The hard versus soft Brexit debate provides a smokescreen for the less discussed question of how the divide between Brexiteers and Remainers is widening post-referendum.
The UK’s EU referendum divided British society like no other political event has done in the recent past. The referendum revealed that the public is split in two broad camps. On the one hand, those who consider themselves the winners of globalisation, i.e. younger, educated and well-off individuals, voted to remain. On the other hand, the so-called ‘losers of globalisation’ voted to leave the EU. These include the less educated, the less affluent, older and professionally vulnerable people who feel threatened by market liberalisation.
The two official referendum campaigns ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ and ‘Vote Leave’ set the agenda by transforming the debate into a battle between two issues: the economy versus immigration. This resonated with the voters. Those who voted to remain did so primarily because of the risk of economic uncertainty whereas Brexiteers stated control of immigration and sovereignty as their main concerns.
The campaigns were very powerful, as they appear to have also set the post-Referendum agenda. Brexit is now perceived as a trade-off between access to the single market and curbing EU migration. The ‘soft’ approach to Brexit suggests that the UK should remain a member of the single market at the cost of continued free access for European nationals to work and settle in the UK. The ‘hard’ approach favours an arrangement that prioritises control of migration and sovereignty over access to the single market.
Theresa May’s Speech at the Conservative party conference appeared to be in line with the hard approach to Brexit. May and her Cabinet colleagues have interpreted the referendum result as a popular mandate for curbing EU migration and restoring full Parliamentary control over legislation. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has reinforced this view by arguing that ‘It’s only by reducing the numbers back down to sustainable levels that we can change the tide of public opinion’.
A ‘hard’ approach to Brexit has two advantages. First, the government will appear to deliver on what the people voted for, allowing the PM to reinstate public trust. Besides, one of the arguments quoted by Brexit voters was distrust in the government. Second, in practice a hard Brexit might be easier to negotiate in the short time-span of two years after Article 50 has been evoked. Partial access to the single market with specific arrangements for EU nationals might take very long to negotiate; and may be even harder to sell to the public. A timely negotiation will enhance the government’s ability to argue that it has governed the country effectively. This could be an easy win for the Conservative party in the run up to the 2020 general election.
However, the key policy challenge that lies ahead for this government is beyond hard versus soft Brexit. It relates to how Brexit can be achieved with a view to safeguarding the UK’s interests while at the same time uniting the British people and avoiding further polarisation. To do so, the government needs to go further into understanding Brexit. While it is true that a number of Britons voted for Brexit in order to express disapproval of EU policies and politics, which suggests that they may opt for ‘hard’ Brexit, others did so in order to express discontent against the political elite and to signal that they feel left behind. Brexit will not necessarily benefit these groups unless combined with a social policy agenda that improves social cohesion, enables these groups to improve their immediate well-being and increases social mobility for all.
For Brexit to work, as this is a major constitutional change, it needs to take into consideration the interests of a number of social groups in a democratic way. While curbing EU migration may appeal to the working classes, it is very likely to disaffect parts of the middle class.
A strong anti-immigration rhetoric may also alienate the educated who tend to prioritise values such as tolerance and cosmopolitanism. Cutting ties with the EU may satisfy older voters who perceive Brexit as beneficial to the welfare state, but it might disempower younger and more mobile individuals and possibly result in further anti-establishment views. A break-up with the EU might please a substantive majority of English voters, but is very likely to be resisted in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and parts of London.
And while it is not clear who will benefit from a new economic partnership with the EU, businesses are likely to struggle from economic uncertainty. A declining economy will only sharpen these divisions unless domestic public policy measures, including investment in public infrastructure, can be implemented quickly to provide market confidence to businesses and consumers as well as reassurance to workers on employment rights. May’s insistence that she will not give a ‘running commentary’ on Brexit negotiations may also serve to further alienate some social groups and reinforce feelings of exclusivity.
The Conservative party has promised a country ‘that works for everyone’. Such a country requires responsible politics that respect a variety of interests, encourage public engagement and welcome interest group involvement in policy-making.
This article was written by Dr Sofia Vasilopoulou, Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of York.