Will Brexit Britain adopt a new social justice agenda? Dr Kathryn Simpson thinks that is the new Prime Minister’s plan – and here she explains how inequality and economic insecurity played a role in the EU Referendum outcome.
The State of Play
Since the EU referendum result on 23 June the domestic political implications for the UK have been unprecedented. Theresa May is the UK’s new Prime Minister – only the second female PM in the history of the state. The Labour Party continues to face turmoil with the leader Jeremy Corbyn facing continued calls to resign over his lacklustre performance for the Remain campaign.This has initiated a leadership contest fronted by Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, concretising the gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots members all the more.
There is also the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum with the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon stating that it is “democratically unacceptable” that Scotland leave the EU given that 62% of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the EU. And the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuiness, has called for an all-Ireland vote on unification, a so-called border poll, given that 56% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted to remain in the EU. To quote former Prime Minister Harold Wilson; “a week is a long time in politics” – especially so in a not so United Kingdom.
The question on the ballot paper
In a referendum campaign the momentum is typically with the status quo. Unless the situation surrounding the issue on the ballot paper is highly negative then on balance voters will opt for the ‘better the devil you know’ option. The predominant challenge for any referendum campaign proposing change is to argue that the status quo is a bad thing and that the alternative proposed is considerably better.
What is interesting in light of Brexit is that the preference for the status quo (although it is important to note that a vote to Remain would have produced a new status quo between the UK and the EU given PM Cameron’s February re-negotiation deal) was rejected, with the negative economic implications of Brexit failing to resonate with voters. While the option to Leave the EU deployed a message that articulated clearly and convincingly to those key issues of immigration, sovereignty, the economy and security despite the lack of a definitive plan for negotiating an exit strategy from the EU.
The fact that the EU referendum went against the norm raises questions about whether the binary question on the ballot paper to vote to Remain or to Leave the EU was in fact the question that the electorate answered. Was it purely the question of EU membership that the electorate was voting on? Or was it a combination of factors pertaining to domestic politics? Because if individuals use EU-related referendums to punish the government, or to vote along political party lines, then the EU referendum can hardly constitute a high quality deliberative process.
The aim of the EU has been to create widespread equitable economic growth for the sake of continental stability and tranquillity – and for the most part that has been achieved. Overall, individuals’ understanding of positive support for the EU is based upon personal economic growth. However, since the UK joined the EU in 1973 it has proved difficult to persuade British people to engage with the EU with opinion polls indicating a pervasive Euroscepticism towards the EU.
And the economic and financial crisis of 2007/8 has done little to change individuals’ support for the EU in the UK. Following the crisis, people now perceive themselves to be at a heightened risk of economic adversity owing to rising economic problems experienced in the UK. People feel unequal and economically insecure. This can be seen in Standard Eurobarometer data from 2009-2014 (EB 72-81) which demonstrates that rising prices and inflation, unemployment and individuals’ personal economic situation are issues people are most concerned about and are factors which contribute overall to personal economic insecurity.
And while individuals in the UK feel more economically insecure and unequal since the financial crisis they believe unsurprisingly that the UK government is best placed to take effective action against the crisis as the EU substantially and consistently underperforms in comparison to the UK government.
What is clear is that individuals in the UK want less, not more EU action and that this was evident before the EU referendum. As a consequence, concerns about personal economic insecurity and inequality became an underlying issue entrenched within the key issues in the EU referendum campaign. While some would argue that isolation would appear dangerous in an era of globalisation it was clearly the preferred option given the Brexit result. British people never wanted the EU to be more involved, especially when they were feeling the pinch so much.
A new social justice agenda?
So, in order to unite a deeply polarised United Kingdom is a social justice agenda spearheaded by the Conservative Party the way forward? The new Prime Minister Theresa May appears to think so. PM May alluded to the divides and regional divergences in her first speech as Prime Minister when she reiterated the full title of the Conservative Party-the Conservative and Unionist Party – and how it means that the Conservative Party “believes in the union, the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. This appears to have dampened ambitions of a second Independence Referendum in Scotland and a border-poll on a united Ireland.
Yet, it was May’s reiteration of the union at the individual-level that it “is not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens – every one of us – whoever we are and wherever we’re from…. against the burning injustices[s]” which recognises the inequality and economic insecurity within British society and the need to unite the country through social justice. Quite the task at hand.
But unlike events of the past four weeks, this is one agenda which will take quite some time to develop.