Brexit One Year on: if Anything, the United Kingdom Is Even Less United Than It Was Then

It is hard to believe that it is a year since the UK voted to leave the European Union. In some ways it seems only like yesterday: the surprise and the shock are still so raw. In other ways, it seems like ancient history, so much politics has happened in that year - culminating in a general election that was called unexpectedly and produced an even more unexpected result. Instead of being strengthened, as the Prime Minister, Theresa May, had hoped, both she, as Prime Minister, and the Conservatives, as the governing party, emerged weaker.  

Not only did the election deprive the Government of its overall majority, however. It also confirmed that the country remains as divided as the referendum vote showed it to be on 23 June, 2016. This may be why, far from being openly celebrated or mourned, the anniversary was marked largely in a very British, rather private, way.

There was almost no reminder of the calls by Brexit supporters a year ago for the date to be designated the UK’s Independence Day. Nor were there any big street demonstrations, as might have been called in equivalent circumstances in other countries. No Remainers turned out to occupy Whitehall, waving blue and gold European flags, and no Leavers - Brexiteers, as we now call them - brandished Union Jacks in Parliament Square to boast of their triumph. People stayed at home, nursing their sorrows or quaffing their champagne, as they chose. The Prime Minister meanwhile was still trying to cobble together a coalition government, just so that she and her party could remain in office.  

Theresa May and others have insisted that the wounds opened by the referendum are healing and that the country is coming together. They have drawn a contrast between what they see as the divisive mood in Parliament - even before the election - and the generally quiescent acceptance of ordinary Remain voters that Brexit is now inevitable. And they are using this contrast - between the supposedly reasonable general public and the squabbling among MPs - to try to maintain party discipline among their own MPs

But this is not how it looks from outside those railings around Parliament. In general, MPs of the two main parties say they accept the referendum result, even if there are differences of opinion about how they would like the eventual divorce settlement with the EU to look.

"Hard" Brexit Is to Be Softened Lyudmila Babynina
Before the parliamentary elections Theresa May voiced the idea of the "hard" Brexit implementation: withdrawal from the EU, the Single Internal Market and the EU Customs Union. Such a "divorce" from the political point of view is fully justified, but it is difficult to implement it from the point of view of economics, without solving of the Irish problem and respecting the rights of citizens.

Among the public at large, however, there is still a great deal of bitterness - especially among Remainers, who feel that the closeness of the result (the margin was 52 per cent to 48) is not reflected in the government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations. It is also worth noting that when a public figure or academic speaks in the media about Brexit, they invariably preface their remarks by saying how they voted. To me, it is positive that people have no inhibitions about saying how they voted, but that openness means that the dispute has not been buried.

What is more, the main points of contention remain almost the same as they were a year ago. Migration is probably the biggest,with the Brexiteers at popular level wanting it ideally stopped altogether - and they include migration both from the EU and from elsewhere - or, at very least, brought “under control”. Remainers, for the most part, accept that the UK needs migration for the country to function and that EU migrants are generally well-qualified and benefit the economy. There are some shades in between, but at popular level that is the argument.

The other big disagreement focuses on the economy, at both elite and popular level. At popular level it is between those who agreed with the Remain campaign that Brexit would be an economic catastrophe - they now cite the fall in the pound, a decline in the growth rate (contrasting with the EU as a whole), and still-falling incomes in the UK to prove their point - and those who felt the economy was already so bad for a lot of people that it was unlikely to get worse as a result of Brexit.

At elite level it is an argument about whether, and how far, it might be possible to stay in the Single Market, the Customs Union, or forge some sort of free trade deal that would follow immediately on Brexit. The ‘hard’ Brexiteers say the UK will be better off if it is able to make bilateral trade deals in its own right, while Remainers cling to the hope of remaining in the European Economic Area - the Swiss or Norwegian models. Some Remainers even nurture the hope that the whole Brexit project could yet be shelved - and it is a hope that is being heard more loudly following the indecisive election.

There is little evidence either that anyone has really changed their mind over the past year. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, there were reports of Leave voters regretting their vote, saying they had only wanted to teach the government a lesson and had never expected Brexit to win. Some surveys have suggested that if the vote were held today, it might be 52-48 the other way. Whether this is true or not, it only shows how deeply - and evenly - divided the country remains.

Not only this, but one year on the Brexiteers, especially, seem more vocal and more uncompromising than they were a year ago. And there could be a good reason for this: a fear that the more pro-Remain elite could still snatch victory away, leaving them having to start their fight all over again.

Their fear on this score has only grown since the election, because analysis of the voting shows that Labour did especially well in constituencies where there was a large Remain vote in the referendum. This suggests that Remainers saw Labour as less dogmatically in favour of Brexit than the Conservatives.

Brexiteers have also been worried by Theresa May’s decision to form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to ensure that she has a majority in Parliament. Northern Ireland voted solidly against Brexit in the referendum, and the DUP wants a “softer” Brexit, with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic kept open. The question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is likely to be one of the most difficult issues in the negotiations.

That the fears of Brexiteers are growing, however, does not mean that the hopes of the Remainers are more likely to be realised. A large part - though not all of the “elite” - academics, economists and big corporations - would love Brexit not to happen and believe that a severe economic downturn could make the Brexiteers change their minds.

To my mind, this is wishful thinking. For many, a Leave vote was never about the economy. It was about national identity and sovereignty - or, in the words of the Leave campaign slogan, “taking back control”. Any economic hardship is likely to be seen as yet another challenge to be faced with characteristic British resilience and a traditional stiff upper lip. If anything, it will make them even more determined to stand their ground.

This risks making the atmosphere even more bitter as the negotiations on Brexit proceed. From the perspective of today, the most likely outcome could be something like the Norwegian model, but with a few more controls on migration and a bit less free trade. This will not satisfy either side, but the unhappiness could be equitably shared.

In the meantime, however, a potentially game-changing drama cannot be ruled out. The government of Theresa May is weak. If for some reason it falls, there is a chance that Labour could win, on a ticket of “soft” Brexit, or even no Brexit at all. That might seem improbable, but given the turmoil of the first Brexit year, it would be foolish to assume that the second will be any more predictable.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.