It wasn’t loud or exciting, it wasn’t accompanied by fireworks or big crowds, but it was one of the most important moments in British history: the moment that Prime Minister Theresa May pressed the Brexit Button.
But it wasn’t a button either, of course: it was a letter handed to the European President Donald Tusk that invoked Article 50, the formal request for Britain to leave the European Union. Some people were delighted, some were dismayed. But no-one was in doubt that 29th March 2017 was a historic day, marking a new era for an ancient nation. Britain will go it alone, throwing off the chains of European membership and striding forth into the sunlight.
Or was it the other way around? Has Britain wrapped chains around itself rather than throwing them off? Did membership of the European Union give us a place in the sun rather than deny us one? The arguments will continue for decades, perhaps for centuries, because Brexit has divided the nation in a way not seen since the Civil War. Fifty-two per cent of voters ticked the “Leave” box, forty-eighty ticked the “Remain”. But Remainers and Leavers weren’t evenly spread over the country. England and Wales went for “Leave”, Scotland and Northern Ireland went solidly for “Remain”. There was a similar split between big cities like London and the countryside.
Social class and levels of education were another factor. People with higher incomes and degrees tended to “Remain”, people with lower incomes and without degrees tended to vote “Leave”. There was a generation gap too: 75% of those aged 24 and under voted “Remain”; 61% of those aged 65 and over voted “Leave”. You could call that a paradox. Young people are supposed to like adventure and taking risks; older people are supposed to want certainty and a quiet life. But Brexit is a big adventure that was embraced by the older generations and rejected by the young.
You could see the same paradox in the split between England and Scotland. The Scots have always been a nation of emigrants, ready to leave their birthplace in search of a new life elsewhere. They’ve left their mark everywhere from America to New Zealand. But they wanted to stay with certainty, rather than strike out on a fresh course. How to explain these differences? One explanation is that different groups saw themselves affected by the EU in different ways. Some thought they gained, others thought they lost. EU immigration was a big factor for some. If you’re a lawyer or a teacher, you don’t face any competition from a Polish plumber or a Romanian carpenter.
In fact, you can save money by employing a plumber or carpenter from the EU. But that’s not an advantage to the British workmen who are in direct competition with immigrants from the EU. It’s hardly surprising, then, that people from different social classes voted in different ways in the Brexit Referendum. Some thought they were better off in, others thought they would be better off out. This division presents a big political challenge to Theresa May and her government. The Brexit vote divided the nation; now she wants the Brexit process to bring us back together.
Is she relishing the challenge or dreading what’s ahead? Well, no-one goes into politics for a quiet time and an easy life, so I suspect it’s the former. The stakes are high, but so are the prizes. It’s the big challenges and big battles that give politicians the chance to make their mark on history. Winston Churchill did that during the Second World War. If Brexit is the most important thing to happen to the country since then, Theresa May may be hoping to follow in Churchill’s outsized footsteps.