Where next for a divided UK?

The outcome of the referendum has left Britain deeply divided, by age, class, education and territory. These divisions are not new but reflect emerging social cleavages as the old divides of the industrial age disappear. They will shape the response of the political class to the unexpected result.

Both sides in the referendum debate sought to reconcile three conflicting imperatives: economic security; control of migration; and sovereignty. Yet in so far as economic security is linked to membership of the single market, it requires free movement of labour, one of the main targets of the ‘leave’ campaign. During the campaign, neither side was able to answer these questions. Michael Gove, for ‘leave’, evoked a non-existent free trade zone from Iceland to Turkey, while David Cameron equivocated on whether free movement could be controlled at all. The ‘leave’ side’s slogan of ‘Take Back Control’ simply sidestepped the meaning of control and sovereignty in the modern world.

A striking feature of the campaign was that the ‘leave’ side had no plan at all for the aftermath and no agreed alternative to EU membership. It is now clear that there are three quite distinct, and irreconcilable, tendencies within ‘leave’.

One, the ‘Europe-lite’ group, favours continued membership of the European single market but without the political union. The easiest of these in the Norwegian option, through the European Economic Area. This allows full market access (except in agriculture and fisheries) but entails accepting the free market rules, without a vote in their making. Switzerland has a similar, but more complex arrangement that produces essentially the same result, except that it excludes financial services. It has been pointed out many times that this is a bad deal, but Norwegians and Swiss now accept it as a political compromise. Some politicians in Britain suggest that this could be combined with restrictions on free movement but that looks unlikely. When the Swiss voted against free movement in a referendum in 2014, it was suspended from the European research area. Matters are now on hold until the Swiss Parliament passes the legislation to give effect to the referendum vote. Yet some ‘leave’ campaigners are now looking to this. It also has support, as the least worst option among ‘remain’ supporters including Conservative MPs and former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

A second tendency is the ‘Little Englanders’, represented strongly in UKIP. They oppose any privileged link, economic or political, with the EU and are English nationalists. We know from survey evidence that the growing number of people who identify as English rather than British are disproportionately Eurosceptic. Little Englanders are anti-globalisation and protectionist, appealing to the losers from globalisation in the post-industrial cities as well as to nostalgia for an imagined past. They strongly oppose immigration, whether from Europe or elsewhere and tend to confound free movement of labour in Europe, immigration from outside Europe, and the refugee crisis. Nigel Farage’s poster, showing refugees at the border of Croatia, appealed to deep-seated fears of the ‘Other’.

The third tendency is the Globalists, whose complaint with the EU is that it is not sufficiently globalised but is protectionist, inward-looking and over-regulated. They are cosmopolitan, pro-free trade and relaxed about migration. During the last phase of the referendum campaign, some Brexiteers suggested that immigration might not come down at all. Johnson subsequently argued, to some incredulity that immigration was not what the campaign was about. Globalists claim that the EU is a dying trading block and want to reach out to rising economic powers. They also complain that regulation (by which they usually mean social, labour and environmental protection rules) are holding the economy back. A globalised Britain would be a free-trading, lightly-regulated competition state. Globalists oppose any special link with Europe and prefer Britain to make its own way under the World Trade Organization. Some would even abolish tariffs unilaterally. This option at least has the advantage of intellectual coherence but would entail the dismantlement of much of the British and European system of social protection and a race to the bottom in social and environmental standards.

These three tendencies have almost nothing in common beyond the repetitive slogan ‘Take Back Control’. Little Englanders seek security and protection, while Globalists are for deregulation and competition. During the campaign, they were able to make common cause, with Globalists agreeing that migration from Europe held down wages; but their own option would put Britain in competition with much lower-wage economies.

The Labour Party is convulsed in its own leadership fight, which also impinges on these issues. The historic Euroscepticism on the Labour left was not much in evidence in the campaign. The most prominent Labour ‘leave’ campaigners, on the contrary, came from the party’s right. Labour, however, has no clear vision of Europe to challenge the prevailing austerity wisdom. Instead of promising help to marginalised communities, it has tagged along with the anti-immigration, which merely panders to the idea that immigrants are the cause of the crisis.

Scotland is also caught in a difficult bind. In 2014 it voted to remain in Britain by 55%. Last week, it voted to remain in the EU by 62%. It has now become impossible to be within both unions. The Scottish Government is engaged on an inquiry into squaring the circle but it is difficult to see this producing anything of substance. Indeed, the result of last week has made the various middle grounds and third ways that were previously canvassed more difficult.

In the 2014 independence referendum, the nationalists proposed ‘Independence in Europe’ as part of an ‘independence-lite’ prospectus, which would avoid a hard economic border between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK). Scotland now has the option of another independence referendum, which might allow it to remain in the EU. The constitutionality of this may be questioned but not, arguably, the political legitimacy. With Scotland in the EU, however, and England out of the single market and political union, there could be a hard border with England.

On the other hand, if the British ‘Europeans’ win the argument in the coming months and rUK retains some form of access to the single market, that would allow Scotland to remain in both markets and soften the border. This would make independence more viable. Indeed, that scenario raises the intriguing prospect that both the rUK and Scotland could be in the European market but with Scotland, instead of the UK, having the seat at the European councils.

The most difficult part of the constitutional jigsaw could be England. The English question has risen in importance in recent years, fuelled by grievances over territorial funding and English votes for English Laws (EVEL). This now aligns with Little Englandism over Europe and with the UKIP vote. Marginalised communities in the post-industrial towns of England that feel left out by globalisation will not take to a government of Globalists. Nor will working class voters rally to Eton and Oxford educated leaders or City traders. Labour is losing these voters, as it has already lost their equivalent in Scotland, through its failure to address their anxieties and their precarious position in a changed world. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own governing institutions, the English cities have been offered only a top-down, managerialist form of government (the ‘northern powerhouses’), focused upon growth more than social inclusion and with scant attention to citizen engagement.

There is a serious prospect here for an English populist right movement of the sort we see in other European countries, with their mix of ethnic nationalism, nativism, Europhobia, protectionism and welfare chauvinism. The extreme right has never been a serious force in British politics but there have been bursts of support in the 1930s, the 1970s and the 1990s. There is no reason to think that the British are naturally immune to it.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change and Senior Fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe programme.