Last Friday (Jan 31) was no ordinary Friday. In all the chaos and global distress caused by the rampant spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, Brexit—which has been in the works since the original referendum in June 2016—seemed to pass without the commotion or celebration that should mark such a politically crucial event.
Well, the United Kingdom finally did it—in the favourite words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, they managed to “get Brexit done”. Being a foreigner in the UK on such a day, it was interesting to witness history happen from the perspective of an outsider.
I sat in a home in the northeast of England with UK friends. We all planned to watch the Brexit updates on the news and then enjoy the rest of the night together. My friends, who are part of the same close friendship circle and identify as “Geordies”—people from the northeast of England known for their distinct dialect and cultural traditions that make them northerners—were all riled up in anticipation of Brexit.
A keen observation that I have made while living in the UK is that its citizens take pride in their local heritage and identify more with, for example, being a Geordie (from the Newcastle area), a Brummy (someone from Birmingham) or a Mackem (a local from Sunderland), amongst others, as opposed to just being plain old British.
The divide caused by Brexit
In the last few years, thanks to the referendum, Brexit has altered how UK citizens view and identify themselves, in terms of their political views. Two clear sides have formed—the “Remainers” (those who voted to remain a part of the European Union) and the “Leavers” (those who voted to leave). It has no longer been about having a political party identity; it was about which side of the fence you stood at when it came to the Brexit question.
The EU referendum has brought about a divide in the UK between the competing factions and their ideologies. Discussions on Brexit would inevitably lead to people taking sides, and there would be no question as to who was a “Remainer” or a “Leaver”. I have not met a single person in the UK who has refrained from choosing a side about Brexit.
One thing is for sure—Brexit forced people in the UK to choose a “political identity”.
But what happens to that sense of identity now that the UK has officially left the EU? The fight is done—”Leavers” don’t need to fight Brexit anymore, and there is nothing left for “Remainers” to do to stop it. Will these identities just be forgotten, now that Brexit is over? Or will they persist and grow stronger, reinforcing the divide in the country?
What is for certain is that Brexit is being and will be interpreted differently by the two sides. Regardless of what happens in terms of negotiating with the EU, the UK will now always have two points of view to consider and contend with. A decision made by the government will not just be viewed as “good” or “bad”, it will be viewed in the light of being either a “Leaver” or a “Remainer”.
Back to the day Brexit happened. After the official announcement erupted on the news, the tension in the room was palpable. Our friends who were “Leavers” broke out in cheers and shouts, and those who were “Remainers” sat in stony silence.
I stayed quiet, too, out of respect for what surely was one of the biggest political changes my UK friends were going to have to live through.
What happened next? You guessed it; a very lively political debate ensued between the “Leavers” and the “Remainers”. However, the debate soon turned into an argument that was no longer healthy by any standards—tempers flared, voices were raised, not-so-nice comments were exchanged amongst friends (someone even threw a shoe!) and the night fizzled out completely as the “Leavers” decided to, well, leave the party (the house belonged to a “Remainer”).
In what felt like an allegory for Brexit, I sat in the house with the “Remainers” while they wondered heatedly amongst themselves what made their “Leaver” friends choose their political views. The “Leavers”, or the rest of our friends, did not return to the party, and the rest of the night was a bust.
Since then, messages exchanged on the group chat shared by all have been civil. There were some feeble attempts at apologies, but the division is still keenly felt and somehow cannot be forgotten.
Is unification possible in the near future?
Certain things on the horizon, such as the UK’s incoming trade deals with the EU and other states, could determine the future of Leave and Remain identities. All trade deals dictate a “trade off between sovereignty and access”—the more access you get, the more control you give up over your own trade and economic policy.
The choice between the two—sovereignty and access—will shape UK citizens’ perceptions regarding the deal they are able to secure. The UK will be seen as either not allowing enough access, giving too much control away, or maybe even both.
Should the deal answer concerns from both sides and bring about contentment and security, it is possible that the “Leave” and “Remain” identities will fade over time.
This is not the first instance that the UK has been divided in the face of a deal. Former prime minister Theresa May’s deal never worked as it did not appeal to either of the strongest ends of the identity spectrum in British politics. Today, “Remainers” have found this current deal to be “too Brexit”, and for “Leavers”, it was “not Brexit enough”.
For Brexit, Johnson has focused on making the offer more attractive to “Leavers” while not alienating the “Remainers” too much. Will he continue this strategy as the UK negotiates with the EU for a deal? Johnson has expressed the desire to steer clear of more division and plans to work toward the unification of the UK.
As the UK moves forward with Brexit, there is a risk that the way the UK government conducts itself during the negotiations will further push the “Remainers” away, as they did not vote to leave the EU in the first place. If the government is able to balance and represent the concerns of both the “Leavers” and the “Remainers” during talks with the EU, it might just be able to bridge the divide.
If the UK does not manage to wear away at the gap between “Leavers” and “Remainers”, the spirit of politics and society in the country could remain fractured and could deteriorate further in the future. Securing a deal with the EU that has the peoples’ interests in mind—with both sides represented—could be the beginning of a reunification for the nation after Brexit. /TISG