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24 June 2016

Divided Kingdom – now the real challenge is to negotiate with our own disaffected compatriots

Written by: Ed Williams, Chief Executive Officer, Vice Chairman Europe at Edelman

Brexit, Government Affairs, Trust

If we didn’t know it already, it’s clear now. We live in a Divided Kingdom. And a shocked one. Even those who championed the cause of leaving the EU seem to be surprised by what has happened. Many thought the financial markets had priced in the risks attached to a Leave vote. Nobody, politician or trader, had priced in the resignation of Britain’s prime minister.

David Cameron’s announcement that he will not stay in office has deepened the shock. The Leave campaign had been hoping he would stay on, but he has seen it differently. Now, the uncertainty attending the decision by the British people to shun union with Europe will be multiplied by the wait to see who will win what could be a vicious Tory leadership contest.

If there is division in the country, it will only be deepened by this continuing uncertainty, but should today’s results actually be a shock?

While Cameron’s rapid retreat from the fray was truly unexpected and will weaken Britain’s hand in the unprecedented and painful divorce negotiations with 27 angry governments, the decision that overthrew him was perhaps more foreseeable.

Back in January, I wrote about the disconnection that was taking place between the group traditionally described as elites, and the mass public, and specifically how this divide manifested itself in attitudes to Brexit.

The Edelman Trust Barometer told us that a deep division existed in Britain, especially between those who were doing well out of the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and those who were stuck in the mud of austerity. It was expressed in many ways: trust in government, in business, in media were all much lower among the poorer people in the UK.

The majority wanted to leave the EU. But it was very clear that the better off were content to stay in a Union that their countrymen felt offered them less than nothing.

Now we see the stark figures. The biggest votes to Remain were in areas with much greater household income than the areas with the highest proportion of Leavers.

In Lambeth, where average weekly pay was £585, 79% voted to stay. In Boston Spa, 76% voted Leave where average weekly pay is just £302. In Islington the remain camp secured 75%, in an area where weekly income is £626. Compare that to South Holland where take home pay is on average £388 a week and the vote to leave was 74%. As the Financial Times has pointed out today, some of the highest share of votes to leave are in areas that are most intertwined and benefiting from trade and support from the EU.

Then of course, there was the huge division between parts of the country. The division between Scotland and England is already precipitating further constitutional crisis; less likely, but possible is political turmoil in Northern Ireland.

However, the division between London and the rest of England is a sign of a different gulf, one of optimism and expectation, which the Trust Barometer also revealed earlier this year. Additional research we conducted in Britain showed that only 10 per cent of the poorest Britons thought the next five years would see them better off; only 10% of the wealthiest thought they would be less well off by 2021, a point of view that perhaps is being reassessed today.

As more details emerge, we will see evidence of other divisions, between graduates and non-graduates, between young and old, between employed and unemployed. Can we believe in each other? What common ground can we find? What has this referendum done to the trust Britons hold in their compatriots? With 75% of under 25s voting to remain, how will they respond politically to an older generation voting on their futures?

Whoever takes over from Mr Cameron, and presumably it won’t be George Osborne, will face a bigger task than negotiating the separation from Europe. He or she will have to restore that mutual trust we enjoyed, or thought we did, in each other. The new prime minister will be handed a Divided Kingdom. Can anyone unite it? Depressingly, in our survey of UK trust, no politicians scored high enough to give us much confidence that they could.

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