In an article in the Irish Times, Professor Laura Cram reflects on how the referendum has created new divisions and amplified old ones.
Referendums cannot accommodate nuanced positions. A forced binary choice means that some of those who previously rubbed along together are forced to take up positions much more extreme than they might have chosen. Once adopted, these positions have to be rationalised and arguments and stances solidified that might never have been so stark. Genies are not easily pushed back into their bottles.
This is the post-referendum scenario we will now have to negotiate in the UK. The question is not simply what the referendum shows us about existing divisions in UK society but how the referendum has created new divisions and amplified old ones.
Multiple imaginings within a political system are normal and indeed often facilitate its smooth functioning, as various participants take from the system that which suits them best. The existence of competing imaginings of the role of the EU and of its relationship with the UK has never been clearer. There are disconnections between the perceptions of this relationship amongst party elites and the wider public.
There are deep territorial divisions. Metropolitan exceptionalism is manifest. The referendum has revealed and exacerbated meaningful schisms in UK society. These will resonate well beyond this referendum result.
David Cameron initiated the UK’s referendum on the EU as a means of resolving internal Conservative Party management issues and to stave off the growing threat to Tory heartlands from Ukip. The brutal referendum campaign has resolved none of those issues. The prime minister is now on his way out, and the drivers of his party’s Leave momentum, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, seem to have no more sense of the electorate they have mobilised than did David Cameron.
Johnson’s evocation of a UK that would be no more divided or less European now seems fanciful. His ambitions for leadership have in any case been dashed. Gove envisions an open, liberal and cosmopolitan future for the UK, out of Europe. But this is not what large swathes of Leave voters voted for.
Are the “left behinds” to be left behind, unheard again? They are less likely to simmer quietly this time. Within minutes of the announcement of the Northern Ireland result, Sinn Féin called for a cross-Border poll, as party chairman Declan Kearney said: “English votes have overturned the democratic will of Northern Ireland. This was a cross-community vote in favour of remaining in the EU.”
Meanwhile in Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed immediately that a second independence referendum is an option that is firmly on the table.
London, more used to deploying its heft and influence, finds itself a metropolitan lightweight, recoiling from the blows to its cosmopolitan self-image from the heavy weight of opinions from a wider public seldom heard in English debate.
Only the Welsh results offers any guise of a more united UK as the “England and Wales” moniker is further institutionalised. The official opposition in Westminster, the Labour Party, is in crisis, with its leader Jeremy Corbyn losing a no-confidence vote.
The leaders of the EU institutions have already made it clear that Brexit will be a painful process and that there is little will to go soft on the UK.
A denial mindset is emerging in social liberal circles that has some concerning elitist undertones.
Huge effort is being expended to explore scenarios in which Brexit could be avoided. As the formal status of the referendum is only advisory, the prospect of a parliamentary veto, a second referendum or of a general election nullifying the Brexit referendum are all options considered.
However, the political ramifications of any of these would be far-reaching. Many of those who voted Leave did not vote on EU membership as such but as an expression of their anger, disaffection and sense that their voices are not heard in elite circles.
The iniquities of austerity are not evenly distributed. This anger has been directed at the immigrant population in the UK, in part at least because of the way in which the debate over EU membership was framed by both Leave and Remain campaigns.
An attempt to override the democratic process by making these people vote again – because those who claimed to be listening to the public did not like what they heard – would only reinforce the sense of alienation that was being articulated.
The referendum has already caused deep divisions and rising tensions in UK society – riding roughshod over popular opinion is a very risky option. If you give someone a voice, to then tell them that you don’t like their accent or their tone is deeply offensive.
This elitism is not limited to internal UK discourse. In the EU’s two-level game, there is always tension between the domestic priorities of the member states and the pursuit of common EU-level endeavours. The European Union has a veritable industry charged with communicating the EU as a “People’s Union” and has made serious efforts to address its so-called democratic deficit. These count for little when the Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker berates national leaders for being part-time Europeans and for listening exclusively to national opinion at home rather than developing a common European drive to work together.
These attitudes reinforce rather than resolve the perception held by Brexiteers of a Brussels bureaucracy that is distant, detached and even dismissive of their concerns. But Brussels too is in a bind. Dealings with the UK have repercussions for other member states, each also dealing with domestic pressures.
Lenience in UK negotiations runs the risk of serious moral hazard. Non-member states such as Switzerland and Norway will also be scrutinising any arrangements struck with the UK.
It is debatable how many of those who voted to leave the EU last week had fully imagined the scenario that might unfold – the short, angry binary debate did not encourage such reflection. Negotiation, deliberation and compromise, within and beyond the UK, are required.
Neither a mental frame of denial nor combat mode will deliver these. But the UK and EU elites now need to understand what the UK public wanted where they made the choice to leave, and what they wanted where they did not make that choice.
UK leaders also need to understand the strength of feeling amongst their EU partners about the UK’s decision and about the conduct of the debate. The reverberations are seismic for the EU, its member states and its partners.
Empathy with the position of others is essential going forward. The impulse to “dissolve the people and elect another” must be resisted. The challenge now is to create relations within the UK and between the UK and its neighbouring countries in which all strands of the public feel valued and able to make a positive contribution.