As a UK national living and working in Brussels, the three weeks since the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union have been turbulent, to say the least. On a personal level, it has been difficult to come to terms with the outcome of the vote. Through the lens of my political science background however, it has been even harder to understand the forces behind the vote and where this leaves my once-proud island nation.
Unlike my continental cousins, I do not believe that the outcome was about the EU in any objective, substantive way. Most British people (least of all the Leave campaign) have very little understanding or awareness of what the EU is, least of all how it works. Views on the EU were understandably not based in objective fact but were driven by how and where EU membership was visible in people’s lives.
For the well-educated and materially better off, EU membership has indeed delivered substantial benefits. The freedom to study, work and travel abroad in particular have been enjoyed by millions of British citizens. Larger businesses too have reaped substantial benefits from access to the single market. But for many Brits these benefits simply have not reached them and the only visible sign of EU membership in their lives has been the increasing numbers of EU migrants visible in their towns, communities and public service centres.
As the EU is at heart an economic project, it is not surprising that the benefits are distributed in such a fashion. Gordon Brown and others are right in attributing the result to issues associated with globalisation as in many ways the EU and the single market are the European response to a globalised world. What made the difference in the UK vote (and the reason why the outcome would be unlikely to occur elsewhere) was the specifically English social and political context in which deeply personal reactions to being asked for a view on a remote, complex organisation played out.
The UK has been a deeply divided country for many decades now and the inability of its governing institutions and political parties to address the underlying issues of excessive economic and political centralisation, massive income inequality, limited social mobility and irreconcilable divisions within the two main parties has been evident for a long time. It has also created the opening for Scotland to go its separate way via a third party that better reflects the views of the broader population and fully supports a social model that mitigates – rather than deepens – some of the socioeconomic problems associated with globalisation.
To her credit, Theresa May showed in her only speech of her short leadership campaign that she fully understands the pressure that British politicians are under now to deliver meaningful change to Leave voters. The problem now of course will be further divisions around those politicians who believe that exiting the EU will deliver anything of value to Leave voters and those who see the vote for what it was – a massive protest at the continued accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the privileged few while millions of their compatriots remain trapped in poverty and with few meaningful opportunities to improve their lives or communities.
The ongoing crisis will not be resolved quickly and will ultimately require a fundamental realignment, including new political leadership (which is presently nowhere to be seen) in UK politics. Leaving the EU now becomes the first test of delivering on that commitment to deliver meaningful change but it will by no means be the only or even the most significant one in determining the future of the currently United Kingdom.