The Brexit referendum result represents a profound shock to the entire political-economic order in the UK. The weaknesses of an economy trading in deficit with the rest of the world, with an inflated property market and debt laden household sector, have been brutally exposed, as sterling has tumbled and the stock market has been battered. Each of the main political parties has been convulsed and a prime minister has been brought down. The United Kingdom itself is profoundly destabilised, as Scotland’s place in the union is once more thrown into doubt, along with the multilayered Northern Ireland peace settlement. The contagion may yet spread to Europe.
Few predicted the outcome, even if some polls registered the gradual pickup in the Leave vote. Turnout was high and it brought Eurosceptics to the polls, with working-class voters using the binary choice posed by a referendum to wield political power in devastating fashion. Immigration was the proximate cause, but behind it lay decades of deindustrialisation, and all the festering resentment of the loss of status and esteem it has caused. In partnership with older conservative voters, the English and Welsh working-class voted the UK out of Europe, overriding legions of middle-class, young and university-educated voters in London, Scotland and the cosmopolitan centres of urban Britain.
This coalition delivered a democratic first in modern British political history: the country’s economic losers became the political winners. The tragedy of the referendum, as David Runciman argues in this edition, is that the sentiments that drove the Leave vote – pervasive feelings of dispossession, alienation and insecurity – are unlikely to be resolved through Brexit. Indeed, the emerging contours of a post-Brexit political economy are likely to reinforce the inequalities of power and voice that underpinned the result. While those who feel excluded from modern, highly networked forms of economy and society might have won the vote, he concludes, they are now at risk of losing even more as our divorce from Europe proceeds.
This stark divide between the networked and the disconnected is the fissure at the heart of Labour’s fraying coalition. As John Curtice argues, unless the party can convince the less well-off that a revived social democracy can offer them decent prospects in a globalised capitalism, its support will continue to erode.
Revival will require closing the gap between the lives people expected to lead and the economic, cultural and social lives many actually lead. This presents two choices for the country, Tom Kibasi contends: either bring down expectations or improve lives, both economically and by fostering a stronger sense of belonging and place in the world. The challenge is therefore to shape a new more democratic, sustainable settlement amid the chaos, while remaining open to the world. The alternative is that the right will use Brexit to ‘finish the job Thatcher started’.
Amid the rubble of defeat, Vernon Bogdanor argues there are opportunities for progressives. A commitment to the radical devolution of political decision-making and resources to communities can bring democratic power closer to people. Proportional representation, long overdue, can help to reflect the complexity of the country and give voice to those currently excluded, helping unite a starkly polarised country in the process. Perhaps above all, he argues that while it is a defeat, Brexit may in time offer the institutional space for social democrats to regenerate after having lain prostrate for so long.
The modalities of Brexit will now dominate British and much of European Union politics for years to come. It will consume Whitehall and the armies of journalists, lobbyists, thinktankers and political scientists who move in and around it. It will dominate debates about the future of the union, England’s role within it, and Great Britain’s place in the world (assuming that the United Kingdom survives, which cannot be taken for granted). The traditional terms of party politics will be put to one side, and a new settlement – between sectors, social classes, regions and nations – will be hammered out.
Although this is a period of national crisis, it represents perhaps a make or break opportunity for progressive forces. Currency devaluation offers the prospect – chimerical during the post-financial crisis years – of rebalancing the economy towards exports and manufacturing. The urgency of securing economic growth has opened up new political space for an investment-led economic strategy with infrastructure and regional development at its heart. The imperative of responding to concerns about immigration creates room for greater spending on social housing and public services in high-migration areas. Ensuring access to the European single market while promoting investment flows to the Brexit-voting working-class heartlands offers the potential for a new and imaginative national project uniting different social and economic interests. And the turbulence in the union might at last spur recognition of political Englishness in a new, quasi-federal and democratic UK.
All of that would require agile and credible leadership, across different progressive political parties. It is in short supply. But it is desperately needed.
Mathew Lawrence, Guy Lodge, Nick Pearce and Carys Roberts, editors
This article appears in edition 23.1 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.
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