Divided Britain? We were already divided… – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Divided Britain? We were already divided…

It couldn’t have been a more different atmosphere. Back in the heady days of the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the ‘Common Market’, every single national newspaper urged a ‘yes’ vote with the exception of the Morning Star. Rupert Murdoch, the Mail’s Sir David English, prime minister Harold Wilson and former PM Edward Heath all scorned the arguments of left-wing proponents of a ‘no’ vote such as Tony Benn and urged Britain to renew its ties to the rest of Europe. The result was a 2 to 1 ‘yes’ vote and relief for the political establishment.

The whole problem is that neither a press that is largely dominated by billionaire proprietors nor broadcasters that are all too often enmeshed with the elites themselves, are able to make sense of and to articulate the divisions that exist in our society.

Fast forward to June 24, 2016 and things are very different. The decision to leave the European Union is evidence that consensus has now officially broken down. ‘Today we wake to a deeply divided country’, cried LibDem leader Tim Farron on the morning of the referendum result while the Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland noticed that, given the hugely different poll results between the biggest metropolitan centres and the rest, ‘England is exposed as a land divided’. Story after story, meme after meme, now talks of ‘Divided Britain’: a land marked by a collapse in trust and working-class communities at war with the political ‘mainstream’.

Unlike 1975, we also have a divided press with the Sun, Mail, Express, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph on the ‘leave’ side with the Guardian, Observer, Times, Mail on Sunday and Mirror all lining up behind ‘remain’. True, if you weight their impact by partisanship and reach, there was an 82% circulation advantage for the ‘leave’ side but ‘Fleet Street’ (let alone individual newsrooms), as well as the country as a whole, would appear to be irredeemably divided.

This is all surface analysis. First, the press may have been divided on their specific attitude to ‘Brexit’ but they remain largely united on the bigger issues that surround the debate: on the need for immigration controls, austerity and deregulated markets. Endorsements for either side emanated from a heady mixture of proprietorial influence, ideological fixations and material interests – not least the views of their readers. According to YouGov, over 70% of Sun, Express and Mail readers supported ‘Brexit’ in March 2016 before their papers formally endorsed one side while 91% of Guardian readers and 62% of Times readers were ‘remain’ supporters before the campaign officially started. Given the fragile state of news finances, it would be a bold editor who would go against the views of their readers.

More fundamentally, Britain was divided long before the referendum campaign got going. The economic disparities behind the powerlessness that led voters to reject the status quo in such large numbers are, according to Larry Elliott writing on the morning after the vote, ‘deep-seated and of long standing.’ He concludes that the UK is a ‘country divided by wealth, geography and class.’ The tragedy is that the bulk of media attention during the referendum totally failed to do justice to these underlying questions of inequality, alienation and frustration with ‘official’ politics and focused instead on painting the vote mostly in terms of a civil war inside the Conservative Party.

The whole problem is that neither a press that is largely dominated by billionaire proprietors nor broadcasters that are all too often enmeshed with the elites themselves, are able to make sense of and to articulate the divisions that exist in our society. Of course, some titles – like the Express, Sun and the Mail – are determined to ramp up divisions by blaming immigrants for all social problems, adding to a poisonous atmosphere generated by politicians on both sides of the campaign. By and large, however, the national media are mostly not interested in highlighting and analyzing the divisions that are truly meaningful and that would require them to acknowledge the structural inequalities that permeate the UK.

The breakdown of consensus that we are now being assaulted with in headlines and hashtags masks the existence of a more enduring consensus: the determination of Britain’s elites – including those inside the media – to hold onto power and to maintain their influence. True, they may have had very different perspectives on how EU membership would assist this, but their underlying devotion to vested interests, capital flows and market fundamentalism goes beyond a tactical question of ‘remain’ or ‘leave’. This is what was missing from the referendum campaign and what progressives from both sides will have to confront in the uncertain days and months that lie ahead.