Why rural Britain’s influence is set to outlive the Brexit vote

The story of British referendum is more about rural-urban divide than the much-talked about youth vs old

Ehtesham Shahid
Ehtesham Shahid
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A day after the tempestuous British referendum result, and already under a deluge of stories narrating horrors of separation, I suggested to my newsroom: “Let us run some positive Brexit stories”. “There are none,” was the prompt reply.

Moving quickly over the spirit of remaining “fair and balanced”, I stumbled upon a more interesting phenomenon – the way rural Britain voted and what it means for the continent going forward. Reports by then were clear. Unlike in bigger cities, a majority of voters in rural areas had overwhelmingly voted for an exit from the European Union.

That appeared a far more interesting byproduct of this experiment to me than the much-talked about youth vs old divide. The rural-urban dichotomy had layers of historical legacies related to migration going back decades, economic inequality and a general lack of understanding on common challenges.

On matters such as unions and alliances, inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities are more likely to find resonance with similar populations around the world. In any case, more and more big cities are beginning to look alike. One has to move beyond London to analyze the shifting sands of time and figure out whether the sun is indeed setting on the British Empire.

My quest, on this occasion, was to try and understand whether this vote will deepen the realization among rural voters of the extent to which they have been ignored and marginalized by increasingly distant urban elites. There is little empirical evidence to suggest that this has already happened. However, as they say, it’s the perception that matters.

Chatham House’s Prof. Yossi Mekelberg, who doubles as an Al Arabiya English opinion writer, says “the remain campaign, until it was too late, concentrated on big urban places where they felt comfortable; they were not as active in rural places which were more hostile to their message.” A bit of arrogance was already discernable.

However, Prof. Mekelberg’s insight on the larger issue is more interesting. “I think it is the combination of globalization and polarization. There is a huge divide between the big cities and the rest. It is a reflection of profound polarization over the nature of society, relations with the wider world and mostly puritan basic values.”

One has to move beyond London to analyze the shifting sands of time and figure out whether the sun is indeed setting on the British Empire.

Ehtesham Shahid

His views indicated that people living in urban centers have a more positive outlook of globalization than rural folks. One can also infer from this that the future of regionalism in Europe is bright considering the increased rural-urban migration.

Whichever way one looks at it, there seems to be an obvious and growing realization among the rural folk that they don’t enjoy the benefits of globalization but suffer from the perils of it. This is alarming considering the country in question is the fifth largest economy in the world, and second largest in the European Union that they have chosen to exit.

I had to seek one more view on the subject before I could arrive at any conclusion. Toby Birch, financial forecaster, thought leader and entrepreneur, says while people in rural Britain feel more disenfranchised than ever it is unlikely that they had a direct impact as a group on Brexit. He admits though that they could have been “the marginal tipping point to swing the outcome.”

“While farmers benefit from subsidies they feel too rule-bound by Directives which benefit farms with economies of scale in a larger landmass like Europe,” says Birch. According to him, one of the most unedifying scenes in the run-up was a photo of celebrities making hand gestures at destitute fisherman when the latter came to London to protest.

We return to the same argument, the divide between international elite in London and ordinary working people across the country. I am more convinced though that, in order to be more precise about which way a society is headed, it probably makes more sense to listen to the countryside.

While I rest my case and continue to hunt for positive Brexit stories, the fact remains that such a divide is not ending anytime soon, irrespective of whether Britain or other countries choose to exit or strengthen the union.

Ehtesham Shahid is a Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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