Exactly one year ago when Theresa May triggered Article 50, she told us that her government’s ambitions would “unite us so that we are no longer defined by the vote we cast, but by our determination to make a success of the result.”
A year on from that speech – and 12 months from the day on which we withdraw from the European Union – it seems safe to say the Prime Minister underestimated quite how divisive Brexit had, and would, be.
Over the last 18 months we at the Centre for Brexit Studies have dedicated a significant deal of time to hearing the views of people from across the political spectrum. One of the most striking things to come out of these conversations has been quite how personally invested in the issue so many still are. Leave or Remain, for a huge number of people the vote they cast is entirely wedded to their personal identities.
There are few places where this is more evident than on social media. The intensity and ferociousness of these debates will undoubtedly have touched the timelines of each and every one of us. Amongst a mixture of serious debates, sarcastic putdowns and general name-calling, it is clear to see that this an issue people still deeply care about.
Before visiting different parts of the country we put out a series of local Facebook posts explaining that we’d be arriving to talk to residents and businesses about their views on Brexit. The responses were... interesting.
Amongst hundreds of comments, very few people actually acknowledged the detail of the posts, and the few that did used it largely as an opportunity to tell us not to come. We were accused of being ‘remainers’ who would ‘twist everything you say’.
Other choice comments included;
“Don’t bother coming academics wasting public money on a fully paid jaunt around the country.”
“Don’t bother coming. Universities are full of spoilt leftards who want to stop with the Germans.”
“Let the tyres down”
“What is the point of such a visit - all you will get is a bunch of rabid rent-a-mob lefties who couldn’t give a stuff about the actual issue but are just turning up to make mischief”
“What, more propaganda for our kiddywinks from the communists?”
“Then by all means LISTEN, but don’t try to influence your audience, with any type of propaganda!!”
Aside from the palpable anti-expert (and xenophobic, for some) feeling, which clearly remains after the referendum, we were taken aback by the sheer number of arguments taking place between Leave and Remain voters. This is not quite the vision Mrs May detailed a year ago, when she said “our shared values, interests and ambitions can and must bring us together.”
This response extended into our face-to-face talks. Discussions on occasions became heated, and tempers visibly flared on a couple of occasions throughout the course of our visits.
That we are 21 months on from the referendum and people still feel strongly enough to use any mention of the term Brexit to declare their particular allegiance is likely to make moving forward to a satisfying resolution all the more difficult.
The interesting thing about Theresa May’s initial approach to Brexit is quite how confident she was in stating the direction Britain should take. The reality is that after such a divisive result, any hard-line approach would run the risk of alienating either 52 or 48 per cent of the voting population.
If that was intended to heal rifts, the public response suggests it succeeded only in further entrenching feelings of winners and losers, and of right and of wrong. The country remains split.
The surprise General Election result has led to a softening of this approach and in her Road to Brexit speech earlier this year, Mrs May made a point of addressing both sides of the debate. “We must bring our country back together, taking into account the views of everyone who cares about this issue, from both sides of the debate,” she said. Adding that her aim was “commanding the confidence of those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain.”
The next 12 months are likely to see a continuation of these discussions/debates/arguments (delete as appropriate), but an understanding and acceptance of quite how divisive Brexit remains, will be crucial to any attempts to unite the UK.
We now have only six months according to the current negotiations timetable to finalise what Brexit looks like, before time – and Article 50 – runs out. This is because another six months or so will be needed for individual EU member states to approve any “deal” before we exit on March 29th 2019.
The withdrawal process will have at least one thing in common with the referendum though; whatever the result, people will be unhappy. But if we are ever to truly move the debate beyond the default position of simply defending our allegiances we must engage in a discussion with those with differing views that moves beyond name-calling.
Such is the level of entrenchment, that it may only be a forlorn hope that we could truly “emerge from this period of change, stronger, fairer, more united and more outward looking than ever before.”