Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Last night, many of us in the U.K. went to bed expecting a victory for Remain in the country’s Brexit referendum. This morning, we woke up to see the country surrendering its E.U. membership, our Prime Minister resign and our currency lose so much value that the U.K. went from being the world’s fifth largest economy to being its sixth largest within hours. All this before it was time for mid-morning coffee. Calling this a shock doesn’t go far enough. It’s an earthquake.
The country is now split almost down the middle, with 51.9 percent having voted Leave and 48.1 percent Remain. Both sides are shaken, even the winners, who have managed to get this far without thrashing out a clear plan for what happens next. Already they are backtracking. This morning the UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said it was a mistake to promise £350 million a week more for the National Health Service, an admission that might have seemed more bold if it had come 24 hours ago. Some are in denial. Cornwall, a region that received substantial funding from the E.U. but which voted to leave, has asked already for confirmation that its future funding won’t be cut (clairvoyant spoiler: it probably will).
Remain voters, meanwhile, are shattered. After a leave campaign beset by racist rhetoric, it feels like the bad guys have won, refashioning a Britain that is smaller, meaner, and enmeshed in economic spiral. All people in conflict tend to think they’re the good guys, however, and what’s easier to agree on right now are the huge rifts the vote has exposed. Look at this graphic, which shows the regions that voted for Leave and Remain. You’ll agree the contrast is pretty stark, with a pro-E.U. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London pitched against the rest of the country.
Here's the graphic to go with that Boris quote. "This vote does not mean the UK will be in any way less united." pic.twitter.com/6fHVqe4BUF— Jack Blanchard (@Jack_Blanchard_) June 24, 2016
More detailed breakdowns of the vote seem less stark, however. This image below shows that heavily populated northern cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Leeds voted to remain (though more narrowly than in London or Scotland), while a significant share of Northern Ireland voted Leave.
London's case for devo-max just got stronger, as we are already seeing. Harder to call it for other city regions. pic.twitter.com/9SEm8zlJMt— Max Nathan (@iammaxnathan) June 24, 2016
The standoff is still clear, however. Scotland and London don’t belong. As I suggested a few days ago, Scotland is already preparing to to make this divide official, with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promising a new vote on independence. There’s even talk of a joint continuation of E.U. membership for both London and Scotland, a sort of Free State of Scotlondia. As the tweet below confirms, Sturgeon has indeed talked to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, but this is pie-in-the-sky.
Sturgeon says she will work with Sadiq Khan to keep Scotland and London inside the EU - urgent meetings with Commission called for tomorrow.— Kate McCann (@KateEMcCann) June 24, 2016
The divide is more than geographical, however. As this exit poll makes clear, younger people voted Remain while older people voted Leave, thus swinging the vote away from the people who will experience Brexit most keenly and for the longest. This statistic itself is fueling anger among the young, but there’s no denying a basic truth: this was a referendum with a high turnout, in which the Leave camp won.
These divisions won’t turn ugly. They already are. In victory speeches, UKIP’s Farage declared the result for “real people,” a supposed victory against metropolitan elites. In reality, London has plenty of wealth but is also full of people on low incomes far more isolated from the elite than many wealthier rural residents. Most of them voted Remain, but because they live in the capital (and possibly because they’re often not white?) they seem not to count as real in the UKIP vision of Britain. The air in the U.K. is now crackling with fear, anger and loathing on all sides—and that’s before we even begin to think of the Leave vote’s international repercussions, which could take years to unfold. Fasten your seatbelts, Britain watchers, the long, bumpy ride has only just begun.