Amid all the argument in Westminster, everyone can agree on one thing: the country is bitterly divided. The 52:48 divisions of the Brexit referendum are still there, and possibly even more entrenched than during the campaign itself. The result hasn’t been followed by a period of national healing — quite the opposite. Even the cabinet appears to be split along Leave and Remain lines.
You would have to go back a quarter of a century to find a time when the two main parties were so far apart. The public, however, shows no sign of deciding which path it wants to choose. The general election resulted in a hung Parliament, and the local elections earlier this month suggest that if Theresa May went to the country tomorrow, the result would be even more inconclusive.
The fashionable theory is that this split nation is the new normal. Why? Because these divides aren’t only driven by differing economic interests but cultural values. The struggle between cosmopolitan and provincial Britain for cultural dominance has, the argument goes, replaced the battle between capital and labour as the defining split in our politics.
But there is another way of looking at things. The 35:35 split between Labour and the Tories in the elections can be explained by the fact that neither side was interested in reaching out. They were both trying to motivate their bases rather than persuade those who don’t agree with them. Indeed, when Mrs May offered a message of national unity — her ‘burning injustices’ speech on first becoming Prime Minister in 2016 — it went down extraordinarily well with the public. Strikingly, 57 per cent of voters think politics is too divided and that the country needs a leader who can bring people together — not one who prioritises what is right even if it is divisive, according to polling done for the political strategists Hanbury.
The more likely people are to be swing voters, the more likely they are to want a unifier. This suggests that the party leader who sets about bringing the country together again would be able to assemble a formidable electoral coalition.
Admittedly, it seems ambitious to talk about national unity when both main parties are so bitterly divided. Labour remains deeply and profoundly split between the Corbynite left and its older, more established parts. It is, essentially, two parties fused together: a radical left and a social democratic rump. How long this fusion can last is doubtful. At the next election, will its social democrat MPs be prepared to spend their days telling voters to hand over the levers of power to a set of radical leftists?
Labour is split on almost every issue. With the Corbynites having seized control, the social democrats will become ever more uncomfortable with the direction Labour is taking. Four more years of this might be too much for them to take.
The big Tory divide is, of course, over the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Far from settling the issue, the Brexit referendum has ushered in what could well be the bloodiest-ever Tory fight over the subject. It is telling that the argument over Britain’s future customs relationship with the EU is as much about who has power in the party as the merits of each proposal. Tory Europhiles believe party Eurosceptics got what they wanted by always pressuring the leader, regularly threatening to vote against the whip and forcing concession after concession. They are determined to copy this playbook.
The logical response is to look for a compromise that could satisfy all but the most diehard MPs on either side. The problem, however, is that lots of the compromise versions of Brexit are worse than being ‘in’ or ‘out’. It is hard, for instance, to see what the long-term case is for leaving the EU but, de facto, remaining in the single market and a customs union, with virtually no say over the rules.
Despite these divisions, there are signs the political weather is beginning to change. Policy Exchange, the think-tank which provided the intellectual ballast for Tory modernisation, is about to shift its focus to sketching out a ‘new national consensus’ based around the role of the nation state. Not every Tory will like the emphasis on a post-Brexit industrial policy, including corporation tax cuts for deprived areas, to address regional imbalances. But bringing the country back together will require actions designed to show that, to borrow a phrase, we are all in this together. That influential Tory intellectuals are attracted to the idea of a consensus, rather than unbending leadership, shows how changed the mood on the centre-right is.
Referendums are, inherently, divisive. But sometimes, in a democracy, divisiveness cannot be avoided. The questions of Scottish independence and the UK’s membership of the EU needed to be settled; and it is hard to see how anything other than referenda could have done that. But what is needed after the vote, once passions have cooled, is a period of national reconciliation — precisely what we have not had.
British politicians are, generally, far too keen to imitate their American counterparts. But they would do well to study one particular speech. In 2004, the US was regularly described as a nation split down the middle, divided by culture even more than economics. That year, a relatively unknown politician gave a speech pointing out that the pundits’ desire to divide the country into red and blue states ignored the fact that far more united Americans than divided them. This message struck a chord, and four years later Barack Obama was elected president by a clear margin.
There are, obviously, many differences between the US presidential system and our parliamentary model. But one suspects that the British politician who showed us all that we didn’t have to be a permanently divided country would immediately find themselves a leading contender for the top job.