Now we know. After an intense and desperately close-fought contest, the results of the UK’s referendum on EU membership are in. By a relatively narrow margin of just four percentage points, Brexit carried the day and the country is now on a path which will lead out of the EU.
The national result was very finely balanced, as the polls have warned us it would be. The country is split into two almost equally sized groups, only one of which woke up happy on the morning after the vote. The vote divides us by generation (older voters were more pro Brexit than the young), education (graduates tended to be the least pro-Brexit, those with no formal qualifications most in favour), and so on. The divisions cross party lines: only UKIP supporters were unanimous in their (unsurprising) support for Brexit, while supporters of most other parties were more split. And, no doubt, many families and groups of friends have found themselves on opposite sides of the debate as it has progressed.
But the divisions are not just social and personal, but are also geographical. The vote reveals a country split between some major metropolitan areas and parts of the Celtic fringe on the one hand, and much of provincial England and Wales on the other. Only three regions, Scotland, London and Northern Ireland, gave majority support to remaining in the EU (as predicted, Scotland was easily the most pro-EU region, followed by London ). In the rest of the country, Brexit prevailed – most strikingly so in the North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire.
Within each region, too, there were major variations. In Northern Ireland, the internal geography saw a split between majority support for remaining in the EU in areas with large Nationalist and Catholic populations in the west and south of the province and in Belfast, and majority support for Brexit in the Protestant and Unionist dominated east). In the North of England, Brexit prevailed in most areas outside of Leeds, Manchester (and its more affluent commuter suburbs), Liverpool, Harrogate, York, South Lakeland and (by the narrowest of margins) Newcastle. In the Midlands, only places like Leicester, Ruschliffe, and Warwick stood out against the Brexit majority, as did, further south, a string of local authorities running along the M4 corridor to Bristol. Several university towns (Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, Exeter…) also stand out as rare pro-EU islands in a Brexit sea. And in London, a clear divide is visible between affluent central and west London (where Remain prevailed) and the poorer eastern fringes of the city, which went Brexit.
Most striking however is the strong swathe of Brexit support running along England’s eastern margins (through much of East Anglia, Lincolnshire, and up into the industrial North East), and across the midlands into the Birmingham area. In communities dominated by those ‘left behind’ by globalisation and by the restructuring of the UK’s economy (older, less affluent, white), Brexit flourished (as did UKIP at the 2015 UK General Election). In England especially, the geography of the Brexit vote picks up, to a considerable degree, a fracture line between young, successful Britain and areas which have been by-passed by the benefits of modernity, and know it.
As we stumble into the morning after the referendum night before, the UK looks like a fractured and fractious society. How do we begin to rebuild?