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Year After Brexit Vote, Divisions in British Society Begin to Mirror Those in US

  • Henry Ridgwell

It has been a year since Britain voted to leave the European Union by a narrow margin of 52 percent. While the question on the ballot paper may have been simple, the divisions exposed by last year’s referendum cut far deeper.

After 12 months of political turmoil, analysts say British society is beginning to resemble that of the United States, with values dictating the divisions in society rather than traditional party politics.

Professor Anand Menon, from the UK in a Changing Europe program at Kings College London, points to the death penalty issue as an indicator of a person's values.

“One of the best predictors of how you voted in the referendum was what values you hold, whether you’re a social liberal or a social conservative. One of the best predictors of a vote for Brexit was whether you believed in the death penalty or not. And that’s very American. Values didn’t really figure in our politics up to now,” Menon told VOA.

Britain’s general election earlier this month underlined the country’s political realignment. One of the biggest electoral earthquakes struck the ancient city of Canterbury, which had been a stronghold of the ruling Conservative party since 1918. On June 8, it fell to socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. The primary reason? Revenge for Brexit.

“Brexit has played an enormous role here," says Amelia Hadfield of Canterbury Christ Church University. "I think young people who, for the most part voted to remain and then saw to their astonishment that the rest of the United Kingdom and indeed Kent voted to leave, were genuinely disappointed.”

Brexit was widely seen as part of 2016’s populist surge that swept Donald Trump to power in the United States. In calling this month’s election, British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have misread that surge, says Tim Oliver of the London School of Economics.

“The parties are struggling to align themselves with how the British people vote or feel about issues. Are we seeing a move toward a more values-based political system? Yes, to some extent, just like in the United States. And we’re seeing that all over the democratic world as well, to varying degrees.”

Even as traditional party loyalties break down, support for the two established parties — the Conservatives and Labour — hit 82 percent, the highest since 1970.

The opposite appears to have occurred in France, where the two traditional parties, the Republicans and Socialists, were soundly defeated by centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron in presidential and parliamentary elections.

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