In the last few days a seismic event has occurred within British political and social life, the likes of which I have certainly not seen in my lifetime. The full ramifications of Britain’s decision to vote to leave the EU are likely to be profound, the consequences of which we are unlikely to know for some time.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, the monumental challenge of reimagining and reconfiguring Britain’s place in the world will need to be met. Just as important will be the reaction of those who seek greater equality to the new reality of British politics.

This is not a reflection on the result itself, or on its likely effects on inequality. Frankly, it is too early to say how it will impact on us. Supporters will have differing opinions and will have no doubt voted in different ways.

But in the shorter-term, we can and should begin to piece together how such change has come to pass, what this means for us as a country, and what we should do next. What is abundantly clear is that while the referendum may have widened divisions in our society, those fault lines already existed, and have been present for some time. We are, I am sad to say, a deeply divided nation.

Much of the analysis of Brexit has focused on a lack of trust in the ‘elite’ or the ‘establishment’ – a political, social and economic class that for many, was out of touch and out of synch with both their values and their everyday lives. Another explanation is cultural differences – a liberal, perhaps younger, version of the UK at odds with an older and more socially conservative one.

Both explanations may be partly true, but most people don’t vote on the basis of issues like equal marriage. They vote on the issues that matter to their day to day lives – their jobs, homes, and families.

There is therefore another clear message. This referendum was also about inequality, with its effects bubbling under the surface, but every bit as significant as attitudes towards immigration, sovereignty and trade. In fact, the City of London ‘elite’ has already suggested that inequality may have been a driving force behind Brexit. Not the only reason, of course, many affluent voters still rejected the status quo, but a significant factor.

It’s not hard to see why. The huge growth in inequality in the 1980s, which successive governments have failed to tackle, has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people, because they see it and feel it every day. Try telling someone on a zero hours contract of the technological wonders of Uber and Airbnb, or someone in a low pay job, struggling to put food on the table, of the ‘transformative power’ of the ‘sharing economy’. You may get a shrug; you may get a less polite version of ‘there doesn’t seem to be much sharing going on around here’.

Too many people have seen those at the top streak away and feel left behind, ignored and unrepresented. This isn’t just about poverty, or material deprivation, it is about the vast gap between those at the top, who are seen to make decisions on our behalf, and the rest of us.

If we’re honest, most of us see this too. When I leave my flat each morning, within five minutes I walk down a road of houses worth millions; I turn a corner and I’m amongst some of the poorest people in the country. These people live next door to one another, they are neighbours, but they may as well be living on different planets.

In allowing the rungs on the ladder to widen, we’ve made our country a more stressful and less trusting place, with eyes looking down nervously at the precipitous fall to the rung below, and desperately up at the impossibly high rung overhead. As a result, more unequal countries such as ours experience poorer mental and physical health, worse educational outcomes, higher levels of violent crime, and, quite possibly, poorer economic growth.

The incremental lifting of dinghies at the bottom doesn’t justify the high-tide the mega yachts seem to be floating on.

Despite all this, I do not want this to just be another doom laden blog on our divided nation, and the effects of inequality. We have to look to the future and towards solutions. An urgent task of whichever new Government forms in the coming months should be to put shared growth and inequality reduction at the top of the agenda. We must see policies aimed at providing better skills and education, and secure well-paid jobs with routes to progress. We must see shared opportunities, and shared prosperity.

Our country can be what we make of it, if we have the will and the courage to fight for a more equal and just society. To do anything less would be a betrayal of our own values, and the future generations who must wrestle with the consequences of our actions. 

John Hood

Acting Director, The Equality Trust