The shock of the UK Referendum result has provoked a multitude of reactions and self-searching, both at home and abroad. For me, it has opened questions I hadn’t even considered before the vote, which could have a permanent impact on the UK’s nations. We marvel at historical events: how they have shaped our countries over centuries, and gloat over the lessons we have supposedly learned. But, we rarely consider how our contemporary actions will be the basis for a new historical chapter.
Within 48 hours the reality of the decision was being punched home. The YouGov poll captured the percentage, by age, of those voting to Remain. With 75% 18-24 year-olds, compared to 39% of 65 years plus, demonstrating their EU affinity we can see that along with national debt, the lack of affordable homes and global warming, the generation shaping the dominant political narrative has again doused the aspirations of the next. They are heartily disappointed. So much so, along with other disappointed members of the electorate, a petition for a second referendum quickly crashed the House of Commons website.
Moving from the disappointment of young people to the disappointment of nations, Scotland has laid its cards on the table with the First Minister raising the prospect of a second referendum on independence. All 32 local council areas backed Remain with a 62% vote. Before the 1707 Act of Union, Scotland and England were independently governed. Like many in the UK, in 2014 the notion of severing Scotland from the UK was unthinkable; but many of us will now be thinking ‘good luck to them’. History repeats itself, they say. Panning out to international repercussions, Brexit has raised a similar prospect for other EU nations with right-leaning papers casting the outcome as precipitating Exit contagion.
What then for UK cities?
Across many of the developed world’s cities we are regularly told that inequality / inequity / social exclusion (depending on your nation’s political rhetoric), is deep-set due to a failure to deal quickly with post-industrial decline. It is also part of the post-mortem analysis for the swathe of Leave votes cast in England and Wales. The distrust of EU and UK political systems is viewed as directly responsible for poor living standards and limited opportunity. Add free movement, translated as ‘immigration’, to the mix and the tinder was ready to be lit.
London, of course, always bucks the voting trend, with some electoral wards peaking towards 80% Remain. But if we look at specific cities in the north of England, they were actually positive about EU membership. In Manchester 60.4% of the electorate voted to Remain and 58.2%, 58% in Liverpool and York respectively. In some cities, however, it was a cigarette paper’s difference – in Birmingham 49.6% voted to Remain, whilst 50.4% voted to Leave. City leaders will need to focus on issues which impact on individual lives in order to create unity amongst the electorate.
Too much, too soon?
If the issue for Leavers was the feeling of impotence over decisions affecting their lives, would the shift – in England at least – of devolved budgets and decision-making, have affected their voting tendency further down the line? Would the promise and potential of much more local political control arising from connected city regions and the Norther Powerhouse have helped to make the case to the disenfranchised, about the benefits of an EU relationship?
My sense is that there will be some cities, like pioneering Manchester, that will forge its own relationship not only with its citizens and the UK government, but also with the EU. There is a further challenge for leaders, though. With the majority of UK citizens feeling disconnected from the EU and Whitehall, large cities risk polarising their own power and disenfranchising their smaller neighbours and rural hinterlands.
As the story unfolds, I will continue to hold onto my sense of being European. I hope that we disappointed Remainers will act creatively to not only protect our current relationships but, in a spirit of solidarity, find ways to enhance them.
This guest blog was first published by The German Marshall Fund of the United States