Brexit: The night the UK became a little island

For those who voted to Remain, the result was akin to having your identity mugged, but can we now make a better Britain?

Brexit Oped 2
A vote Leave supporter celebrates outside Vote Leave HQ, Westminster Tower on June 24, 2016 in London [Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images]

And just like that, over one night, the country became a little island again – and also split apart. The British public voted yesterday to leave the European Union, a decision that sent heads spinning and the pound plummeting. For the 48 percent of the population who voted to remain in the EU, the news was akin to having your life and identity mugged: a vote to separate from mainland Europe, disengage and turn ever inwards. 

But the stark division lines of this vote exposed what many have long warned is a deeply disunited Britain. Scotland voted resolutely to remain in the EU – every part of it voted to remain – making it almost inevitable that the country will call for another referendum on its own independence: after all, why should it stay yoked to an England that wants to leave?

The future of Northern Ireland also hangs in the air – it, too, voted to remain and shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, prompting Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, to call for a referendum on reunification.

A disunited UK  

London voted resolutely to stay a part of the EU; its recently elected Mayor Sadiq Khan swiftly spoke to reassure Europeans living in the capital that they are still welcome. The capital is starkly out of kilter with its surroundings, though: chunks of the rest of southern England, along with Wales, voted to leave the EU.

Across the north, cities voted to remain while rural areas wanted out. And across the country, the young voted overwhelmingly to remain members of the EU, while the over-65s voted to break away.  

This seismic result brought about the swift resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, with a new Conservative party leader expected to be in place by October. For the Labour Party, it has prompted accusations that its leader Jeremy Corbyn didn’t do enough to shore up support for the EU from Labour voters – albeit from a parliamentary party that doesn’t like the leader anyway, despite his landslide leadership victory and popularity among the party membership.

The immigration debate 

The EU itself is now in trouble, because the British vote will prompt similar elections across Europe. The Dutch anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders wasted no time in calling for a referendum on the EU for the Netherlands – and polls suggest that up to a third of Europeans have turned against the union.

READ MORE: Brexit – what will happen now?

In Britain – as across Europe – the frame for this discussion has been immigration. Held up as the decisive factor in Britain’s vote, hostility to migrants has been at fever pitch, toxic, and whipped up daily by tabloid newspapers and Leave campaigners alike. Populations ravaged by austerity cuts and decades of economic neglect saw migrants as the cause of their misery; swaths of people, already alienated, disempowered and trampled upon by a disdainful ruling elite, took the referendum as a rare opportunity to hit back. 

Britain’s horrifying wealth gap – food banks and daily struggle at one end, luxury and boom-time at the other – has only been exacerbated by savage austerity cuts. Warnings about economic hardship creating prime conditions for a nationalist far-right fell on deaf ears.

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Calls throughout the referendum campaign to make it less harsh went unheeded. And the pleas to roll back the relentless xenophobia of the Leave campaign, and its demonisation of migrants, were dismissed as unfair – surreally turning the verbal attackers into victims.

At its worst, this sentiment was captured by the populist UKIP leader Nigel Farage appearing in front of an image of queueing, non-white refugees with the slogan: “Breaking Point”. This same man declared that the Leave campaign had been victorious “without a single bullet being fired” – just over a week after the Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death. 

Hard-right nationalists

Among numerous anxieties is the idea that now, at a time when Britain needs politicians that can unite, strengthen and bring cohesion, our fate is bound up with the victorious Leavers – many of them hard-right nationalists that have helped to stoke the hatred and division.

You can hear the longing to be better across the country – and that might yet be possible; it always is – but with it, also, is the sinking, gut-punching concern: Are we up to the task?

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.