The ripple effects of Brexit

Kirstie Hewlett and George Murkin | Jul 2021

Brexit revealed and reinforced longstanding cultural divisions in the UK. Far from just being about Britain’s relationship with the EU, it drew a bright red line between groups of people with opposing identities and worldviews. And five years on from the referendum vote, it’s still playing a crucial role in the “culture war” that’s increasingly claimed to exist in the UK.

Indeed, as John Curtice recently highlighted, Brexit support taps into a wider set of values, and the Conservative party’s focus on cultural conflicts and an “anti-woke agenda” is an attempt to appeal to these values and maintain a connection with Leave voters.

The link between Brexit and cultural division can be seen in media reporting, too. Our research shows that, in the months following the referendum, many of the journalists reporting on “culture wars” in the UK did so through the lens of whether you voted Leave or Remain – although, more recently, the focus has given way to other cultural flashpoints, such as the British empire and Covid-19.

But despite this, social conflicts centred around Brexit still resonate with the public. 78% of people believe there is at least a fair amount of tension between Leavers and Remainers today. And this includes 38% who think there is a great deal of tension between them – the highest proportion who say this about any of the groups in our study, which also looked at views of how strained relations are between rich and poor, and immigrants and people born in the UK.

This is in line with other findings from our research, which show that people’s Brexit identities continue to inspire strong feelings. Both Leavers and Remainers have a negative view of the “other side” – although the latter are considerably more negative than the former.

29% of Remain supporters say it’s hard to be friends with people who voted Leave in the EU referendum – four times the 7% of Leavers who say the same about Remain voters. And when asked to score how they feel towards the other side on a scale – with 100 the “warmest” and 0 the “coldest” – Remainers rate their feelings towards Leavers at 29, while Leavers give Remain voters a relatively “warmer” rating of 42.

This may in part reflect the fact that Remainers were on the losing side of the referendum: they likely still feel aggrieved about the result, while Leavers have less to complain about. But this shows how difficult it can be for some to see past these divides, and points to how a “culture war” signals much more than just disagreement. We identify with our own side, denigrate the other side, and start to see the world – and most importantly, its future – entirely differently.

Hence we also found that people’s position on Brexit is associated with very different perceptions of a policy issue closely linked to it. 54% of Remainers correctly recognise that, in 2016/17, European immigrants in the UK contributed more in taxes than they received in welfare benefits and public services, compared with 22% of Leavers who believe this. While Remainers appear less able to see past the Brexit divide, they are therefore more much more likely than Leavers to be right about an important salient fact.

So what does this all mean for where the country’s headed? A big concern is whether we’re embarking on the same path that the US began to go down in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a deeply polarised society that ends up with the kind of conflict we saw in the US Capitol attack in January.

The good news is that Britons are much less likely than Americans to say their country is divided by culture wars, and we generally think there is a lot less tension between different groups in society than they do. We also do not – as yet – have the same consolidated party-political identities as in the US, where worldviews across economic and cultural issues can be very largely predicted based on connection to the two main parties.

But at the same time, many Britons’ views on cultural issues are still tied up with the side of the Brexit debate with which they identify, more so than with their party-political affiliations. This has the potential to lead to more all-encompassing division, as compromise across these divides becomes harder when cultural perspectives become a core part of how we see ourselves.     

Half a decade on from the Brexit vote, it’s still shaping our culture, society and who we think we are.