Disintegration: When the UK voted to leave the European Union

Jul 29, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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What Just Happened?

The result was a deep shock. My immediate reaction was disbelief (some mistake surely) followed by anger at the political leaders who allowed an entirely unnecessary referendum to take place. Motivated by political opportunism, the government took the country to the edge of peril, and the voters jumped off. Furthermore, they had lifted a rock and all sorts of unpleasant things crawled out into the daylight; the voices of xenophobia, racism and ignorance were heard around the land.

So I moved between anger, disbelief and disdain.

My reasons for voting to stay were relatively simple (naive?). While I believe in the importance of international alliances, my main reason was historical. We are in the middle of the one-hundredth anniversary of World War I. The main protagonists were, on one side, Britain and France, and on the other, Germany. Only just over two decades after that slaughter, the same protagonists lined up in hostile confrontation in World War II. My grandfather fought in a European War; my father fought in a European war. I did not and it is almost inconceivable that my children, or their children, will have to join a Western European conflict. One of the reasons for the fifty and more years of peace between these traditional protagonists is the European Union (and its predecessors).

Photo: British soldiers in a trench in France, during the Battle of the Somme. United Kingdom government photograph. Public Domain.

The referendum was contested in conflicting zones of emotion, in which the nation was torn into rival camps with views embedded in histories, ideologies, and prejudices. On the morning of June 24, I believed that over half of the country were idiots and bigots. That view is arrogant and dismissive. It is also built on despair. What future is there for these islands if that is true? I also understand that there are valleys of pain and towns of deprivation where industries have disappeared and where the remaining population exists marginal and invisible to those of us in London. I believe that those who voted to leave were profoundly wrong. Nevertheless, as educators we bear an intellectual obligation to seek for explanation. As citizens we have a moral obligation to avoid demonizing those who disagree with us.

Deconstructing the referendum is not a simple task amenable to simple explanations. The result was a cataclysmic surprise – unexpected both by those who voted to leave and those who wanted to remain. At one level, the exit vote was a protest intended to shock a complacent elite. The national mood after the result might suggest that intention was to rock the boat rather than to capsize it.

So, how did the shipwreck happen?

We have stirred some hidden depths, awakened demons, given life to gorgons and golems. It may help if we try to give them names.


One of the more obvious implications is that it there is a widespread alienation from mainstream politics. The leadership of all of the major political parties campaigned to stay in the EU. Most leading figures in business, the creative arts, education and politics were unequivocally in support of remaining. This elite represents, in summary, “the Establishment”.  A related group might be designated "liberal cosmopolitans”, urban internationalists like you and me. The views of these groups were rejected decisively by swathes of populations who, literally and metaphorically, are excluded from the corridors of influence and the airport lounges of internationalists.

London Heathrow Airport
Photo: London Heathrow Airport, public domain

A Disunited Queendom

A very clear implication is that the UK is profoundly fractured, not only geographically. Most of those with relatively lower educational attainment levels tended to vote to leave. A younger generation, that has grown up with Europe as an integral element in their social and political identity, voted to stay.

Deep division was also manifest with regards to the vexed question of immigration. The controversy reflects profound differences in ideologies and experiences. For cosmopolitan liberals, immigration has positive social, intellectual and economic impact. The oppositional view is often (and sometimes justly) characterized as xenophobic and racist. However, it would be unjust and untrue to suggest that all of those troubled by immigration are necessarily racist.

Video: CAPA student Caitlin Ungerer hit the streets to interview fellow millennials for their thoughts on the EU Referendum. She put this video together along with a few of the other student interns.

The immigration debate is not only or crucially about facts or politics; it is an emotional issue – shaped by prejudice (certainly) but also by experience and fear. An uncomfortable truth is that, for the most part, the Establishment and the cosmopolitan elite do not live in areas of high or recent immigration, nor is their employment compromised. In short, they do not share the issues faced by those in the provinces who feel themselves to be disadvantaged, even threatened. Unease and fears about immigration have been ignored or dismissed as parochial, prejudiced and reactionary: a significant population has been marginalized.

In many cases, these disaffected populations represent the traditional white working class who have over years suffered the loss of the industrial and manufacturing base upon which a sense of solidarity was built. This group historically belonged to strong Trades Unions and supported the Labour Party. They feel, with some justification, that the Labour Party no longer represents them or speaks to their fear, and that the political Establishment ignores, even vilifies, their views. To understand how parts of the United Kingdom have reached such levels of alienation, we need to delve further.

Individualism and Collectivism

In the twentieth century a key ideological conflict was between collectivism and individualism. Broadly, in the UK collectivist values were eroded by the decline of those industries which had traditionally enforced community cohesion. In addition, the idea of collectivist ideologies was a political anathema to Margaret Thatcher (and Ronald Reagan) during the years (1979 – 1990) in which she was a determined and ideologically-driven Prime Minister.

In the UK, communities based on regional and industrial identities created powerful working class associations, particularly Trades Unions. These were founded to offer collective strength in what had previously been unequal power relationships between employee and employer. The existence of Trade Unions was legalized in 1871 and they subsequently grew in members and influence.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
Photo: Ronald Reagan's Cabinet and Margaret Thatcher's Ministry meet in the White House Cabinet Room. Public domain.

The power of the Trades Unions in the UK was undermined by the historical decline of traditional industries, hastened and encouraged by Thatcher’s government. The National Union of Mineworkers, probably inadvisably, chose to resists and confront the government in a protracted strike from January 1984 to March 1985. This bitter, long and divisive struggle was essentially an ideological confrontation, a struggle for the soul of the nation that the miners were, ultimately, certain to lose.

In microcosm it reflected the global ideological confrontation between the principles of state socialism and liberal individualism. The ultimate defeat of collectivist political structures was mirrored in the violent destruction of the miners’ union and their communities. It prefigured the ultimate eradication of other traditional manufacturing industries and the emasculation of working class associations.

Miners' Strike Rally in London in 1984
Photo: Miners' Strike Rally in London in 1984 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the UK, the decline of these industries had disastrous social and economic consequences. A sense of local community and traditional pride in identity was undermined and ultimately reduced to a kind of generational nostalgia. The bitter legacy of those years has left a sense of powerlessness and residual distrust of the political establishment. The authority of a ruling Conservative Party, and centralized power based in London (or Brussels), was not likely to be viewed as benign.

The triumph of ideological individualism may, in some circumstances, have led to benefits but those were not felt in the alienated regions. Community values and collectivist ethics were replaced by the greed of bankers, the excesses of stockbrokers, the ethics of Enron.


We might also invite students to consider the potential impact of globalization, in its various manifestations upon the referendum result. Globalization is not a single or simple concept but a set of dynamics that impact our lives.

It is apparent that there are beneficiaries. The worlds in which they (we) function benefit from the free movement of people and goods. The financial markets, creative arts, scientific education, international education etc. all benefit. Despite the ambiguity inherent in the concept of globalization, this group is at home with most of the consequences and subscribes to an ideology of internationalism.

EU Flags
Photo: EU flags, public domain

Globalization is, however, perceived quite differently by those who feel abandoned and ignored by a privileged elite. It brings foreign ideas and populations into towns. Employment opportunities for residents and their children are undermined; unmanageable demands are made on limited resources; crucially, it is felt that local identity and security is subverted. Traditional residents lose control over their own destinies and are subject to decisions made elsewhere (including Brussels) over which they have no control. They are victims rather than beneficiaries of globalization.

It is possible to argue that this is an emotional, ill-informed view of global dynamics. That may or may not be true, but it is rooted in political and economic inequality: not so much a theory but lived experience.

Supporters of the leave position repeatedly claimed the restoration of national sovereignty as a primary motive. Control, the argument goes, will devolve to communities and individuals. They will regain the power to defend and define their national or social priorities and boundaries and become, again, masters of their own fate. This may be a delusion, but it offers a seductive image of a dreamed landscape.

Now What?

We are very far from understanding the conclusion and may only have a very conditional idea of the beginning. Rather than speculate, it is more important to understand what we may have already learned from this traumatic episode.

BrexitPhoto: Brexit, public domain.

There are major fissures in the fabric of society: multiple fragmentations along regional, political, generational, ideological, class, racial and emotional lines. Most obviously, the values of the Establishment have been rejected by a majority of those living in the UK; globalization is perceived as a negative, even hostile, pressure on the lives of those outside of privileged communities; the mainstream political parties have failed to recognize the anxieties of their traditional constituencies and, as a consequence, there are large groups of people who feel abandoned and alienated. The referendum at this level was an act of rebellion: a refusal to believe in the opinions of a traditional leadership: a rupture in the political psyche of the nation.

The referendum created an emotional landscape populated by menacing and inexplicable shadows. In that gloom, the majority of the population expressed a sense of powerlessness and, most worryingly, the fear of ultimate disappearance.

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education