'Brexit' vote: a clash over Britain's identity

The vote on whether to leave the European Union pivots on deeper questions about immigration, economic policy, sovereignty, and Britain's place in the world.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The 'Brexit' vote will greatly affect the Houses of Parliament.

Robin Hunter-Coddington is a British retiree who loves Europe. He spent nearly two decades of his life living on the Continent, most recently in Brussels. When he moved back to London in the late 1980s, he set up a business that helped British companies expand into European countries. Over the course of his life he has seen – and appreciated – how much easier it is to trade with Europe and travel within it since the formation of the European Union.

Yet Mr. Hunter-Coddington now believes Britain should pull out of the EU. “I have just become more disillusioned with the way it’s going,” says Hunter-Coddington. “I don’t like bureaucracy. I don’t like administration. I don’t like rules and regulations, and the fact that we are not in control of our own destiny annoys me.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
'I don't like bureaucracy. I don't like administration. I don't like rules and regulations, and the fact that we are not in control of our own destiny annoys me.' –Robin Hunter, a retiree in London

Cathy Galvin, who directs a writing center in London called the Word Factory, has serious problems with the EU, too. She worries about corruption among member countries, believes many of the agencies within the EU are unaccountable, and questions whether nations such as Turkey should be allowed to join. Yet she’s going to vote in favor of Britain remaining in the EU.

“We live in a global community ... and we’re benefiting from that exchange of ideas and language and culture,” says Ms. Galvin at her home in the south of London. “It seems pointless to me to think of ourselves outside it because we are stronger within it.”  

The crosscurrents buffeting Hunter-Coddington and Galvin are symbolic of ones coursing through the United Kingdom as it confronts one of the most significant decisions in the postwar era. From the quaint pubs of rural England to revered academic institutions like Oxford to the august halls of Parliament, the vote over leaving the EU is bound up in differences about immigration, economic policy, questions of sovereignty, and Britain’s place in an increasingly globalized world. The vote will have enormous practical consequences. It will affect the nation’s trade relations, its obligations as a part of NATO and other umbrella defense organizations, funding for scientific research, and even where its sports teams will compete. A vote to leave might push Scotland to conduct a second referendum to pull out of the UK, potentially breaking up the kingdom itself. It will also affect the cohesiveness of the rest of Europe.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
'We live in a global community...It seems pointless to me to think of ourselves outside it because we are stronger within it.' –Cathy Galvin, who directs a writing center in London

As much as anything, though, the June 23 vote will reveal insights into how generational and class divisions, as well as unprecedented diversity, are changing the modern identity of Britain and what it means today to be British.  

“Britain has always been a rather reluctant European,” says Iain Begg, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s European Institute. “In contrast to motivations for joining Europe or pulling it together that were dominant in France and Germany, namely stopping war … Britain has always seen the EU as more of a cost-benefit transaction.”

•     •     •

In retirement, Hunter-Coddington runs the Serpentine Swimming Club, a group that swims in the lake in London’s Hyde Park 365 days a year, even in winter, when it sometimes means breaking through the ice. The club attracts everyone from members of Parliament to bohemian artists.

As members trickle in and out throughout the morning, they congregate in a communal changing area, sipping tea and chatting. For a naturally inquisitive person like Hunter-Coddingon, the club provides an engaging mix of personalities and ideas. Swimmers interviewed at the club represent the entire spectrum of opinions on the issue – those in favor of leaving, those in favor of staying, and those who are agnostic. 

Hunter-Coddington has heard many of the arguments, but for him, the desire to leave the EU is a visceral one. “My decision is emotional,” he says. “I can’t give you good reasons for staying in, I can’t give you good reasons for pulling out. It’s emotional.”

Polls indicate that lines across Britain are drawn largely around age, education, and social class. Young, university-
educated, professional people are more likely to support remaining in the EU, while the typical “Brexit” supporter tends to be older, less educated, and working-class. There are also regional divides. Scotland, for example, remains largely pro-EU, while those in the east of England are more likely to vote to leave.  

Reece Livesey will turn 18 years old just in time to vote on June 23. Like many teenagers, Reece and his friends are only now becoming politically aware and starting to have conversations about big issues. A resident of Peterborough, a working-class town 75 miles north of London where voters are more likely to favor leaving, Reece does have some questions about the EU and its role in shaping British laws. But he strongly supports remaining part of the union. “We can change the policies when we stay in the EU,” he says. “If we leave, it will just make it worse.”

Most of his friends share his opinion, except for his closest friend, who supports the UK Independence Party, a staunch opponent of remaining in the EU. Their differing views haven’t strained their relationship – Reece jokes that his friend is antisocial so he doesn’t get to see him much anyway. Still, the issue can be divisive.

“Most of the people who want to leave the EU who I know don’t want immigrants and stuff like that. They want to close the borders,” he says. “Most of them don’t have a racist point of view about it so I don’t usually say anything. But one of my mates just said something extremely racist, so I kind of don’t talk to him anymore.”

A strong anti-immigration sentiment lies behind much of the opposition to staying in the EU. Many British residents worry about the loss of jobs to the influx of immigrants, especially those coming from Eastern Europe who they believe are willing to work for less, and the loss of a British sense of identity. Some worry about terrorists coming in, too. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People buy goods in a halal meat and grocery store in a diverse section of South London.

In Cambridge, 50 miles north of London, retired couple Stewart and Blanche Downing take a stroll to the city’s famed university campus to see the stained-glass window of a church. As a trumpeter practices nearby, the couple rests on a bench. Without hesitation, Mr. Downing says that he simply does not like foreigners living in Britain and plans to vote “out,” as he says many people of his generation will. The couple know there exists a considerable divide between themselves and the younger generation. 

“We’ve got granddaughters in their 30s who are both living in London, and they can’t see why we object to people coming here,” says Ms. Downing. “They think it’s great that there’s every nationality under the sun in London, whereas we think they change the look of the place in many, many different ways.”

For the couple, the changing attitudes toward foreigners are part of a shift in how Britons view themselves and their past. When the Downings grew up, they say that they were taught to be proud of their nation’s history of monarchy and empire. But their granddaughters – both of whom are married to mixed-race men – now often gently accuse them of being racially biased.

•     •     •

The generational divide, including within families, is perhaps understandable. More than half of Britain’s citizens were not yet born when their nation first joined with Europe in 1973. For people under the age of 43, being linked to Europe is all they have known.

The EU traces its origins to the end of World War II, when six nations led by France and Germany bonded together to form the European Coal and Steel Community in the hopes that free trade and collaboration would help them avoid another conflict. By 1957, it grew into the European Economic Community with the aim of creating increased economic integration and a common market. The EEC has since been absorbed and replaced by the European Union, which now has 28 member states, including Britain, and its own currency, which Britain chose not to adopt. 

In 1975, the UK held a referendum to decide whether to remain in the EEC. The nation voted by a margin of nearly 2 to 1 to remain. But the vote did not end the debate. Rumblings about breaking with Europe surfaced again in the 1980s and have continued to grow louder within portions of Britain’s Conservative Party. Proponents of leaving Europe argue that the EU has grown from an organization to facilitate trade into a body that controls numerous policies and regulations within Britain. The extent of the Union’s reach has become so exaggerated among critics that many people believe myths that are widely circulated about the EU – for example, that it once tried to ban Britain from importing curved bananas. 

During the 2015 elections, Prime Minister David Cameron made a gamble to appease this segment of his party and undercut the UK Independence Party, which opposes staying in the EU, by promising to hold a referendum if reelected. Mr. Cameron won and now he’s following through on his election pledge – a risk that, if Britain were to leave, would mark a major setback for the prime minister and for the EU. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ruth Sullivan, a freelance journalist wearing an 'I'm in' T-shirt, hands out fliers for the 'Britain Stronger in Europe' campaign that is pushing for Britain to stay in the EU.

As a result, a cascade of leaders throughout Continental Europe and around the world have been warning darkly about a Brexit. During a trip to Britain in April, President Obama lauded the benefits of the single market and argued that Britain strengthens collective security through its EU membership. He went on to caution that if Britain decides to leave, the United States may not act quickly to form a new unilateral trade pact with it – comments that angered many pro-Brexit voters who saw it as unwarranted meddling in Britain’s affairs.  

Similarly, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, has cautioned that the fallout from Brexit would range from “pretty bad to very, very bad.” She decreed it could potentially reduce Britain’s economic output, cut into citizens’ income, and raise interest rates. Five former NATO secretaries-general wrote an open letter in The Telegraph (UK) warning, “While the decision is one for the British people, Brexit would undoubtedly lead to a loss of British influence, undermine NATO and give succour to the West’s enemies.”

•     •     • 

Omer El-Hamdoon is someone who believes the flood of immigrants into the country represents a serious concern. Yet he, too, wants Britain to stay in the Union.  

Born in Iraq, Dr. El-Hamdoon has lived in Britain since he was
4 years old and his father came here to study. When war broke out between Iraq and Iran, his family decided to make their home in Britain. El-Hamdoon has little memory of his native country. 

On a quiet, suburban street in northwest London’s Wembley neighborhood, he now serves as president of the Muslim Association of Britain. The organization has turned one of the neighborhood’s two-story homes into its headquarters. Seated on a leather sofa, El-Hamdoon says he feels that Britain has more to gain by being part of the EU than it does by leaving. Still, he’s concerned that the EU’s governing bodies have infringed on democracy in Britain and says politicians must address the issue of migrants, mainly from Eastern European countries such as Poland, who some Britons worry come here to take advantage of welfare programs.

“I’m not against immigration, but I think it has to be controlled in a certain way. There has to be a certain system which allows people to come in for the right reasons, not just so they can live off the state,” he says. “People are always coming here and maybe [it’s] because our benefits system is too lax or maybe it’s too generous. I don’t know.”

While the idea that poor migrants are fleecing the system and draining government treasuries is widely held, research shows that isn’t necessarily the case. A recent study conducted by researchers at University College London found that between 2000 and 2011 migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion ($29 billion) to the nation’s public finances. Additionally, Britain has attracted some of the most highly skilled migrants – more so than many other European countries. Since 1995, immigrants have consistently held higher levels of education than British nationals. By 2011, at least 25 percent of the Eastern European migrant population, one of the most maligned groups by critics, came to Britain with a university degree, while 24 percent of Britons had one.

Last year, in a separate study, researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Centre for Economic Performance came to a similar conclusion. “There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services,” they wrote. “Any negative impacts on wages of less skilled groups are small. One of the largest impacts of immigration seems to be on public perceptions.”

A clash of perceptions exists over how much money Britain gives to the EU as well. Critics of Europe, particularly those hurting economically, believe London sends inordinate amounts of money to Brussels. “Out” voters often cite figures indicating that the British government gives £350 million ($507 million) a week to the EU for operational expenses. This number does not, however, account for special rebates that Britain gets, which brings the number down to £280 million ($406 million) a week. 

In Peterborough, Christine Jughan isn’t certain of the exact amount her government sends to Europe, but she blames what it does give out and the immigrants it lets in for her difficulty in getting government assistance. She also worries that changes to the retirement age will delay when she can begin receiving her pension. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A woman pushes a stroller through a main square in Peterborough, England, a town north of London.

“I’ve worked and paid into the system since I was 13,” says Ms. Jughan, who’s currently unemployed. “I’m just angry that we send out so much money.”

Views like hers have frustrated Alyssa Aspinall, a student at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. Alyssa will miss the age cutoff for voting by just a few months, but she holds strong opinions about an issue that will affect her for the rest of her adult life. A supporter of remaining in the EU, she brushes aside anti-migrant views as largely based on false information and not a real concern. For her, the big issue is what will happen to the economy. 

“Financially, I think we’d completely flop,” she says, explaining that she’s especially worried that it would affect her country’s ability to export and import goods to the EU. Currently Britain sends almost half of its exports to the Continent.

“I don’t want to sound rude to the older generation, but it was different when they were younger ... everything has changed,” she says.  

Determining exactly what would happen if Britain decides to pull out of the EU is difficult. If the vote is to leave, European leaders would have the final say on the conditions of Britain’s departure, and no precedent exists for what such a split might look like. In the interest of deterring other nations from leaving – and disaffection with the Union is rising in many European countries – EU officials will have a strong incentive not to make it easy for Britain. This makes a vote to remain a decision to keep the status quo and a vote to leave a journey into the unknown. 

For Mike Galsworthy, a member of the “remain” camp, it comes down to a simple calculation. Mr. Galsworthy, who has a PhD in behavioral genetics, usually works as an independent consultant on research and innovation policy. Now, however, he’s campaigning full time as program director of Scientists for EU for Britain to stay in the Union. He worries that leaving the EU could cost Britain research funding and make it more difficult to collaborate with scientists in other European nations. To “out” supporters who say Britain could partner with new countries to make up for any shortfall in funding, Galsworthy says they can do that already. 

“There is no opportunity cost for being in,” he says. “Stepping away from [the EU] doesn’t open any doors that aren’t already open.”

•     •     •

Less than two weeks before the vote, polls remain too close for anyone to predict the outcome of the referendum. Like the vote for Scottish independence in 2014, which in the end was defeated handily (55 percent to 45 percent), the issue of the Brexit referendum seems unusually volatile – and a touchy topic among residents.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
'People don't really talk about it because it can be divisive...(Y)ou're either for or against it.' –The Rev. Graham Buckle, vicar at the church of St. Stephen with St. John Westminster

The Rev. Graham Buckle is the vicar at the church of St. Stephen with St. John Westminster. The building where he preaches was constructed in 1847 by Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, who, it is believed, was encouraged by her close friend Charles Dickens to finance the project. Despite its serendipitous ties to one of Britain’s most famous authors to write about the ties between his country and Europe, in “A Tale of Two Cities,” the vicar says the referendum rarely surfaces as a topic of conversation within his parish – because of the sensitivities. 

“People don’t really talk about it because it can be divisive,” he says, sitting on one of the church’s well-worn pews. “It’s not like normal politics where you can argue the ethic, where there’s something you can actually argue about. It’s like a civil war, in that you’re either for or against it.” 

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