NEWS14 March 2017

Post-Brexit Britain: divided we stand

Brexit Impact 2017 News Public Sector Trends UK

UK – Post-Brexit Britain is, according to newspaper headlines, a divided country. But ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ are more similar than we think, according to an expert panel speaking at Impact 2017, the MRS annual conference. 

Brexit crop

Newspaper headlines immediately following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union focused on a number of divides: old vs. young; the ‘elite’ class vs. the ‘left-behinds'; and London vs. the rest of England.

But, said Cordelia Hay, associate director at Britain Thinks, speaking at a session at the MRS annual conference in London today, the real story is a lot more complicated. Hay described ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ as "sociodemographically heterogenous groups" who are more likely to be grouped based on their values – the biggest predictor of Brexit vote was a person’s attitude towards the death penalty – and define themselves based on who they are not rather than on who they are. 

Not only are many newspapers telling the wrong story, Hay reflected, they are actually adding to the problem: "the more we talk about and reinforce these divides, the more real they become," she said. 

The theme of stories continued with Brainjuicer’s Tom Ewing, who presented the idea that, because our brains are hard-wired for pattern recognition, people fit events – such as Brexit – into their own version of a national narrative. According to journalist and author Christopher Booker, there are seven different story types: comedy; tragedy; rebirth; voyage and return; the quest; rags to riches and overcoming the monster. All stories, no matter the subject, fit one of these definitions, he said. 

According to Brainjuicer research, Britain’s ‘story’ (for both leavers and remainers) is consistently one of comedy, with the overriding message being: ‘despite all the mistakes and problems, Britain will be fine in the long-term.’ However, the precise nature of that comedy has varied: before the Brexit vote, the theme was ‘quiet desperation’ (message: we've been going for centuries and we're still here); immediately afterwards it was ‘don't panic’ (message: things will improve after a while); and more recently, the story has been ‘mustn't grumble’ (message: you have to get on with life and deal with it). 

But the stories diverge for leavers and remainers – those in the leave camp are more positive, and the tragedy story is more widely embraced by those who voted remain. Brexit hasn't shifted the dominant narrative – it’s still one of comedy – but the tone has changed, Ewing said.

The third speaker, Catherine Hunt of the prime minister’s office and cabinet office communications, outlined how the government has responded to the post-Brexit divide. Rather than attitudes towards the death penalty, Hunt presented the biggest predictor of Brexit vote as being social mobility – those with perceived high social mobility voted ‘remain'; those with low social mobility voted leave. 

She urged remainers to avoid assuming that those who had voted leave were inherently racist, but rather to be sympathetic to the rapid social change – including a decline in local identity – that had put pressure on income and local services and led to discontent with the status quo.

The government is responding to this chance to reconnect, Hunt said, in five ways:

  1. Listen: digital and social media holds huge opportunity for insight into the public mood but must be approached with the same rigour as research
  2. Challenge assumptions: don't just follow the people you agree with; listen to those with opposing views too
  3. Find common ground: people voted for what they thought was best for themselves and their family. People may not see the same divide between them as is being portrayed
  4. Maintain the sense of Britain as a country: build on what made us great – don't suggest the old model is inherently broken
  5. Personalise your message: use digital media to do this effectively. You can't reach everyone at once anymore