The Brexit referendum revealed a divided nation (Photo: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty Images)


by DR KIRSTIE HEWLETT

TWO-THIRDS of Britain’s Asian population voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum – an over-whelming majority. White voters, on the other hand, were more narrowly split, favouring Leave  by 53 per cent to 47 per cent.

But while the Asian community may be less divided on Britain’s membership of the EU, it is still  likely to be affected by any wider divisions that may  or may not be surfacing as a result of the Brexit vote.

Indeed, there is a growing sense that Britain has become a divided nation. Politicians and media  commentators, in particular, now refer to our increasingly polarised times with such frequency and certainty that it goes largely unquestioned.

In some ways, this is not surprising. The fractious discussion around Brexit and our current politics, combined with recent voting behaviour, reveals clear fault lines based on where we live, our age, level of education – and our ethnicity.

Yet the idea that Britain is now divided into two camps, fundamentally opposed in their opinions and values, seems a stretch from what we’re really seeing. A new report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, supported by Engage Britain, suggests that the reality is far more nuanced.

Since the 2016 EU referendum, Leave and Remain affiliations have become key parts of many people’s identities. This has led some who identify with one side to dislike and distance themselves from those who identify with the other, regardless of whether they actually agree or disagree on particular issues. It is an emotional and tribal division.

This is reflected in widespread media reports of strained or ruined personal relationships, and of stereotyping of ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, following the referendum.

But what’s less clear is the specific issues we’re divided on. The divides between Leavers and Remainers don’t necessarily translate into a common ideological position for each side. This is in contrast to the divide between Republicans and Democrats in the US, for example, where there is a clearer demarcation between the two sides’ views and attitudes on social and political issues.

Research shows that Leave and Remain identities in the UK represent coalitions of people with highly diverse views, at a time when we are seeing increasingly fragmented political support, with weakening ties to the two main parties.

All of which suggests we are a long way from seeing two coherent, adversarial tribes when it comes to our beliefs on issues that are important to us – even if the more emotional polarisation we’ve seen around Brexit should still be a cause for concern.

The lack of specificity in how the dividing lines in our society are debated and discussed has some worrying implications. It could well lead us to look for solutions in the wrong places.

Even issues that are perceived to be the most important for people, and the most polarising, actually show a considerable degree of nuance and flux. For example, some issues that were central to the EU referendum debate – notably immigration – have since diminished in importance for the public. Perceptions of the impact of immigration have also become more positive over the past few years, with a narrowing of the gap in opinion between Leavers and Remainers.

The challenge we face is that there is little consensus over the specific nature and scale of polarisation in the UK, let alone what could be done to solve it. The blanket acceptance that, as a nation, we are split into two tribes, therefore, feels somewhat reductive; and, importantly, threatens to dilute our ability to respond to the dividing lines in our society that genuinely do pose a risk – the voices of those who face the greatest inequality, discrimination or who feel unrepresented have the potential to become lost in the noise.

The more that emphasis is placed on division within our society, without recognising that there are significant areas of common ground, the more likely it becomes that we can no longer see beyond our differences.

The popular focus on two polarised tribes increases the risk of losing sight of the big trends that led us here. Our current political situation is not just a short-term reaction to Brexit, it also reflects the fracturing of public attitudes between economic and social dimensions over a number of decades.

We can’t be sure that the new political identities revealed and reinforced by Brexit will remain important over the coming years, but there are good reasons to expect they will. The UK’s future relationship with the EU is unlikely to be resolved quickly, and will therefore remain important for many. But, more important, understanding the origins of these identities, which predate the EU referendum, is a key step towards revealing what really
divides us.

Dr Kirstie Hewlett is a research associate at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.