Brexit – The Great Societal Divide

The result of last week’s EU referendum in the UK wasn’t only a wake-up call to the European Union to get its act together. It was also an indication of great dividing lines running through society. Instead of bringing the UK closer together again, the vote has shown the extent of its fragmentation. The social fabric that is holding it together is under increasing strain. Never mind the obvious geographical divide with Scotland and Northern Ireland having voted to remain while Wales and England voted to leave. Three other particular divides are noticeable at first glance.

First, the generational divide. This was an election fought between age groups. While the 18 to 44 year olds voted overwhelmingly for remain, the 45 and up tended to vote to leave the European Union. This is particularly bitter for the young, especially those that weren’t old enough to vote, as they will have to live with the consequences for a long time to come. It also shows how changing demographics is affecting political decisions. In the future, political parties will vie increasingly for the votes of an older voter base. In the last German federal election in 2013, for example, almost 32% of the vote came from the age group 60 and up. This will also increase with time and can lead political parties to woo this particular electoral base with promises which could run counter to the interests of younger generations.

Second, a cultural divide. There is an increasing split between a kind of globalised, progressive, multicultural class – labelled the “Liberal Class” by Thomas Frank – and the regular blue-collar worker class. The former –a grouping that is internationalist with cross-border networks and experiences – thrives with globalisation while the latter is largely left behind. The world is increasingly complex. To understand and benefit from this complexity people use big data, global networks, global education and cross-sectoral understanding. As Joshua Cooper Ramo, Co-Chief Executive of Kissinger Associates, illustrates in his book The Seventh Sense – Power, Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks, the secret to power now is understanding the new age of networks and how everything is connected. But this is not an option to the average worker. He, instead, feels ever more disenfranchised from global developments. It explains why university towns in the UK such as Oxford and Cambridge and cosmopolitan London voted overwhelmingly to remain in stark opposition to the shires in England. And why parts of Labour weren’t able to mobilise their own traditional supporter base for the Remain camp. This particular division, however, doesn’t just hold true to the UK. It’s a divide in a whole range of countries in the West. Be it from the US where Donald Trump has positioned himself as the antidote to a globalised out-of-touch elite, to France or Germany.

Third, as has been raised by many economists, there is increasing social inequality. All these divides of course overlap and they have most likely always existed in some form or another but what has changed is that they have become even wider, even more pronounced and even more virulent.

Society has become fragmented and this fragmentation has also been hardened by digital technologies. First, social interaction is decreasing. More and more products and services are provided online. It’s not necessary anymore to engage in social interaction to order something. Similarly, how often do you see people sitting at the same table looking at their mobile phones as opposed to engaging with each other? Secondly, social media has the potential to harden existing views, possibly decreasing dialogue and mutual understanding. When you go to Facebook, google and co. you get to see those articles and feeds that correspond to your previous browsing experience, clicks, likes, shares and views. One is in his own personal bubble, getting his or her views constantly reinforced rather than challenged. This hardens views and could undermine the willingness to understand where others are coming from. Perhaps it is one of the reason that pundits have recently been getting more and more social phenomena, such as the rise of Donald Trump, wrong. As they have not been in touch enough with real people on the ground but instead have been in their own digital cocoon.

Divides are also becoming more poisonous in other very obvious ways, such as “natives” versus “foreigners” and concerning the whole refugee debate. Racist rhetoric that over the years has started to thrive online has spilled into reality when politicians stand in front of a bus pointing a finger at a picture of desolate humans fleeing the atrocities of war and ISIS and blaming them for a countries’ woes. The most recent reporting about xenophobic attacks in the UK following the Brexit vote are particularly worrying, as are the increasing number of refugee shelters being burned in Germany.

The Brexit referendum has unveiled all the open, festering wounds in society. But before the country can address these it must find new leadership and resolve its relationship with the EU after the vote. Cameron has turned himself into a lame-duck prime minister, Corbyn is stubbornly clinging on to the Labour leadership, and with the exception of Nicola Sturgeon nobody is willing to as of yet take real action in finding a solution on how to move forward. The British political establishment seems to be in a state of shock. After the shock has passed, and it seems to be already passing, a new leadership will have to emerge that can not only address the UK’s relationship with Europe but also the relationships within its own society. And this – alas – is not just a task for the UK alone. It’s the responsibility for political leaders in many European countries. A new sense of social togetherness needs to be found. In the meantime, keep calm and carry on.