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.
The country’s 50/50 split on the issue doesn’t bode well for future consensus.
As Britain braces itself for Thursday’s referendum on E.U. membership, the result is still too close to call. The latest polls have the pro-Remain camp ahead by just one percent—a hair’s breadth so narrow it could easily reverse or be proved inaccurate.
Some outcomes of the grueling, dispiriting referendum campaign nonetheless seem pretty clear already. Whatever the result, it will be so close as to divide Britain for years, splitting the country down the middle. Indeed, it could even present a challenge to the U.K.’s future cohesion as a state.
During a campaign that has been beset by violence, xenophobia, half-truths, lies and a passionately professed contempt for experts (who have been compared to Nazis), Britain has waded partly unawares into a malodorous populist sludge. This quagmire has left people on both sides of the referendum confused and angry, forced as they are into a binary choice far starker and more final than that created by an election. Whatever the decision the electorate makes tomorrow, Britain may well find healing the rifts the referendum has exposed difficult. In the long run, maybe even impossible.
The most glaring schism to manage after the referendum may be between England and Scotland. If you thought Scotland’s narrow but apparently decisive vote against Independence in 2014 marked an end to that issue, then think again. Scotland has long been more Europhile than England, seeing the E.U. as a potential entry into a Europe of regions in which it can act with greater autonomy. Now all of Scotland’s five major parties have come out against Brexit, with polls predicting two-thirds of Scots will vote to remain. The leaders of four of England’s five main parties (excluding UKIP) have also backed Remain, but their membership and representatives are nonetheless split. Most Conservative Party voters in fact back Brexit, against the preference of their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron.
If these Leave voters do prevail, Scotland will be forced out of a union with Europe in which its citizens overwhelmingly believe. Scotland’s elected assembly, along with those of Wales and Northern Ireland, would then have to vote to remove itself from operating within E.U. law, a move that Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) might well reject. Inevitably, there will be intense pressure in Scotland for another independence vote. Managing this process would be dicey to say the least.
The Scotland/England divide also cuts both ways. If the U.K. as a whole swings towards Remain, many English Brexiteers may feel that it is Scots in turn who are twisting their arms. Independence aspirations could ultimately still lead one day to Scotland breaking away as a separate state, leaving the remaining parts of the U.K. “stuck” within an E.U. that a narrow majority had voted against. That’s not a possibility the pro-Leave camp would accept with any relish. Indeed, part of the Leave camp (though far from all) are motivated by a form of nationalism that is morphing from British to English, populated with people frustrated that Scottish MPs can vote on some issues affecting England while, due to its devolved parliament, Scotland can make similar decisions for themselves independently.
By laying bare these fault lines, both Leave and Remain results in a referendum could imply a threat to the future unity of the United Kingdom. Not as an instant axe-fall severing the country’s parts come Friday, of course, but as a steady polarization which may end up making such unity untenable. Right now, not many people seem to be overly concerned with this, a fact underlined by a BBC television debate between Leave and Remain advocates Tuesday night. When a pro-Remain speaker credited the E.U. with a role in guiding Northern Ireland towards peace, the response from the audience in the London studio was telling. Compared to passionate, foot-stamping and booing on other issues, the response was polite, relatively muted applause.
All that said, the ongoing cohesion of the U.K. probably isn’t the issue closest to the hearts of English voters at this moment. For Brexit supporters, leaving the E.U. was always intended to open the U.K. up to relationships across a wider world of trade and exchange, one they felt E.U. regulations had hampered. In the end, the debate may have pushed the U.K. in the other direction, towards balkanization. Whatever the result Thursday, around half of Britain’s electorate is going to wake up on Friday very unhappy indeed.