The Brexit: As the votes come in, a deep divide is revealed
If there is one thing that today’s referendum on the Brexit has taught us, it’s that the UK is an extremely divided country.
“Well, that’s hardly news,” you might think. From Australia, we have been exposed to a binary discussion of the Stay/Leave argument that revealed big personalities lining up toe-to-toe to prosecute both sides of the argument.
The actual vote (and subsequent result) reveals something very different. Clearly there are two versions of the UK: One exists in London and Scotland, and is overwhelmingly voting in favour of the status quo. Head out into the countryside – to regions where the economic benefits are rarely seen - and the mood is very different.
Now, with half the districts reporting, a large majority of country dwellers are in favour of leaving.
Scotland wants to stay. The recent referendum for independence ensured the territory had a thorough discussion about its economic viability and, as such, this fear has carried through to EU membership. Now fully aware of the interdependencies of modern economies, Scotland has even less desire to see itself isolated than it did 20 months ago.
Obviously London – a multicultural city with a huge financial industry – recognises the benefit of staying. The same can be seen across other major metropolitan centres such as Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool. The fact the pound plummeted over the last seven days as the markets factored in a ‘Leave’ and the early votes headed the same way.
This division is reminiscent of the current debate in the United States. As Donald Trump shrieks and whoops about ‘Making America Great Again’ (whatever that means), there’s a broader issue at stake.
For the last 50 years and, in particular, since the GFC, the gap between the rich and poor has grown exponentially in the West. Politicians who play to these feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement (Trump and his UK Equivalent, Nigel Farage) are gaining traction and stealing attention from traditional players.
The Brexit debate and the improbable rise of these politicians is symptomatic of the inequity problem, and it will take more than a yes/no argument or simple sloganeering to address the underlying issues. How successive governments will deal with this economic divide remains to be seen.
We can only hope that, in Australia, the issue doesn’t become quite as urgent as it has in other countries.
More immediately, a Brexit would be disasterous for Australian business. Currently, many companies use an office in the UK as a back door into the European market. With a Brexit, Australia would have to conclude a trade agreement that commenced only nine months ago. For many, the damage that could be done in that time might to too much to bear.