The UK has decided, by a very slender majority, that it wants to leave the European Union. We are now in a strange and uncertain place. This morning in Peterborough city centre I bumped into people who were jubilant, celebrating what they called Independence Day, and others who felt this was a disaster. Some were worried about what this will mean for the economy and for the cohesion of the Union. The Prime Minister has tendered his resignation and a new Prime Minster will in due course manage the Brexit negotiations.
The Government is split on this, the opposition is split too. The nation is split with 51.9% voting to leave and 48.1% voting to stay, on a 70% turnout. There seems to be a generational split, with those under 40 predominantly favouring remaining and those over 50 favouring leaving. Educational background is a factor too, with graduates and professional groups favouring remaining and those who left school younger and in social groups C2, D & E favouring leaving. Major cities, such as Leeds, Bristol, London, Cambridge and Oxford, favoured staying and other areas leaving not least South and East Lincolnshire and Peterborough. More significant is that in Scotland and Northern Ireland majorities voted to remain. It is a picture of a divided people and that gives me particular concern about where we find ourselves. Certainly not an environment to warrant street parties or triumphalism, the margin is just too small, and the dangers of where the tensions created by this division could lead too great.
We have a leadership vacuum at the heart of our political life. The major parties need time to decide what their focus now is, the agenda they would like to progress and how they will approach any conditions imposed by trading with a block we now cannot influence. How the markets will react after the weekend is yet to be seen, though the initial dive of the FTSE100 by 8.41% when markets opened was reduced to being 3.15% down at their close. We don’t know what the major financial institutions will do and if any will now relocate away from the UK. We will see if the worst fears are realised.
Political instability is a breeding ground of injustice. We are back to the discussions at the last election about what kind of country we want to be. An awful lot is now floating free or just not known and that kind of instability is not encouraging for inward investment or the strength of the currency. It may all come right in the end but I suspect we are in for a very bumpy ride in the meantime. I hope we haven’t just made a monumental mistake. I suspect that the most likely to suffer will be those who are already struggling.
We live in a world of interdependence, so I find the ‘this is our independence day’ slogan a fantasy. We live in a world where unity and cooperation are required to tackle the most intractable problems of migration, climate change and extremism. We live in a world that requires bridges to be built between cultures as has been the case since at least the bronze age for trading and shared ideas.
I am under no illusions about just how monumental this vote is. How we move forward will be crucial for the kind of society and common life we advance.