If you listen to some of the tabloids you’d certainly think so. But I would say there has been an air of unreality about it. It’s almost as if we’ve watched a fiercely contested sporting event, and if your side lost you feel miserable but life goes on much as before. In the case of the Referendum, nothing much of consequence has actually happened yet to affect everyday life (as opposed to the chaos within so many political parties).
But because many of the tabloids led people to believe that there’d be a vote one day and we’d be out of the EU next, we’ve seen the growth of a strange, unreal rivalry. I can talk to colleagues who voted for ‘the other side’ in a reasonable way, they’re very good-natured about it, but what you read and hear online is becoming a lot more heated: “Remoaniacs,” “racist Brexiteers” and all that. As reality sinks in, and we start to feel the real consequences of Brexit, I think that polarisation is going to grow.
You can’t ignore the demographics of the vote. It was young versus old, the major cities versus smaller urban communities, and to an extent the educated middle classes versus those who didn’t go as far in education. A clear majority of young voters and all four national capital cities voted to Remain, and the vote reinforced the common view that London is a very different and even ‘alien’ place.
The Referendum dealt a big blow to the idea that the ultimate source of wisdom on a huge decision has to be the people. In theory, the question of leaving or remaining in the EU was too big to be left with politicians, but you can easily argue the opposite case. The marvellous thing about representative democracy is that you can always undo a decision. You can vote them out; and thanks to the endlessly flexible British constitution, even the most momentous decisions can be overturned by the next Parliament. Because they derive their authority direct from the people, referendum decisions are irreversible without terrible difficulty. So in a strange way, the Brexit situation can be seen as something of a vindication for the idea of representative democracy, even though the result was clearly due in part to widespread ill-feeling against elected politicians.
Referendums can also be abused for party political reasons. What happened with both EU referendums, in 1975 and 2016, is that Harold Wilson and David Cameron handed these hot potatoes to the electorate, not primarily to solve a problem for the country but to fix arguments within the Labour and Conservative parties. Politicians tend to forget that the consequences of a referendum vote might be incalculably more damaging to the national interest than a petty squabble inside a party.
Britain will think twice about referendums in future, I suspect. From the people who voted Leave without thinking that Leave would win – the “Regrexit” voters – to large parts of the political class, there seems to be growing disillusion with the idea of large, simplistic popular votes like this. The idea of a second Scottish independence referendum aside, there seems to be referendum fatigue in Scotland. Anyone pushing for referendums in future will face more of an uphill battle, I think.
When the tabloids are doing their utmost to fuel ill-feeling between the two voting blocs – because it sells papers – the only response is to ensure that we’re as well-informed as we can be about this astonishingly complex and uncertain situation. Both sides have to understand that we need to get beyond “you lost, don’t be a bad loser, get over it.”