By Baroness Stroud
A lot of printers’ ink has been expended trying to explain why the British people voted to leave the European Union on 23rd June.
The tendency of commentators from all sides of the debate has been to seek information that confirms their prejudices – it was immigration, or people were duped – and then to move on to the multi-season, box-set drama of EU negotiations and international trade deals.
With our new report, 48:52 Healing a Divided Britain, our two think tanks have tried to take a different approach.
First, we have tried to ask the question: what, exactly, did the Brexit vote mean? And then, while the political caravan has moved on, we have started the hard long-term work needed to fix our divided society.
And, to be clear, there is much to fix. Our analysis suggests that there is a deeper malaise in British society that the Brexit vote brought to light as never before.
The vote was a heartfelt cry from millions of people who feel Westminster no longer knows, or even cares, how it feels to walk in their shoes.
The statistics about those who voted Remain and those who voted Leave are stark. Many supporters of Leave feel they have nothing to lose by exiting the EU. They are disproportionately poorer, older and less well educated than those backing Remain.
The upper AB income group was the only one in which a majority backed Remain. Income groups C1, C2, D and E all contained a majority for Leave. Of people living in households earning more than £60,000 a year, 65 per cent backed Remain. But this figure plunged to 38 per cent among those earning less than £20,000 a year.
It is true that immigration was the most cited reason that people gave for voting to leave, but the underlying issues are complex. Immigration mattered not because of the migrants themselves, but because of the impact uncontrolled migration is having on wages, access to housing, schools and healthcare.
Whereas concerns about immigration 40 years ago would have been driven by cultural factors, the motivations today revolve around economic factors and, in particular, the effect on public services. Pressure on the NHS, a shortage of good school places, job insecurity, and a lack of affordable housing were the driving force behind the Brexit vote.
So this is the challenge that the Prime Minister faces, and it must be the focus of the social reform programme she has promised to deliver. It is less about social mobility, important though this is, than about providing real security to those who, in her words, are just managing.
As former government advisers, we know this is easier said than done, especially when the country is still borrowing £70 billion a year.
The government will need to consider radical policy solutions, which should focus on bringing more money into the public services in ways which do not involve higher taxes and also restoring the link – originally envisaged by the founder of the modern welfare state, Sir William Beveridge – between what people put in and what they get out.
Crony capitalism and spiraling corporate pay also infuriate those who work hard and yet struggle to keep their heads above water.
The right answers to these problems are not to be found on the Left – with their nostalgic calls for nationalisation and prices and incomes policies. Instead, the Prime Minister should take on the monopoly-busting attitude of US President Teddy Roosevelt and create genuinely free markets that provide the jobs and prosperity for those corners of the UK that have not benefitted from globalisation.
Housing is a totemic issue here, and Mrs May will need to be robust in taking on those members of her own party who have resisted the creation of new homes in their towns and villages.
The referendum result itself has given a voice to many of those who may have felt disenfranchised, and seeing their will enacted can bring them hope of a stake in the future. Changes to immigration, altering the trend of the past 15 years, will make it possible to address the immediate and damaging issues of low wages and public service pressures.
But if we are to truly change how people’s lives feel to them at present, while leaving the EU is a critical first step, the vote must also trigger wider social reform and a better and clearer vision of social justice.
The Government must get on with delivering the will of the British people and implementing Brexit. But it must also learn the deeper lessons of the referendum vote and act to give many more people a genuine voice and stake in their country.
This article originally appeared on ConservativeHome.