Post-Brexit Britain: What’s Next For a Divided Nation?
December 23, 2016
By Lydia Paver
Since June 23rd, stocks, sterling and shares have been pushed into murky waters. The value of the pound dipped as the referendum neared closer, yet in the brief period before polls closed when a remain outcome was expected, confidence in Britain’s currency rose significantly. As the results from local constituencies across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales came in, the pound plummeted to a 31 year low, and in the following days, sterling slipped further against the U.S. dollar as fears surrounding the outlook of Britain’s economy intensified and traders increasingly bet on lower interest rates. But it wasn’t only Britain’s economy that was shocked by the surprise result, markets across the world were faced with great uncertainty.
Even more damning than Brexit’s short-term economic outcome, the referendum revealed a nation deeply divided across geographic, age, class and education lines. Young Brits, with an above-average turnout of 64%, voted overwhelmingly for a future within the European Union. In contrast, the majority of over 65’s, whose turnout peaked at 90%, voted for a Britain independent from the EU. For most voters, the decision to stay or go was undeniably fueled by growing income inequality, a lack of well-paying jobs, dwindling opportunity for social mobility and a slashing of social services once offered to all. Moreover, exit polls and post-Brexit surveys show that many Brits simply did not know what they were voting for, further demonstrating how frustrations with government cuts, a lackluster economic recovery, fears surrounding immigration, and an overall disillusionment with Westminster politics overshadowed the very issue posed to the public.
The regional breakdown is again another illustration of how divided the nation stands on the issue. Wales and rural England came out strong for Leave, while Remain captured Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the City of London, in addition to several other metropolitan hubs - including Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford. The stark geographic split has sparked not only calls from Scotland’s leaders for another referendum on its independence from Britain, but also rumors about a possible reunification of Northern Ireland with its Republic. Bar the age factor, it seems the ones who had the most to lose from Brexit and the looming political shift towards the right - that is, the very regions flooded with EU funding and the demographics who benefit the most from its protections, including post-industrial Northern cities, pockets of Wales, the Cornish coastal region, and the working class and lower-educated - committed political and economic suicide in their vote for Britain’s EU split.
Upon resignation, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that exit negotiations will fall to his successor. Those at the forefront of the Leave campaign also relieved themselves of any leadership responsibilities in Brexit’s aftermath - that is of course bar former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who despite his reputation as a larger than life character plagued by gaffes, now serves as Britain’s Foreign Secretary. Since Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May has stepped up as Prime Minister after winning the Conservative leadership race, her cabinet has been assembled, and the former Home Secretary has been towing a fine line on Brexit and foreign affairs as she balances her executive duties with accusations from the right of being “too soft”.
While cautiously supportive of the Remain effort, May has since insisted she is prepared to honor the referendum’s result as the triggering of Article Fifty, which sets in motion the official departure of any member state from the EU, now falls under her watch. Despite her seemingly pro-EU leanings, as Home Secretary May has taken a tough line on immigration and been a strong advocate for pulling the U.K. out of the European convention on human rights. In addition to the necessary negotiations, a May government would almost certainly see immigration rules tightened and the state of human rights in Britain jeopardized.
The coming months will reveal how effectively a fractured Conservative party can unite in support of May and her approach to the EU as she looks to begin the thorny divorce talks. Regardless of how this party unification plays out, it is unlikely Brussels will be sympathetic to demands from No. 10 as both bodies embark on the process of unwinding the ties that bind Britain to the EU.
Alongside a major leadership contest within the Labour party, May’s agenda setting, and the forthcoming negotiation debacle, there are a few other things that may be on the horizon for Great Britain. Her economy is set to suffer another shock as negotiations begin, and further austerity measures are almost guaranteed as Conservatives wrestle with a post-Brexit economy. If the prospect of another financial downturn wasn’t gloomy enough, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has all but guaranteed another opportunity for Scots to determine their status outside of the U.K. and inside of the EU. All in all, expect to see a more divided Britain scramble in its attempt to navigate a split from Brussels.
Additional Blog Posts
Student Blog Disclaimer
The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.