The morning of 24th June is one of those rare moments in London’s history where an eerie silence prevails across the capital. In central London you could have heard a pin drop, on streets which only days before had been filled with boisterous Remain campaigners, exclaiming the importance of the EU to future prosperity and social harmony, bemoaning Leave campaigners as small-minded, xenophobic Little Englanders.
As the implications of a clear Leave vote finally hit home on Friday morning, conversations could be overheard in offices, restaurants, cafes across the capital, focusing on disbelief at the results and, in many cases, contempt at those who had brought the country to this point.
The metropolitan media – also in shock - speculated whether the result could be overturned, with the Evening Standard highlighting that a Parliamentary petition for a second referendum was fast gaining support, with more than 130,000 signatures that day and more expected. It gained 4 million signatures in the end, far short of the 17.5m ballots for Leave. Social media users suggested that if a second referendum was off the cards, then London could divorce itself from the rest of the country, by holding its own independence referendum. The capital was in shock.
The majority of London had good reason to feel shocked. Although there was certainly some complacency, the sense of inevitability about a Remain victory was underpinned by local media and London-based polling companies, whose broad consensus in the days leading up to the result was for a narrow but decisive Remain victory. This points to the underlying issue: the politicians, media and pollsters, the vast majority of which London-based, were insulated from the rest of the country.
Anyone who ventured outside of the capital for more than weekend may have discerned that there was a strong, well-embedded Eurosceptic sentiment in the months leading up to the vote, being reinforced by well-organised grassroots activism. While Remain campaigners vastly outnumbered Brexiters in the capital, the Leave campaign dwarfed the Remain campaign in the shires, the ports, and the former industrial towns – areas many commentators would brand ‘Little England’.
At the moment, painstaking efforts are being made to dissect the underlying causes of the rift between these two opposing sections of the electorate. Identity plays an important role, and it is clear there is a stronger sense of Englishness and Britishness outside the capital. As Emily Thornberry noticed, some people outside the capital even feel comfortable flying their national flag outside their homes.
Sovereignty is another important issue. The sectors where the most tangible loss of power can be witnessed predominantly affect rural and coastal areas outside the capital. Fisheries Policy is one example, where the loss of sovereignty is not noticeable in London, but has been disastrous for local fishing industries. Fishermen from all around the UK have to share catch with other EU nations, causing loss of income and employment for working class people in small and large coastal ports up and down the UK.
However, the most obvious, but least appealing to discuss, reason for polarisation is the failure of metropolitan-based politicians and policy-makers to take any substantive steps towards reducing immigration. For many years now this has been one of the main concerns of the British electorate, however there is a valid perception that Westminster lacks genuine
motivation to reduce levels to what the public would deem acceptable. No doubt, in part due to intensive lobbying by business.
‘Little England’ sees immigration differently to London. Rural areas and towns receive significantly less per capita funding for infrastructure and public services, so increasing population has a disproportionate affect. The additional impact of building houses in the countryside also provides an emotive element, which is wrongly dismissed as nimbyism.
There have been years of frustration from those outside London over the steady erosion of identity and sovereignty. But the failure to act on immigration is paramount. Usually these concerns do not need to be addressed – the Westminster system is set up to enable one party with a metropolitan core to govern on a broad mandate. However, the EU referendum has enabled a broad alliance of Little England, from Newlyn to Newcastle, to make their voice heard, to give the metropolitan elite a shock and triumph against the odds. We must listen to them.