Photograph by Annie Spratt
Europe / Brexit

A Country Bitterly Divided

Anyone who has followed the chain of events in the UK ever since the vote in 2016 to leave the European Union has witnessed how this simple referendum has upended political life. You can easily see this by looking at the party conferences that usually go on in the fall: the Conservatives, having recently elected their new leader Boris Johnson, were quaffing bottles of Pol Roger champagne while repeating the mantra of “getting Brexit done,” whereas the Liberal Democrats, lying on the other side of the Brexit debate, were spotted selling berets with the EU flag emblazoned on them while making promises that they would cancel Article 50 (the mechanism by which the UK will leave the EU) if they were elected at the next general election.

Polarization has become the norm in the UK, and the UK has become a battleground for what could only be described as a culture war that not only encompasses the traditional left-right political axis, but also social liberalism versus social conservatism. In many ways, Boris Johnson is shifting the Conservatives further in the direction of both economic and social conservatism in order to remove the threat of right-wing populists like Nigel Farage. The opposition, for many, seem weak: the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, has often been criticized for not taking a side in the Brexit referendum – while he did vote Remain, he comes from a branch of politics that is generally skeptical of the EU, especially when it comes to economics.

Yet, it is not just the Brexit debate that has left the UK polarized. The divide between the North of the UK (formerly the center of heavy industries such as mining, manufacturing and shipbuilding) and the South (which has always been more associated with services) has gotten more and more bitter ever since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and began shifting Britain towards services, thereby shifting the focus of British policy southwards. Lincoln, my home city, is definitely more on the “northern” end of the scale, and there is a definite mood of resentment towards the wealthier south. 

Take, for example, transport. While London basks in the glory of its high-tech Elizabeth Line, which should be open in the near future, many Northerners have to deal with commutes on trains like the dreaded Pacer, a disgusting combination of a bus and train that is approaching its thirtieth birthday, well past its status as “temporary” transport for rural lines. Oftentimes, the news media in the UK has a certain reputation as well of being part of a “Westminster bubble”: it’s all well and good reporting on Johnson’s political scheme of the day, but people want to hear about what happens in other localities, and news that isn’t solely political in nature.

Outside of England, we now see a resurgence of Scottish independence: after being promised that remaining in the UK was the best way to safeguard their EU participation, it is no wonder that Scotland cannot trust England any more, and independence may be their way to get out of the current political mess the UK finds itself in. Even worse is what is happening in Northern Ireland right now: the threat of a hard border has led to the restarting of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. If there is anything the country does not need right now, It would be the restarting of a conflict that caused hundreds of lives to be lost, and the tearing up of the peace process that took years of arduous work to obtain.

This is not to mention the elephant in the room—Britain’s class system. The past ten years have been great for the “1%” in the UK, with companies making record profits, as well as tax cuts meaning they get to keep more of the money they earn. If you happen to be poor, however, then the UK has become more miserable. The botched rollout of Universal Credit, Britain’s unified social security system, and its draconian rules such as having to wait five weeks for a payment after unemployment, has led people into dire poverty and having to rely on food banks to survive. The National Health Service is chronically underfunded, with long waiting times for care, which creates even more inequality in health as many simply cannot afford to go private. Under the Conservative government, the social safety net that Britain has enjoyed for so long is being swept from under its feet, making life potentially a lot more miserable if you don’t have the means to look after yourself without government help.

The next general election in December is going to be fought along an unprecedented number of lines:  Leave vs. Remain, North vs. South, rich vs. poor, as well as the expected party lines. No matter who wins the next general election—the incumbent Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party with its social democratic agenda, or the Liberal Democrats with their strong anti-Brexit views—it is clear that a large number of British people will be dissatisfied. The political debate in the UK could turn even uglier than it has done in the past as the lines solidify, making, for example, the constant press attacks on Corbyn look tame by comparison. 

It is perhaps Jeremy Corbyn, however, who stands the best chance of unifying the UK. While Labour’s message of “for the many not the few” may be anathema to billionaires, who have threatened to leave the UK if Labour get elected, it does encapsulate an agenda that seeks to reform the UK and make it a more equitable place: investment in infrastructure and the NHS, a second Brexit referendum, as well as progressive economic policies like ensuring the 1% pay their fair share of tax. That’s not to say I do not have concerns about Corbyn’s Labour Party: his handling of the antisemitism scandal engulfing his party has been somewhat lackluster, even if it is most likely that Corbyn himself does not hold anti Semitic views, being a lifetime campaigner for anti-racism, and he should be more willing to compromise with the “Blairites” in the right-wing section of the Labour Party. On the other hand, when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seem to be offering “more of the same” in terms of policy: more privatization and a continuation of the current economic agenda, maybe with differing views on Brexit, it seems as if the Labour Party is the only way forward from the current comedy which is British politics.

An election will only provide political answers for at most five years, however. Whoever the next prime minister is have a gargantuan task on their hands, as Britain faces divisions that seem almost irreparable in their scale, and the state of the government looks increasingly perilous as the days go on. Perhaps I am being a little pessimistic with my predictions as to what the future will hold, but I believe that the current times in the UK reflect the age of crisis we are currently living in, and that  things may only get worse once the real impact of factors like the climate crisis are felt. Potentially, it is time for Britain to unify around the greater good, working together to solve the real problems facing society and heal the divisions which seem omnipresent, so that the UK can come out of the current storm stronger, not weaker.