Analysis: Brexit a stark reflection of a dis-United Kingdom

A Scottish Vote Leave and Brexit badge worn by a campaigner
A Scottish Vote Leave and Brexit badge worn by a campaigner

Welcome to the dis-United Kingdom. England and Wales voted differently than Scotland and Northern Ireland. Divisions between the generations, across social classes, and between metropolis and province, were stark.

In many ways, this was a very English vote. When, late in the campaign, culturally highbrow Remainers characterised a Leave vote as a rejection of Great Britain in favour of Little England, the working-classes shrugged and said, “yeah, it is”. Among those who consider themselves English and not British, 79 per cent voted Leave. For those more English than British, the figure was 67 per cent.

While some Leavers waxed nostalgic about pre-Europe days of empire, working-class England is quite happy to govern only itself. If the Scots want to go their own way, that’s their business. If some fudges on sovereignty need to be made in Northern Ireland to prevent the Irish fighting, they’ll assent to them while barely noticing. Special status for Irish citizens does not arouse ire in Hartlepool pubs.

While some Leave voters and some messaging, especially from Leave.EU, was racist, the vast majority wasn’t, and many people from ethnic minorities voted Leave. Newham, a London borough where only 15 per cent of people are white British, voted Remain by only six per cent, while Birmingham, by a whisker, and Luton and Slough, by double digit margins, voted to Leave.

In Wales, there was a particularly pronounced swing during the campaign, resulting in a Leave vote in the principality that would have been surprising even a month ago. The crisis in the NHS is at its most acute in Wales. Leave’s messaging – frankly deceitful, but effective – on the EU budget contribution and Turkish accession seem to have been particularly effective here.

In Scotland as in nationalist Northern Ireland, there was less a ringing endorsement of the EU, than a nodded assent on respectable but unexceptional turnouts. Yet if Brexit does result in pronounced economic “bumps in the road”, a second referendum is possible and may opt for independence. Among better-educated Scots, in particular, Europeanness can be more important than Britishness. This key swing group voted No in 2014 out of pragmatism and discomfort with the more strident end of Scottish nationalism. In practical terms, the oil price may be low but at least it is denominated in dollars.

But it is on the border that the long-term effects of Brexit will be most acutely felt. Oddly, one strand of integration was the result in Northern Ireland, much less acutely divided by tribe than is the norm. It is not often that Londonderry and Bangor vote the same way on matters of political contention. While rural constituencies largely voted on sectarian lines, in Greater Belfast there was a significant unionist Remain vote.

Gerry Lynch is a political commentator