24 June 2016

Britain has a clean slate – now we must decide what we will do with it


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The country woke up this morning to a new Britain, a Britain that has finally done what it has been threatening to do for years. After being inundated with facts, fictions, arguments and pleas, 51.9 percent of Brits took a look at the runaway train of integration that is the EU and said: “No thank you”.

We have published extensive coverage on both sides of the debate, speculating about what happened and why. But aside from our re-imagined relationship with the EU, here are four aspects of the long-anticipated referendum that will have lasting consequences for the country.

1) Turnout was 72.2 percent – the highest since 1992. Compare that to last May, when just 66.1 percent of the electorate voted in the general elections. 3 million people who chose not to vote in 2015 made it to the ballot box this time. In an age where we are repeatedly told that voters are apathetic and disengaged, this is a huge success for democracy.

It is also another failure for the pollsters. In last year’s general election, faith in the polls came crashing down when not a single company managed to predict a Conservative majority – all consistently forecast a hung parliament, right up until the day before the election. This time it was different. The final polls varied wildly, ranging from a 8 point lead for Remain to a 2 point lead for Leave. At the last minute, the City made a bet for Remain, which muddied the waters further, but safe to say no one had a clue what was going to happen. We were always going to be in for a big shock, but a 4 point Leave victory was never on the cards.

So why couldn’t the pollsters figure it out? Is it a problem with sampling, weighting, technology, or interpretation? Or is it simply the case that we are entering an era of such diversity and inconsistency that polling has become ineffective and unproductive?

Either way, this referendum has proved beyond doubt that traditional methods of both polling and campaigning are out of date. We are no longer a mindlessly predictably electorate, and politicians need to wake up to that.

2) The demographic difference between the old and the young matters. The last poll before the referendum showed 72 percent support for Remain among 18-24 year-olds. As young Remainers have been angrily pointing out on twitter, these are the people who will have to endure the sharpest consequences from leaving. And they are not entirely wrong to conclude their views have been overridden.

After the general election last year, there were many of my age group who felt ignored and forgotten by the political establishment. This is the generation of people who have seen student loans introduced and raised to onerous levels without any consultation, who know the state pension pot they are currently paying into will not exist for them, who have seen the hope of stable lifelong employment quickly dissolving, who can barely afford to rent, let alone make use of government help to save to buy a home. Yes, in many ways Millennials have it better than any other generation in history. But that does not change the sense of rejection and distance felt as politicians in Westminster repeatedly cater to the old over the young.

Yesterday, a tweet about a man helping his 93-year-old mother to vote Leave went viral. Is it wrong for today’s students, recent graduates and young workers to argue that their views should have counted for more, or worry that they now face clearing up the chaos that their parents and grandparents’ generation has left for them? Of course, they will also have the most access to benefits that come with Leaving – less regulation and more freedom to shape their country’s future. But they have just lost their right to live and work anywhere in Europe, and they need reassuring that the government understands and represents their concerns. They have not yet had it.

3) David Cameron’s concession speech, which became a resignation, was noble, dignified, and deeply moving. Here is a man who put everything into a campaign he believed in, and did what he thought was best for his country.

Cameron has made some big mistakes with the EU. Promising a referendum he never wanted was one, and his botching of the renegotiations was so misjudged it angered Undecideds and Remainers as well as Leavers. His Remain team should have learnt from the Scottish referendum that voters do not like to feel patronised and belittled, and that scaremongering creates more bitterness than cohesion.

But over the last six years, Cameron has run Britain on a remarkably smooth course, and has made an effort to work with, not against, his political opponents. He formed a successful coalition with the Lib Dems, introduced a Living Wage, and spearheaded equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. This, along with the economic growth and stability the British economy has enjoyed since 2010, should be his legacy.

Instead, the Prime Minister’s gamble over Europe is being compared to Neville Chamberlain’s blunder regarding Hitler, and Anthony Eden’s mishandling of the Suez crisis. Already eyes are turning to his potential successors: the bombastic Boris Johnson whose bet on Brexit could soon pay off; steely-eyed Theresa May who, though she campaigned for Remain, has made immigration reform the centre point of her tenure as Home Secretary; the relatively unknown Stephen Crabb who stepped into Iain Duncan Smith’s shoes as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and is considered a rising star. Cameron is a lame duck, and though he maintained his dignity, the Tory party is now scrambling to replace him.

4) Which brings me to my final point: division. As Beatrice Faleri noted in her account of how the night played out, commentators have been reciting the phrase “a deeply divided country” on repeat for hours. But that does not make it any less true. Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, and Bristol voted strongly for Remain. The rest of the country, including most of Wales, backed Leave. The difference is stark. As has already been said, the antagonism between the campaigns has grown so intense in recent weeks that it is difficult to imagine now how the two sides can be reconciled.

But reconcile they must. Britain has great challenges ahead. The pound has crashed, our European neighbours are in shock, and the millions who demanded restrictions on immigration will want to see concrete reforms in the immediate future. We need a leader who can rise to these challenges. Jeremy Corbyn, the secret Leaver who ran a lukewarm campaign that failed to resonate with voters in the Labour heartlands, is facing a motion of no confidence. Cameron has no obvious successor. The question is not only “where do we go from here?” but also “who will lead us there?”.

This can be a time for optimism and inspiration. The EU is faltering, and Brexit may well prove to be a catalyst for the reform it so desperately needs, as Europe is reshaped along 21st century lines. We have a newly engaged electorate, and politicians are finally listening. And new opportunities beckon across the world, from the US to China to Australia.

Britain has a clean slate – now we must decide what we will do with it.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.