“Well, the Brexit campaign was built on fear of immigration, and its followers were racists who were just too uneducated to know any better.” The rest of the students in the class nodded and grumbled their assent, and the lecture went on.
Just a little over a year ago, on June 23, 2016, British citizens made one of the most consequential political decisions of their lifetime. It would determine the future trajectory of their country as well as that of the European Union. Predicated on a Conservative campaign promise to appease the British people, the referendum focused most heavily on the issues of sovereignty and immigration. Its results revealed a clear divide between Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London, which voted overwhelmingly to remain, and the rest of England and Wales.
In March of this year, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government sent formal notice of her intention to withdraw from the European Union. Article 50 has now been invoked and the withdrawal process is well underway, with the two sides locked in negotiations on terms of exit as well as life after exit. The news reports that both the EU and Britain want to settle on a good deal, as a disorderly departure could lead to serious economic and security challenges. Four decades of marriage have seen the two bodies inextricably tied in economic, military, and intelligence issues. The untangling of the relationship’s many tendrils will be inevitably complicated.
However negotiations go, the divorce of Britain from the EU is no longer an if but a when and how. But what remains below the diplomatic surface is a deeply divided country. The chasm that opened between liberal, intellectual elites and the fiercely conservative working class has surprised many of the country’s citizens. The chasm has also evoked a not-so-subtle comparison to the gaping division in American society that has largely governed politics and dialogue, or the lack thereof, since Trump’s election.
Hostility and resentment between the two groups remain very much alive today. As demonstrated by the statement of a British classmate, the Brexit supporters are often condescendingly referred to as uneducated, unintelligent working-class citizens driven by racist, xenophobic, and generally illiberal sentiments. From their perspective, however, the Remain camp is made up of detached elites. The Remain camp is characterized as intellectuals with no concern for the working class; they are the few spoiled enough to have the wealth necessary for exploiting the marriage with Europe. This demonizing of the opposition will not do anything to heal the country and will in fact push the two groups farther apart.
The divide is further exacerbated by modern technology and the diffusion of information sources. With social media algorithms that only show us the news, posts, and messages with which we already agree and tabloids that proudly pronounce their disdain for truth, it is easier and easier for citizens to stay within their personal ideological bubble. The globalization and urbanization that have fostered increased diversity. However, increased anonymity has also resulted in a decline in community participation and the healthy dialogue that goes with it.
In this naturally divisive environment, dialogue is more important than ever. Without meaningful dialogue, we cannot hope to bridge the chasm that has opened across Western societies. Not only does the bridge need to be created, its crossing needs to be celebrated. The British (and French) tradition of new ideas, discourse, and debate were the foundations on which the modern Western world was born and flourished. Its protection is vital to guaranteeing a happy future for the West. The British, just like the Americans, have a democratic responsibility to engage with other citizens in a nationwide conversation. The decision to leave the EU, a decision that has pulled the rug out from under millions of optimistic Brits, especially younger generations, must be pulled apart, analyzed, and understood if the country is to heal its gaping wounds and avoid increasing the distance between these two groups.
There is no way to overstate the precarious position on which the great Western democracies now sit. But neither is there a way to overstate the potential humankind has always had to recover from its greatest mistakes and create a better future.