If 2015 should be seen as the territorial, rather than British, election - resulting in four different parties in the different parts of the UK taking power - yesterday’s vote on the EU was the UK’s first real territorial referendum.
Voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by clear majorities to remain in the UK, while those in Wales and England voted to leave. Differences in turn-out between these territories may well say much about the commitment and enthusiasm with which both the Leave and Remain causes were viewed by their respective supporters.
The appeal of Euroscepticism in these parts of the UK was not itself surprising - except to those who fell for the mythology of Wales as a fundamentally Europhile political community. But it is the pattern and nature of the vote for Leave in England which is most striking, and may have long-term consequences for the UK’s future.
A glance at the voting result in England, grouped into regions, shows that the bulk of this country has voted one way, with nearly 60 per cent of those who voted, choosing to Leave, and London has done almost the exact opposite, with a 60-40 per cent split between Leave and Remain.
This suggests a significant divergence between those who live outside the capital city, and those who live within it. And, revealingly, this differentiation replicates the broad trend observed by a number of commentators in recent years – between those who identify as English, rather than British (who live overwhelmingly outside London) in their sense of national identity, and those who continue to embrace Britishness as a civic and inclusive form of identification.
What was most surprising about last night’s English results, however, is that the pronounced scepticism of those places which have long been havens of Eurosceptic, anti-migrant and socially pessimistic views (which host larger numbers of what some commentators call ‘the left behind’) was enhanced by the scepticism of large swathes of Northern England and the Midlands which were previously seen as heartlands for Labour. It is the refusal of these portions of the English working class to listen to the advice and arguments of their own party’s leadership that enabled the Leave position to spread its wings into parts of England that looked to many at the start of the Campaign as likely sources of ‘Remain’. A heady cocktail of concerns about migration in general, and the free movement of people in the EU in particular, worries about the cost of living and stagnant incomes and a broader sense of disenchantment with mainstream politics and politicians, has driven a profound wedge into what were once viewed as Labour’s heartlands.
This is a development that should strike fear into the soul of the Labour party, and suggests the real possibility that UKIP will make serious inroads in Labour seats at any future election.
More generally, there are three apparent territorial issues that will now move centre-stage in British politics, as a result of the divergent votes recorded in England and across the UK.
First, this result puts the question of another demand for Referendum on Scottish independence back on the political agenda. For the SNP this represents a real dilemma. While a clear political opportunity now presents itself for the party to claim that there has been a major change to the material circumstances affecting Scotland, in other respects the circumstances do not looks especially propitious for another indy campaign. The fall in the price of oil, rising concerns about the Scottish – and now the UK – economy, and the lack, as yet, of any upsurge in support for Independence at the popular level, may make the leadership bide its time and watch how the UK government’s negotiations with the EU progress. But it may also find that it is under considerable pressure from many of its own supporters to move further and faster than this.
Second, the question of the disaffection of significant portions of the English working-class is now one of the key questions in British politics. How can the expectations aroused among these votes – about new curbs on migration, levels of NHS funding and better economic prospects, be met within the short-term by a government that will be mired in the complexities and compromises associated with re-negotiating the UK’s relationship with the EU. Finding a quick ‘win’ in terms of the free movement of labour may well become an overriding imperative, in the short term, while managing the sense of expectation that a Brexit vote has generated, will be one of the major political challenges it faces.
And, third, there is the worrying prospect of a significant de-stabilising of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The creation of a ‘hard’ land border with the Republic of Ireland, the potential need to renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement – an international as well as UK-based treaty – and the imminent loss of EU funding and potential internal investment, all represent major challenge for Ulster’s divided politicians to negotiate at a point when terrorism is once again rearing its head in the Province.
The Referendum result has put an end to decades of statecraft when the UK political elite determined that membership of the EU and its predecessors was the best guarantor of great power status and economic stability for the UK. The decision by the majority of voters to break decisively from this tradition may also mark the moment when territorial politics at home assumed a much more conflictual and internecine character.