The analysis of the voting patterns in the 2016 referendum identified several lines of division: class, education, the country within the UK one happened to hail from and, in England, the so-called north-south divide.
Such a focus on location and the profiles of who voted Remain or Leave invites reflection on questions of identity, and perhaps mostly starkly between whether ‘I am a Remainer or a Leaver’ and by corollary whether ‘you are a Remainer or a Leaver’.
Immediately following the referendum many looked upon those around them in a new light, wondering which way they had voted.
If post-referendum questions of identity and belonging were important, they were of equal importance during the referendum campaign itself.
Vote Leave’s message of ‘Take Back Control’ referred primarily to the end of free movement between the UK and the EU, and the re-erecting of boundaries between ideas of a national sense of self and foreign other.
The traversing of international borders when travelling draws attention to ideas of, and articulation of, self-identity – crystallising around who has a right to belong and who does not.
This is especially so when that boundary crossing is not free flowing, because of the need for visas and/or paperwork that accompanies, for example, the import and export of goods.
Although the 2016 referendum could be described as a matter for the British people it needs to be remembered that the ramifications of Brexit will be felt outside the national borders of the UK.
There are implications for the Commonwealth and British Overseas Territories, for countries ‘receiving’ departing UK citizens and residents who no longer feel welcome, as well as those who work in holiday destinations overseas and who rely on income from British tourists.
That the decision to leave the EU has consequences not only in the UK but well beyond the country’s borders, Brexit should focus the mind.
And for a long time, it did: Brexit was subject to on-going debate in the UK Parliament, in numerous news media forums and private conversations between families, friends and colleagues.
But, by March 2020 Brexit was no longer centre stage. What was drawing everyone’s attention was Covid-19.
Given the damage that the virus and associated global pandemic has wrought it is not surprising that Covid-19 has displaced Brexit as the main topic of discussion in the UK.
However, in September 2020 Brexit was front page news again. The renewed focus it enjoyed was based on the Government’s Internal Market Bill, which would in effect ‘re-write’ parts of the Withdrawal Deal negotiated between the UK and EU by Boris Johnson.
The bill was also seen as undermining the powers of the UK’s devolved governments in that they would not be able to set, for example, their own food standards in the UK’s internal market.
Once again divisions within the UK which the referendum result had already thrown into stark relief came to the fore.
The Internal Market Bill was widely condemned both in the UK and overseas not least because it would lead to a breach in international law, which raised questions as to whether any other government in the world would be able to trust the UK ever again.
It seems that trust has become a keyword in the socio-cultural and political landscape of the UK since the 2016 Brexit vote.
When it became apparent that Brexit was not going to be as easily delivered as the Leave Campaign had promised and arguments in Parliament rumbled on, trust in politicians was said to wane.
Questions of trust were arguably at the forefront of voters’ minds in the December 2019 general election, which was, in effect, a second referendum on the vote to leave the EU and, therefore, about who could be most trusted to ‘get Brexit done.’
As Covid-19 cases in the UK began to rise again in September Brexit debates were once again overshadowed. However, what the virus and Brexit have in common is that both draw attention to the divisions in the UK.
Different parts of England have been under different types of restrictions and Wales has recently had a two week ‘firebreak’ lockdown.
The Internal Market Bill may seek to unite the Kingdom, but it, along with the different approaches between Westminster and the devolved governments, to the handling of the Covid-19 crisis, seem only to serve to highlight internal differences.
The Leave Campaign and Johnson’s response to Covid-19 have both made appeals to ideas of a national character. Included in this is the idea of fair play, enshrined in expressions like ‘it’s just not cricket’.
It seems ironic then that one of the defining qualities said to make ‘us’ who ‘we’ are could be so readily set aside with the Internal Market Bill.
Arguably, Covid-19 has also heightened our awareness around issues of trust, especially in our political leaders.
The reported breaking of the lockdown rules in March 2020 by some of the architects of those rules, the U-turns and lack of clarity around the UK government’s handling of the pandemic have been reported as undermining the public’s trust in central government.
Like Brexit, Covid-19 has drawn attention to regional differences and disparities in England perhaps most notably in terms of the north-south divide; see, for example, the imposition of Tier 3 restrictions on Greater Manchester and the ensuing row about funding between the Greater Manchester Mayor and Westminster.
As the Brexit vote showed, the UK is not as united as the name suggests. Covid-19 has drawn more attention not only to the internal differences but also to the nation’s internal borders.
For example, different rules in Wales have raised conciousness in the English-Welsh border in a way not experienced in recent history.
Border-watching seems ever more important, whether this be in the safeguarding of the boundaries of our bodies against Covid-19, or the need to watch both the external and internal borders of the UK as the country enters a new era after 31 December 2020.