David Cameron, Toms Norde, Valsts kanceleja, Wikimedia Commons
In Brexit, Britain is Divided
On Friday, June 24, 2016 Britain awoke and was forced to look at itself in the mirror. In its reflection it saw the signs of a society more divided that it had previously felt comfortable to admit. The Brexit result was not just about the rejection of the European Union. It also signalled the British people’s unwillingness to view the world beyond the familiar conception of the nation state, calling into question the country’s social and cultural unity.
As a country deeply integrated into the international system, in every sense of the word, British society is caught in the dilemma of how to preserve a national identity, in a context of ever expanding globalisation. Put otherwise, it’s tasked with maintaining its national unity whilst simultaneously managing and encouraging internal differences. This is both a question of social justice – by ensuring broad equality – and nourishing a multi-ethnic society.
With the country now entering the uncertainty of the post-Brexit era, it is vital that these two issues are addressed if Britain is to come together as a tolerant, united society. Yet, looking back over the last six years of government, David Cameron’s brand of One Nation conservatism has contributed little to this aim. In fact, it is the very catalyst of the divisions that are staring Britain in the face today.
* * *
The frequent use of military force abroad, and the invariably linked rise in violent attacks on the innocent in parts of Europe, has certainly inspired a number of societies across the continent to a return to nation-building. However, the widespread rise in nationalism that we are witnessing can be accounted to more than just these security narratives that have come to the forefront of global politics in recent years. For alone, it fails to take into account the social dimension – that is, why society’s Left Behind are drawn to nationalism in their bid to recapture control over a country and identity that they feel has forgotten them.
And they are forgotten – because while it is undeniable that much of Britain has benefitted from the country’s presence and ongoing integration into the international system, the haves have reaped more of the rewards than the have nots. After Spain and Greece, the UK has the third highest income inequality in Europe – a fact many Brits would be shocked to hear. But what is worse is that this social division is as much visible by class, as it is by geographic location: of course, referring to the notorious North-South divide.
Across the world, the UK is second only to Russia in the dominance of its capital city over the rest of the country. London has achieved this position over years of growth and development. Since 1989, London and the South East’s share of the country’s production (GVA) has risen from 20% to over 38%. Yet, despite the country’s capital being one of the largest transactional markets in the world, the wealth that international integration has attracted has neither ‘trickled down’, nor been shared to ‘help people out of poverty’. This structural transfer of wealth to the capital has condemned many communities across the UK to a life of hand-outs and low-skilled work, as their iconic industries have faded around them.
London may well have the international status of a cultural powerhouse, with a vibrant migrant population of over 36%, but it is by no means representative of the country. Since 1951, Britain’s foreign born population has risen from 3.5% to 12% – but this fact is not celebrated in many communities that feel their politicians are looking beyond their own shores, before looking after their own.
And despite the promises of a more inclusive society by previous governments, especially those of David Cameron, each one has failed to do enough. We know this, because increasingly the electorate has been looking for alternatives, finding the once peripheral figures of Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage. Now, the popularity of their (albeit contrasting) positions are undeniable.
And so it happened that the prime minister gave the electorate their fourth referendum of his premiership, by which point it was clear that the boundaries of debate would be set by the nationalist agenda that was growing within Britain’s divisions. How unsurprising it was, therefore, when the Vote Leave campaign provided an uncanny impersonation of one of their founding fathers, the notorious anti-marketeer Enoch Powell. With acute precision, they irresponsibly exploited social anxieties, normalising their xenophobic rhetoric.
To their thanks, Britain not only woke up to Brexit, but also a spike in hate crime across the country.
Cameron failed to create One Nation
An apostle of Disraeli’s One Nation conservatism, David Cameron entered No. 10 Downing Street having promised to ‘govern for all’. It was a popular brand of rhetoric, remaining at the forefront of his addresses even into his second term. While as a theme it was used to emphasise his Unionist credentials (the Scottish claim for independence an additional divide to consider), it was also a bid to make inroads into the electorate of a Labour party that was becoming increasingly fractured. And in seeking a One Party Britain, David Cameron sowed the seeds not for a united nation, but a divided one.
Despite ensuring future electoral success for the Conservatives, David Cameron’s premiership saw the UK’s North-South economic divide strengthen; a rise in the number of ‘high earners’ in an era of heavy austerity and an overall economic recovery plan that favoured many, but forgot the bottom two-fifths of the population. Britain’s wealth distribution is more unequal than in 2010, and the country’s Left Behind have not seen the social justice of the One Nation they were promised.
This has led to an alternative, more harmful conception of the One Nation. In 2011, the prime minister launched an assault on ‘the failures of state multiculturalism’. He was referring to a policy approach that maintains a pluralistic conception of citizenship, protecting the social and political rights of discrete ethnic groups, and thus institutionalising difference within a single nation. His move away from the dominance of multiculturalist thought was a much needed one – such policies only serve to institutionalise sensitive differences. It should also be recognised, however, that it was also a means of appeasing the growing nationalistic elements of society – complaints of unfair preferential rights for minority groups and excessive political correctness were growing louder – and therefore, it began the legitimisation to the darker parts of British society.
Soon after his first electoral success, Cameron introduced the Government’s 2010 Equality Strategy - the cross-party committee for which was chaired by Teresa May. It promised to do away with the ‘social engineering’ of tick boxes, instead opting to ‘[recognise] that we are a group of 62 million people’. This sounded very appealing: both simple and of common sense, and that was its charm. Or it would have be, if it weren’t accompanied by policies that took a bold step towards the French model of civic-assimilation, such as the ‘Life in the UK Test’ for immigrants intending to stay in the UK. As we are regrettably learning, this alternate approach is as equally ill-equipped in ensuring a healthy, vibrant multi-ethnic society as the multiculturalist approach, as Kenan Malik writes.
Simultaneously enshrining ‘equal rights’ and ‘the right to be different’ is the Catch 22 of the multi-ethnic society. However, Cameron’s One Nation conservatism was more of a political tool than a substantive framework for uniting the nation. During his six years as prime minister, he not only managed to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots, but critically he prepared the platform for a Vote Leave campaign that would use British nationalism as its primary weapon.
May must be cautious when calling for One Nation
David Cameron has left office with a rather uninspiring mixed bag of successes and failures. In his wake, Teresa May has seemingly picked up the baton by promising to lead in the spirit of her predecessor’s ‘one nation government’. However, she should be wary of the effect that such rhetoric can have, if not accompanied by genuine political will to address the glaring socio-economic divides in Britain.
Aside from ensuring that the UK retains a seat at the table of Europe, May must continue to promote international engagement and inter-dependence beyond the Anglosphere. Every country’s future should now lie in a constructive, outward-looking approach to both external and internal politics, as opposed to exercising the comforting, but archaic appeals of nationalism. Most importantly, however, beyond Brexit, she must ensure that Britain feels united; not under a flag, language or birth right, but as part of a just and tolerant society.
This article is part of our Reset series. Chip in here to help fund the conversation about how to change Britain for good.
Get our weekly email