When Brexit was conceived by the then slim conservative majority in parliament to win over skeptical, older voters, few could conceive of the tumult it would cause the country over the next four years. The gambit did work for then prime minister David Cameron and his Tory majority were enlarged. But, at the same time, it locked his party and country into a collision course with destiny.
The consequences of that choice are being felt today. In 2016, the country was split asunder by a remain/leave campaign which resulted in 30 million voters deciding to leave by a 52/48 margin. Clear generation and geographic cleavages were laid bare as almost 70 percent of voters under 29, Scottish and urban voters opted to remain in the country. A slightly smaller, but more significant, set of voters over the age of 50 opted to leave. Their votes carried the day.
Not only were these divides made apparent but the vote also split the traditional left/right paradigm in the UK. Despite calling for the referendum in his 2015 general election campaign, then pm David Cameron urged voters to remain. Many older labor lawmakers, belonging to the remain party of Jeremy Corbyn, opted to sell the exit option.
This splitting of the parties has continued to the present and is somewhat of a reflection of America and how Donald Trump’s election has scrambled the old, political calculus. It did not help that Cameron stepped down after the vote. This split the majority tory party even more and led to the election of the now-infamous Theresa May. May, who had campaigned for remain, quickly pivoted to an orderly Brexit, but to do this, in the summer of 2017 she called for a general election which turned out to be disastrous. What was surprising about the election is domestic issues took center stage at a time when Brexit was the dominant issue of the time.
A significantly smaller tory majority combined with a number of “rebel” lawmakers made may’s job a living hell. Negotiations with the EU did not go well and what was supposed to be an orderly exit on March 31 of this year has yet to pass. Meanwhile, because labor and the tories are split, and the tories do not have a working majority on the issue, all the oxygen in the room has been sucked up by Brexit. This has led to the rise of old and new third parties.
The biggest beneficiaries of the tory and labor divide are the LDP and Brexit party. Specifically, the Brexit party is led by old UKIP (united kingdom independence party) leader Nigel Farage and he has captured the hearts of many older, leave voters. By contrast, the LDP (liberal democratic party) has solidly been in the stay camp and has captured younger, more urban, upscale labor voters. This was evident in 2017 when even as labor was capturing old tory strongholds, they were losing urban, dense districts in London to the LDP.
All these interacting variables have made an orderly exit impossible. In fact, the tories all but admitted as such when they chose former backbencher Boris Johnson to head their party into a date with destiny on October 31. For reference, October 31 is the arbitrary date the tories have set for a “no-deal” Brexit if they cannot pass a leave vote through parliament.
There are numerous reasons why a “no-deal” leave vote would be bad (putting it mildly). The first is the UK would lose access to the favorable trade status it has with the EU as a member. Secondly, it would disrupt long-established logistical chains. It would also reimpose hard, physical barriers that would impact trade, particularly along the English channel between the UK and France and Northern Ireland and Ireland. It would also impose a hard physical barrier between the Irelands and impact reunification efforts there.
Similarly, Donald Trump’s election in the U.S has exposed deep geographical and political cleavages. While the president has not tried to impose leaving major treaties or agreements he has railed against said treaties and agreements. He has also appealed to deep-seated opinions and worries about how foreign interests are outweighing those of citizens and older Americans.
In both nations, putting the genie back in the bottle is hardly an easy task. Here at home in the U.S, Trump might not be very adept at implementing his agenda but many candidates are speaking similar language about foreign agreements disadvantaging the U.S to the benefit of other nations and elites. Johnson, similarly, is attempting to bulldoze his way to a “no-deal” Brexit because at this point, let’s be real here, the EU is not going to budge on their demands as they need to show other EU nations with similar divides leaving is not to be tolerated.
Much remains to been seen how this divide gets resolved. Most likely, the UK will see another election this winter or sooner while America is primed for one of the most divisive elections in modern times. no easy fixes exist for resolving, geographical, political, and generational divides.