Four years on from the political earthquake that rocked Whitehall and Westminster the dust begins to settle, but the lessons are still to be learned. Brexit exposed a political system that was unable to comprehend or respond to changes that it did not see coming.
But it also showed the strengths of a democratic system that ultimately returned to the people to determine the direction of the country. The story of the years that follow must be one of reforming, strengthening and renewing representative democracy.
It begins with a recognition that the Brexit earthquake was built on fault lines that had been growing for decades.
Over forty years the loss of manufacturing and industrial jobs outside the major cities, coupled with a political approach to regeneration that invested in those cities in the hope the economic benefits would trickle out, led to very different experiences of globalisation in towns and cities.
As the Centre for Towns has shown, as jobs were lost from towns and young people migrated to the cities, the demographics of the UK were fundamentally changed.
As a consequence, what began as a growing economic divide, also became cultural. As Jennings and Stoker showed in their ground breaking study ‘Two Englands’, attitudes to the EU in towns and cities were largely similar in the 1990s.
By 2010 this was no longer true. Cities are now home to younger, university educated populations who hold more liberal views on issues like immigration, crime and human rights – while towns are home to older people who tend to be more socially conservative.
Brexit pushed those divisions to the surface, rocking the foundations of British politics. Much has been written about how, for Labour, it shattered the electoral coalition that has propelled us to power on just three occasions in the last century.
But for the Conservatives, who whose winning election strategy was aimed squarely at older voters in the ‘red wall’, it continues to pose a challenge. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was never simply about leaving the EU. It has to deliver investment and political power to those areas too.
There is no return to the world before 2016. The culture war the referendum sparked was not unique to Britain and while it was arguably the first we have experienced in recent decades, it will not be the last.
Across the world progressive politicians have grappled with similar phenomenon. In Australia, while climate change protestors in major cities called for faster, urgent action on global warming, communities in rural Australia saw their livelihoods and the basis of community life threatened.
Donald Trump won the 2016 election by appealing to traditional Democrat voters in the rust belt, whose communities had suffered from deindustrialisation; and he has since sought to exploit tensions between them and liberal voters.
In France the yellow vests uprisings movement exposed similar divisions that President Macron continues to wrestle with. Culture wars have become a tool in our politics, used to exploit insecurities and further political ambitions.
In recent weeks debates have raged on social media about transgender rights, while the campaigning group Hope Not Hate has shown how far right movements have sought to use the Black Lives Matters protests to argue that ‘British values’ are under threat.
So what is to be done?
First we must tackle the geographical polarisation that has come to redefine the political and social landscape. During Brexit it was common for MPs to hear only one view from their constituents depending on the part of the country they represented, leading to a polarised, angry debate in Parliament.
Meanwhile as social media has become more common in public debate, it has pushed people further into silos as we seek out those who validate our world views and lost the ability to understand one another. This polarisation is primarily a consequence of changing demographics.
The Centre for Towns has shown how young people in Hastings are no less liberal than their peers in London, but too seldom have a choice to stay and contribute to their towns. Rebuilding the economy in areas that have experienced decades of decline is a key part of reversing this geographic polarisation.
Political change is needed too. The vote to leave the EU was a direct challenge to a system which felt remote and unaccountable to too many people.
The fact that most in Westminster and Whitehall didn’t see it coming and couldn’t comprehend why it had happened, has exposed a model of representative democracy that itself is too centralised, remote and unaccountable, with too few ways to bring people together and build bridges.
To really ‘Get Brexit Done’ this is the missing part of the jigsaw: political power moving back out to the places that most need it.
In a post-Covid world both the economic and political challenge is greater than it was in December 2019. The virus has knocked the notion of ‘levelling up’ off the agenda, and seen the government hoard more power to the centre, trying to direct a locally implemented response from the centre with predictably poor results.
Were we to use this moment to change course, we would find a country eager for change, with far more in common than the last four years would lead us to believe.
Despite every attempt to divide us, the country that lies beneath the surface is more united, less angry and far more willing to embrace change. The debate about who we celebrate in public spaces has raged in places as diverse as Bristol, Oldham and Wigan in recent years, with a similar clamour for greater recognition of women, working classes and ethnic minorities.
The Black Lives Matters protests showed us to be a country where people from every background took to the streets to demand a country free from discrimination, in stark contrast to the 1980s race protests of my childhood. And as the nation clapped for our carers through the pandemic, perhaps a new consensus is emerging about the frontline workers who were put last during a decade of austerity, and must now be first.
All of this could become the legacy of a divisive, difficult few years in Britain. Whether it does is now largely up to us.
By Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan and Shadow Foreign Secretary.