on this blog.