Brexit debate's strange bedfellows could prove vital after the vote

The referendum on Britain's future in the EU has split the usual blocs and created alliances across party lines. Those odd groupings may be a means to mending the country's divides following the June 23 vote.

Mal Langsdon/Reuters/File
A European Union British Passport on the counter of a cafe in Paris.

As Britons battle over whether or not to stay in the European Union, many people here say they cannot remember a more divisive time.

The country is split almost evenly, opinion polls show. Younger, better educated voters lean towards the “Remain” camp; the older and less educated tend to support the “Leave” campaign. And the run-up to the June 23 vote has been ugly; it had rarely risen above mud-slinging and eye-gouging even before last week’s murder of Labour party lawmaker Jo Cox, a passionate “Remain” advocate.

But Britain is not split down the middle.

Instead, the electorate has broken into heterogeneous camps that each contains people from very different social and political backgrounds. Stubborn dividing lines have broken down, whether between Tories and Labour supporters now joining hands for Remain, or posh Brits aligning with working class voters in favor of Leave.

These novel alliances will represent a challenge for mainstream politicians in the wake of the vote no matter which ways it goes. But they could also help foster the understanding and healing that the country will need after such a bruising battle.

The race “has broken down all sorts of barriers,” says Cary Cooper, an organizational psychologist at the University of Manchester.  

That’s evident in the Leave campaign. It is led by some of the most privileged members of the British establishment; Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the official Vote Leave Campaign Committee, attended elite educational institutions Leeds Grammar School and the London School of Economics. Fellow “Brexit” supporter and former London Mayor Boris Johnson went to Eton College, school to royalty, and Oxford University.

A man like Scott Tatham, a city council worker with a distinctive working-class accent, inhabits a very different social sphere. But on the referendum, he says, he and Mr. Johnson are speaking the same language. “England has done very well historically on its own. It used to be a great nation years ago, now it is a multi-ethnic country,” says Mr. Tatham, as he paints over graffiti on a train station wall in east London. “This has nothing to do with social background whatsoever.”

Odd couples have sprung up on the other side of the “Brexit” debate too.  Prime Minister David Cameron called the referendum in the first place to try to put an end to decades of division within the Conservative party over Britain’s EU membership. Facing opposition from fellow party members, he has sought support from his traditional political rivals.

Mr. Cameron has campaigned hand-in-hand with London’s new Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of  the Labour Party. And he is making the same arguments in favor of Britain’s European future as the Scottish National Party, once his biggest headache as the champions of a bid to secede from the United Kingdom.

“This is an issue that cuts across party lines and that’s why it’s proven to be so disruptive to the UK party system over the years, and disrupts the connection between parties and their supporters,” says John Curtice, a political expert at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

Hostility to the European Union can be found within all the traditional political parties in Britain, but for the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) that attitude is its raison d’etre and the reason council worker Tatham is drawn to the anti-immigrant group. Like millions of white working class voters across western Europe, he is looking to the extreme right for answers.

No party other than UKIP can take all of its supporters with it. The Conservative party is obviously the most divided but it is not alone. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticized for not being a more vigorous campaigner for Remain, raising questions about his own enthusiasm for EU.

The angry nature of the referendum debate has highlighted its divisiveness. Less noticed has been the way in which individuals and groups normally isolated within their own very different political and social worlds have been brought together by a common cause – whether pro or anti-Europe.

A case in point: Adrian Hilton, a conservative blogger, and Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest and columnist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, are bound together by their shared goal: to see Britain leave the EU. They co-founded “Christians for Britain.”

“The phrase being used is having strange bedfellows, or keeping strange company, which is of course exactly what Jesus was accused of,” says Mr. Hilton. “I see nothing wrong at all with Christians from the Labour party and Conservative party working together for a common cause. And Giles and I are absolutely agreed on this. I don’t think we agree on any other policy at all.”

The blurring of traditional dividing lines could destabilize British politics, but it could also create more political flexibility, says psychologist Dr. Cooper. "People are re-aligning their values systems with a particular circumstance that is happening. There is a change taking place,” he says.

Polls suggest that next Friday roughly half the British population will be deeply dissatisfied with and unsettled by the direction of their country. But the new political and other ties that have been formed could help bridge divides, fortifying an understanding of the "other," which will be crucial after the vote.

“I don’t think we are seeing it now,” says Cooper. “But when diametrically opposed leaders or individuals who normally disagree on everything agree on this one issue, it opens up a dialogue. I think it will have an impact.”

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