Jo Cox gave her maiden speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. Describing her constituency, globalisation, and immigration, Jo inspirationally said that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. After her death just a week before the EU referendum, the hashtag and movement #MoreInCommon went global and ever since has been used as a means of attempting to heal the conflicts and divides in society.
Of course, it’s true in many ways. We are all the same. But there’s no doubt that we should be worried about the growing divisions festering around us all. Traditionally, the big divides were that of political party identification, this has since been replaced by simply: Remain or Leave. It’s understandable why; despite both party leaders playing down the issue, it will define us and our country for generations to come. The referendum formalised a deep cultural divide stemming across many factions. Leavers are pitched against remainers, the young against the old, the affluent against the impoverished, graduates against non-graduates, and towns against cities.
In the past, it was class that was the main predictor of a person’s likely voting behaviour. This has significantly narrowed, with both support for Labour among the middle class and support for the Conservatives among the working class rising by 12 points between 2015 and 2017. The big divide in voting behaviour is now age. At the 2017 general election, the generation gap was the largest since polling records began. Among 18-to-24-year olds Labour led by 35%, but among over 65’s the Tories held a 36-point lead. In the referendum three-quarters of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain, but two-thirds of over-65s favoured Brexit.
Education was also a big factor in both votes. In the 2017 election the Tories led by 22% among people with ‘low educational qualifications’, but those with ‘high-level educational qualifications’ plucked for Labour by 17% more. In the referendum, those with GCSE or lower qualifications voted 70:30 to Leave, but those with a degree voted 68:32 in favour of Remain. There’s also another reason for these stark contrasts: the direction and leadership of the two main political parties under current leadership. May’s Conservatives have lurched to the right, and Corbyn’s Labour to the left, and people are being forced to choose a side.
As such, there is now a stark contrast between the perceptions and opinions of party members. As revealed by YouGov/Queen Mary research last week, Tories were “a breed apart” on social and economic issues compared to members of other parties. Here are some of the findings:
- While members of other parties favour a second referendum on Europe (Labour 78%, SNP 87% and Lib Dems 91%), just 14% of Tory members agree.
- Nine out of ten members of the other parties support continued membership of the single market, just a quarter of Tories want to see such a soft Brexit.
- 54% of Tories support the death penalty compared to 9% of Labour members.
- Just 11% of Tories believe ‘austerity has gone too far’, compared with 98% of Labour members, and even 75% of Liberal Democrats.
- 80% of Labour, Liberal Democratss, and SNP members support gay marriage, double the Tory number.
It’s not just in the UK either. The same is happening with both the Democrats and Republicans in America, as Trump’s premiership pushes further to the right. In a recent Quinnipiac poll investigating gun support, economy, taxation, and Russia, the divides between voters were stark:
- 81% of Republicans thought the state of the economy was positive, compared to just 49% of Democrat voters.
- 85% of Democrats disapprove of Trump’s gun policy, whereas 82% of Republicans approve.
- There is a net difference of 132% in approval ratings of the current President’s and Republican’s tax plan.
- 87% of Democrats believe there was Russian interference in the presidential election, but just 32% of Republicans believed the same.
- 83% of Democrats want stricter gun laws, and 64% of Republicans do not.
Maybe it’s simply that we all just struggle to understand a culture outside of our own. Here in the UK we simply cannot grasp the American’s view on guns. To us, it’s all western and John Wayne, but to them, it’s their history, culture, and a way of life. It’s the same with the UK generational divides. We may mock, sneer, and look back with disdain at the views of many of our elders, but it’s the culture they grew up with, and most simply want to turn back the clock.
Last year the National Centre for Social Research released their latest BSA report, highlighting some of the key divides in UK society. It found that the UK is becoming kinder-hearted but not soft-hearted, more socially liberal but very divided on immigration and Brexit. Arguably this is partially due to my earlier point; that as the UK is stretched both to the left and the right, so are attitudes. As well as sporting divisions within single issues, Britain now also finds itself supporting positions on both sides of the political spectrum.
The public is moving in favour of greater taxation, more redistribution from the rich to the poor, and an end to austerity. Attitudes toward benefits are softening, and support of same-sex relationships, abortion, and euthanasia are at record levels. However, the study also showed the public becoming more favourable about other traditionally conservative views, especially on issues such as crime, terrorism, immigration, as well as civil liberties. But the major trend is still, divisions.
The study found the UK is the most divided country in Europe on the economic impact of immigration, with a 45% gap between under 45s and those over 65. It’s not just age, it’s class, education, heritage, and even satisfaction. There was a 34% difference between those with a degree and GCSEs or below, a 27% contrast between those born abroad and born in the UK, and a 23% gap between those currently satisfied with the economy against those who are not. These divisions have also expanded. The division between age groups grew 19% between 2002 and 2014, the division between education grew 6% and the increase was 4% between those satisfied with the economy and not. These were the biggest in polled European countries.
It wasn’t just immigration that sparked division, so did social liberalism. Regarding prejudice views against transgender people, 21% more 18-34-year olds said it was always wrong compared to 65 or overs. The difference between those with a religion and those without was 13%, and the differences between those with a degree or higher qualification and those with GCSEs or equivalent was 21%. There was also a significant division between age groups regarding abortion. Although all groups were mostly in agreement regarding abortions due to rape or illness, the same could not be said when the reason was that the woman does not wish to have the child. 76% of 18-26-year olds believed abortions should be allowed in such cases, compared to just two-thirds of those over 67.
Recent research by Demos also highlighted such divisions. The study interviewed a diverse mix of citizens by age, location, socio-economic status, and ethnicity, however, most participants were over-55, White, British, northern, and had fewer qualifications. The study showed that despite sharing similar views with younger more liberal voters regarding public services, health and social care, and austerity, there were clear differences on pretty much everything else. Some of the outrageous quotes included “the whites are a minority in this country”, “In 30 years’ time you won’t find a white face”, “the EU is run by dictators”, and “we need to cut foreign aid…I don’t know how much it is, but it’s a lot”.
David Cameron did not need to call a referendum; he did so to settle a generation-long Tory feud. Leaving the EU wasn’t an issue in public thought until it was laid on the table before them, and it was the spark that led to the increasing divisions we see now, and arguably tragic incidents like the death of Jo Cox. Participants in the Demos research consistently related answers back to their voting position in the referendum, demonstrating just how critical it has become to perceptions of identity. Rather than simply judging others on their party identification or class, we now judge on how we likely think they voted in the referendum.
As Britain looms toward its exit from the European Union, future governments face the tough task of finding a way to heal these divisions. This isn’t a dead issue, and it’s unlikely to become one for years to come. As Brexit brings implications to the economy, health, immigration, trade, business, defence, and even personal relationships, it’s hard to see how these divisions will narrow.