16 February 2017

Our patchwork polarisation – and how to stitch it together

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Speech by Sunder Katwala at the University of East Anglia, Thursday 16th February 2017


Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws”.

You speak’, wrote Disraeli, “of the Remainers and the Leavers“.

He did not, of course. Writing in 1845, it was the depth of the social division between ‘the RICH and the POOR’ which the ambitious young novelist explored in his novel, Sybil, subtitled ‘The Two Nations’. 

Yet that famous passage in his condition of England novel, which helped Disraeli to begin his political ascent to become a future Prime Minister, can shed some useful light on tonight’s theme of social relations in Britain after Brexit.

Firstly, Disraeli’s coining of the idea of ‘One Nation’ in that era reminds us that this theme has not tended to resonate most, across the generations, when a society feels confident and at ease with itself. Rather, that concern for social cohesion is more often compelling when we become uncomfortably aware that we are a more divided society than we have imagined ourselves to be.

Secondly, the passage captures how the material facts are only one part of the story of a social divide. Disraeli’s Britain certainly had starker gulfs in income and wealth, and in educational opportunity, than our own – yet he captured too how these measurable socio-economic differences make up just one part of the story of the social divide; how they were further exacerbated by the lack of contact – ‘no intercourse and no sympathy’ –underpinning a lack of empathy –that ignorance of the ‘habits, thoughts and feelings’ of the other tribe, which can harden and deepens a mutual animosity, the feeling of ‘them and us’.

Disraeli wrote at a time when the invention of the railway was about to transform people’s sense of distance, and of time. Our world has sped up again in many ways, yet our hyperconnected world can offer us different ways to become ‘dwellers in different zones’ – whether geographically or online – so that we can end up debating the big questions about Brexit not just in a spirit of democratic disagreement but, it sometimes seem, of ever-increasing mutual incomprehension, as if we were indeed ‘inhabitants of different planets’, so that the choices and challenges facing Brexit Britain look very different from Planet Leave, or Planet Remain.

Professor Eric Kaufmann’s research has illustrated many of those differences – how the referendum divided the country – by class, income, education and worldview, by illuminating some long-standing differences in our society. Those social differences illustrated by the referendum are real and important – and present big challenges for how we respond. 

But I also want to do something a little bit different – and to look through the other end of the telescope –at some of the ways in which Planet Remain and Planet Leave might be fewer light years apart than we tend to recognise.

Rethinking the referendum divides – Britain’s patchwork polarisation

Here are a few of the ways in which the political and media debate since the referendum can risk over-simplifying and caricaturing these social divisions.

How we talk about place

There were different referendum results across the nations and regions of Britain. So we talk in the shorthand of people voting to Remain in Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in London, while both Wales and England voted to Leave, with majorities of the vote for Brexit in each English region outside the capital. Sunderland, having declared first on the night, and Stoke-on-Trent have become synonymous with Brexit. What tends to gets forgotten and written out of this script is the one in three in Sunderland and Stoke who thought it was better to stay in the EU, or the four out of ten Londoners or Scots who voted for Brexit. Indeed, London contributed more votes to the 17.4 million national total for Leave than the north-east did, because of its larger population.

The poor people of Boston, Lincolnshire can barely get out of their front doors to go about their everyday lives without tripping over national and international camera crews conducting anthropological studies of why Britain voted Leave, sometimes to be contrasted with those in Cambridge or Islington who just can’t believe the result. This focus on the tiny number of places that voted for a Leave or Remain landslide rather obscures how almost all of us live in places, everywhere else, that were somewhat in-between. The real story of how and why Britain voted how it did could be better explained in the many 52-48 places which came close to replicating the national result– from Stratford-upon-Avon to Swansea in South Wales, from Knowsley on Merseyside to North Somerset, from Bedford to Basingstoke, which by chance achieved the mathematical symmetry of seeing around 100,000 valid votes cast, with the 48,000 people who wanted to stay in being pipped by the 52,000 who voted to Leave. It is striking how few commentators have seen Basingstoke, rather than Boston, as the place that might better sum up the hopes and anxieties of Brexit Britain.

How we talk about class

Social class was important in the referendum. Low-skilled and semi-skilled workers were more likely to vote to leave than middle-class professionals. Disengaged voters who saw the referendum as a big enough reason to return to the ballot box played a crucial role in deciding the result. British Election Study data suggests that Remain won over 50% among those who had cast a vote in the 2015 General Election – but the additional 3 million voters who turned up to boost the referendum turnout from 65% to 72% tilted the balance to a Leave victory.

Voters who felt left behind played a crucial role – but this explanation of the referendum result has also been exaggerated. The 17.4 million votes were not all left behind voters protesting the pace of economic and cultural change. There has been a great deal of focus on the one-in-three Labour voters who voted to Leave – often without noting that a broadly similar proportion of Liberal Democrat, Green and SNP voters also voted Leave – but surprisingly little on the six in ten Conservative voters who did so. David Cameron would have won the referendum and saved his job if he had managed to persuade just 50% of those who had voted for his party in the 2015 General Election. Achieving only 40% of the Conservative 2015 vote was fatal for David Cameron. He did not lose his referendum gamble to the left behind alone – but to a coalition of the left behind and the rather well-heeled. The Leave campaign did secure a a majority of the vote in three-quarters of Labour-held constituencies but also in three-quarters of Conservative-held constituencies too, with voters in Stoke and Sunderland teaming up with those in Hampshire and Surrey.

The role of identity and ethnicity

Photo: nickhutche

The referendum divided Britain by ethnicity. Those with the strongest sense of English rather than British identity were more likely to vote Leave. Ethnic minority Britons preferred to stay in – by a margin of about two-to-one. To a large extent, this was something of a default vote. There was often a sense of unearned entitlement on the Remain side towards ethnic minority voters, though pro-Europeans had done next to nothing to seek to engage them in the European argument over several decades. Yet Remain did still benefit, by default, from mistrust in some of the most vocal anti-immigration voices on the Leave side, even though many of these voters were open to a sceptical argument about EU freedom of movement if and when they could trust the motives of those making that case.

The ethnic minority vote also divided by class, education and place like everybody else, weighing up the economic risks against the uncertainty of what Britain got out versus what it paid in to the EU budget. And the 2-1 split suggests that there were up to a million non-white votes for leaving the EU. This was one reason why Remain fell well short of its ambition to win big majorities in several cities outside London – with Birmingham and Leicester splitting right down the middle, and Bradford voting decisively to Leave.

Like other voters, ethnic minority voters were answering the question on the ballot paper – Remain or Leave. It was a question about the future: the pros and cons of staying in the EU club. It was not a referendum about whether to turn the clock back to 1972, to the society that we were before we first joined the EEC.  The rise in recorded hate crime since the referendum suggests that some – a small minority – feel that it was a vote to throw people out, or one which gives them more permission to publicly express racist sentiments in public. They need to be put very firmly back in their box. This is another reason why a clear government guarantee to the 3 million European nationals in Britain is essential: a view shared by very strong majorities of both Leave and Remain voters.

A generation gap – or an educational divide?

The referendum divided Britain by age. Yet a large part of the generation gap reflects the distribution of education across the generations. There are fewer older graduates – just 5% of their age group – but they were more likely to vote for Remain. Among younger voters, those with the fewest educational qualifications were less likely to vote at all, and more likely to vote leave. While both age and social class are significant factors, education appears to be a considerably stronger one.

“Remain won the EU referendum in Universityland – but lost it elsewhere”

So Remain won the EU referendum in Universityland – but lost it elsewhere. It won the argument when talking to graduates – but struggled to find either the messages or the messengers who could make a persuasive case to blue-collar workers.

There are just over 100 parliamentary constituencies which host a University – about one in six of the total. British Future research finds that the average referendum results across these constituencies was 57% for Remain and 43% for Leave.

The way in which Norwich’s result – a 56% vote to Remain in the official counting district – stands out from the rest of Norfolk, where everywhere else had a Leave majority, is typical of this national picture.

Travel just 20 miles east and the proportion of voters preferring to leave the EU goes up 28 points – from 43.8% in Norwich to 71.5% in Great Yarmouth. 

But you do not need to travel nearly so far out of the city to move from Planet Remain to Planet Leave. Norwich itself was divided: with a 60% vote to Remain here in Norwich South and a majority for Leave estimated at 57% in the Norwich North constituency, boosted by the stronger Leave vote in Broadlands. There is an even more dramatic picture in the new ward-by-ward data just published last week after being painstakingly gathered by Martin Rosenbaum for his excellent BBC local referendum analysis.

The Nelson ward next door – where 78% voted to Remain and just 22% voted to Leave – appears to be among the most pro-European places anywhere in Britain, yet you only have to go 3 miles across the city to Crome to find a solid 60% Leave vote, some 38% higher.

These voting patterns across Norwich, Norfolk and East Anglia illustrates the real referendum story of how the referendum divided Britain. It is not a simple story of a country divided between London and the rest, between the capital and the provinces. Rather, we see a much closer-knit patchwork polarisation – and it might be that this up-close-and-personal sense of local polarisation is something that we might be better placed to do something about.

Partisans versus floating voters: The Brexit intensity gap

There is one other referendum division which has received too little attention – the intensity gap. This time it is not a division between the Leavers and Remainers, but one which unites the referendum partisans on both sides and sets them apart from most of their fellow citizens. It is this difference which explains why the referendum became such a close, unpredictable, knife-edge decision, because both campaigns were very good indeed at talking to the minorities who already agreed with them – but each struggled to understand those who didn’t, or to answer the questions and doubts that they had.

In a referendum day poll, Lord Ashcroft asked people when they made up their minds about the referendum. About six million people on each side never had any doubt that their vote was going to be to Remain or to Leave. Most people thought that both sides of the debate had at least half a point and wanted to hear more before they voted. Indeed, four out of ten voters on each side say that they only made up their mind in the final four weeks of the campaign; and one in ten people on each side, totalling over 3 million people, decided which side to come down for on the day that they actually cast their vote.

So the fear and loathing and mutual incomprehension between the most ardent Remainers and Leavers was always a minority sport, indulged in on social media, often by those who never talk to anybody who voted the other way (save perhaps the occasional Sunday lunch political row with the in-laws). Yet those people for whom sovereignty and the EU were always the most important issue in every General Election, and those Remain voters who felt that the very idea of the referendum was taking an unnecessary risk with a vital national interest, were both minority tribes.

The mood in that final month at school-gates across Britain was rather different: to very many people, the referendum choice of 2016 did not feel like an existential battle for the soul of the nation, but an important and quite tricky democratic choice. “I’m definitely going to look into it more before I decide” was the key refrain for many voters. For them, this referendum felt much less like a proxy ‘culture war’ about the economic and social changes of the last 40 years – and much more like quite a difficult piece of homework which they had been set by the Prime Minister and by Parliament. They had the responsibility as voters to grapple with all of the competing claims and counter-claims, and what they felt sure were exaggerations from both sides, in order to make their decision about which would be the better choice for the future.

How can we bridge the Brexit divides?
There are different ideas about how to approach these divisions.

Some see the referendum and its aftermath as deepening this polarisation; others as an opportunity to start to address them. Here are three ideas about what needs to happen to bring Britain together.

1. Move on from the referendum trenches

Brexit is the biggest step that Britain has taken for half a century. Getting that right will require more people to move on from the referendum trenches of 2016. That has not happened during these first nine months. We have not seen much grace in either victory or defeat. But getting Brexit right can not be a project of the 52% nor the 48% alone, nor the property of a single political party. There have been lots of calls to find common ground – but it is striking how often they come from those exclusively on one side of the referendum. I was involved in the recent ‘Brexit Together’ manifesto which sought to break that pattern, involving people from both sides of the referendum and from the left and right of politics – from groups ranging from the Adam Smith Institute and Bright Blue to the Fabian Society – to set out the type of positive deal with the EU which most Leave and Remain voters could agree on.

The test should be a Brexit deal which the majority of voters, whichever way they cast their ballot on 23 June last year, can agree reflects our values and interests.

2. A reset moment on immigration

One of the biggest tests will be immigration. Brexit is a reset moment for immigration policy in Britain, capturing the loss of public confidence in how governments have handled this key issue – but it is still not clear what choices we will make about what should happen next. Many people see this as the most polarising public issue – and the one on which finding common ground will be hardest. The challenge is to design a new immigration system which meets the public desire for greater control, while recognising the need to strike a balance between the pressures and gains of immigration.

British Future is working with the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry to hold a ‘National Conversation on Immigration’. Along with Hope Not Hate, we are hosting citizens panels to find out what the public thinks in 60 towns and cities, as well as stakeholder meetings which will challenge business, civic and local government voices to come up with ideas that can secure public confidence and trust. Some people say that there has been too much debate about immigration already, or that it is not a topic on which people can ever agree on. But the referendum outcome changes the context: can we now move on from a debate about the frustrations which people feel, to designing a new system which can secure public confidence in how well-managed migration can benefit Britain?

3. Integrate our integration debates

One of the main points of Dame Louise Casey’s recent review of integration in Britain is that we have never really had a proactive integration strategy in this country. The Government has an opportunity to change that when it responds to the Casey Review this Spring. I will also be interested to see whether the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, can seize the opportunity to integrate our integration debates.

The debate over what Brexit reveals about those who feel left behind by economic and cultural change and concerns about ‘parallel lives’ in diverse towns and cities, expressed in a series of reviews from Ted Cantle to Louise Casey, are often about many of the same themes. Yet ironically they often seem to give us a set of State of the Nation identity and integration debates that themselves run on parallel tracks: about the future of the United Kingdom, Scotland’s place in the UK and how to reflect English and Welsh identity too; about how post-war immigration made us a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, and the successes or failures of multiculturalism; about challenges of Islamist or far right extremism; and about the links between economic opportunity, cultural inclusion and a common citizenship.

Brexit has broadened the debate about integration. But will it now lead to a series of contests about which integration debate matters most and, potentially, competing grievances about what gets priority for political attention and government resources, and why. Can the opportunity be taken to do what is long overdue, by linking questions of ethnicity, faith, social class and identity in a coherent debate, about what common citizenship, equal opportunities and a shared identity in Britain should mean?

Beyond open vs closed: stitching the patchwork together

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is among those to observe that politics is less a question of ‘left versus right’ and more of ‘open versus closed’. But declaring that there is a foundational choice between ‘open versus closed’ risks being a very ineffective way to defend liberal values of openness and tolerance. For what that can do is to polarise debates about identity, immigration and globalisation between two minority tribes – the confident, forward-looking, more liberal graduate minority, and an opposing minority who would like to turn the clock back 40 years. Polarising the choice of ‘open versus closed’ has too little to say to the sceptical middle, those who were on the fence in the referendum, and who will play an important role in the choices ahead: those who know that we live in an increasingly global age, but who feel the benefits of global engagement are too narrowly spread.

That will do too little to secure the public and political support for immigration which cities like this need to continue to thrive and engage in the post-Brexit world.

‘We are international’ remains an important message to send to international staff, students and partners abroad, but it is important that this should not accidentally send a ‘not in our name’ message of disassociation to audiences closer to home. If university cities and towns seem to imply that that they see themselves as island outposts of cosmopolitan tolerance, almost seeking to apologise for the democratic choices made by citizens in the regions which they seek to serve, that would risk making them agents of polarisation, not social depolarisation.

I want to suggest that the patchwork polarisation of the referendum map presents an important opportunity and responsibility for our university cities and towns to work out how they could become more active agents of social depolarisation instead. I spoke earlier about how the referendum map illuminates a cultural distance in the sense of confidence and control, voice and power – which risks separating Norwich from the rest of Norfolk.
That challenge exists in every region of Britain, between Manchester and Wigan, between Newcastle, Sunderland and Hartlepool, between Cardiff and the Welsh Valleys, between Exeter and everywhere to its west. It is about the gap between Norwich and the rest of Norfolk but also about the gap across Norwich, or from the centre of Oxford to its east, between the university districts in the west of Bristol and the council estates to their south.

Addressing that gap could be the biggest contribution that university cities could make towards the case for ‘open’ being a more effective one. Success would depend on finding effective ways to link the role as of university cities, as crucial regional hubs of growth and global exchange, with an ever-more sustained and visible commitment to ensuring those opportunities feel real and relevant to school-leavers and parents in those places that most fear being left behind, just a few miles down the road.

That is the practical opportunity which can be taken up here in Norwich and in East Anglia – and in many other cities and regions – to start to do the practical work which can knit together the patchwork polarisation of post-Brexit Britain.

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