Tuesday 9 April 2019 8:26 am

Brexit hoped to heal the UK, but instead it leaves wounds that will not easily be closed

The other day, my three-year-old son gave me a geography lesson. Him: “This is Battersea Park.” Me: “That’s right.” Him: “And Battersea Park is in London?” Me: “Yes, and we’re also in England and in Britain.”

At which point he shook his head. “No,” he insisted. “Just London.”

Political analysis obviously runs in the family. Because at the heart of the Brexit debate – and many of the other big issues – is a sense that this place is different, in a way that those living here often struggle to appreciate.


Last week, some fascinating YouGov polling showed that, if forced to choose, every part of England would go for a no-deal Brexit over staying in the European Union – apart from London, where the result was a crushing win for Remain.

In other words, even as metropolitan types despairingly wail “why can’t they just cancel the whole thing?” their country cousins are largely saying instead: “Why can’t they just bloody get on with it?”

It’s not just the House of Commons that’s deadlocked: it’s the country.

The Conservatives, for example, are essentially now the Leave party – at least in England.

For the government, delivering on the referendum verdict isn’t just a democratic necessity: it’s politically vital. But it’s about more than Brexit.

Back in 2016, I pointed out that May was mimicking the model of conservatism developed by John Howard in Australia: provincial, suburban, patriotic, anti-immigration, targeting Privet Drive rather than Primrose Hill.

One of her senior advisers texted to agree. The 2017 election subsequently pivoted the party firmly towards the north and midlands, and away from the affluent south.


Yet this, of course, poses problems. The Tories are, or should be, the party of the City – of global trade, capital, and liberal economics. Combining the two audiences will be a huge challenge, but a necessary one.

That’s nothing, however, compared to the dilemma facing the Labour party. According to academics, Labour activists are even more pro-Remain than their Tory counterparts are pro-Brexit. And the parts of the country that are keenest on Remain are also generally the keenest on Labour – London foremost among them.

But Labour also controls the seats which are most pro-Leave – the industrial working-class heartlands.

One of the few points of agreement between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May is that respecting the referendum means ending free movement. That’s because the Labour leadership wants to appease those Leave-leaning constituencies – even if it means infuriating its metropolitan activists.

Brexit has already divided Britain.

Checking Google Trends shows that searches involving the word “traitor” have doubled in a year. “Betrayal”, “Remoaner”, “Brexshit” and other terms of abuse have all spiked up as well.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, these wounds in the body politic will not easily be closed.

London is an extraordinary national asset. But one of the reasons Brexit happened in the first place is that large chunks of the country felt that growth and opportunity were increasingly being concentrated within the boundaries of the M25.

The latest study by the Hansard Society shows that trust in politicians has plunged pretty much everywhere – but those outside London are much less likely to think that their getting involved will fix anything.

Building a country that works for everyone – without diluting what has made London great – remains an urgent task. But it feels harder to do than ever.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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