The UK today seems more divided than at any time in its recent history. Paul Flatters, Chief Executive of trends analysis and forecasting consultancy Trajectory, examines why this has happened and how it can change.
Having worked in social and economic trends analysis for more than 25 years, I have spent countless hours poring over mountains of data about the evolving state of Britain.
In some eras, the data has suggested a move towards greater social cohesion and equality. We now, unequivocally, live in an era of increasing polarisation and division, where a gain for you feels like a loss for me.
Our growing division has many facets, including all the elements of traditional PEST analysis (used in organisational strategy development). We are more Politically, Economically and Socially divided. We are probably more Technologically divided too, between those who have the skills and confidence to use the latest technology to enrich their lives and those who do not.
These four elements break down into more specific types of division:
- Rich versus poor
- Tax payers versus benefit claimants
- Young versus old
- Home owners versus non-home owners
- Borrowers versus savers
- ‘Remainers’ versus ‘Leavers’
- Natives versus immigrants
- ‘Right’ versus ‘Left’
- Nationalists versus Unionists
- North versus South
- London versus ‘The Rest’
This increasing division is dangerous, not least because it leads to a country which is less content and less at ease with itself. In some instances, division results in anger and a blame culture that challenges community cohesion – a cohesion that was hard-won in more united times.
Some of the manifestations of division can appear relatively harmless, such as a harshening of the political debate. Others are more invidious, such as reported increases in hate crime, threatening behaviour and violent attacks on immigrants in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Division goes hand in hand with a more bitter and self-centred society.
Recent political events have provided us with stark evidence of division. The EU referendum revealed a UK divided between 52% ‘Leavers’ and 48% ‘Remainers’. This year’s general election saw 42% vote Conservative and 40% vote Labour. In both cases, we see almost equal and opposite support for very different visions of the nation’s future. And note how those on the winning side claim that, although their victory was narrow, it was victory nonetheless; whilst those on the losing side claim that the victors’ mandate is undermined by the narrowness of victory. This is fertile ground for continued division.
The referendum and general election results are consistent with longer-term trends in political affiliation. In the years either side of the turn of the millennium, political affiliation became increasingly centrist. The general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005 reflected this, with all major parties competing on similar platforms, designed to appeal to the middle ground. But centrist political identification has declined significantly in recent years. Today, politics and political affiliations are more polarised or divided, with two roughly equal-sized clusters on the left and right.
A drift away from the British political centre
A closer look at the EU referendum voting patterns provides additional insight into what has been called, ‘Intergenerational Conflict’ – the division between young and old in the UK. There were deep divisions in referendum voting behaviour by age, with older voters much more likely to vote to leave and young voters much more likely to vote to remain.
Brexit exemplifies the generational divide
This is just one element of intergenerational division. Older people in general, and the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation specifically, are said to have benefitted at the expense of younger generations through ownership of increasingly expensive homes and access to generous employee pensions.
Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that home ownership in England peaked at 71% in 2003 and fell to 63% by 2014, with younger, millennial households finding it hardest to access the property ladder. And according to the ONS, almost two thirds of ‘Baby Boomers’ owned their own home by the age of 30, compared to just 42% of today’s 30-year olds.
Older generations have also benefitted more from government policy in the period of austerity following the 2008 financial crisis. Whilst older people have seen the value of their state pension protected by the ‘triple lock’, younger people (in England) have been on the receiving end of higher university tuition fees and the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance.
“Many of those worst affected by straitened economic circumstances feel bitterly towards the people whom they blame for them”.
These political, social and economic divisions are all interrelated and feed off each other. But the economy is primarily responsible for the root causes of our emerging division. Time and again, history tells us that it is much easier to achieve social harmony in times of prosperity, while social conflict often goes hand in hand with economic turmoil.
In 2017, we are still living with the consequences of the 2007/8 financial crash. There is continued austerity in public spending, a persistent lack of private and public investment and interest rates remain at record lows (great for borrowers, but terrible for savers). Arguably, we are also trying to cope with the longer-term impact of globalisation and liberal economics, as a result of which working and lower middle-class incomes have been stagnant since the 1980s.
A decade on from the start of the crash, it is staggering to find that, across the UK, only London and the South East of England, have seen their economies increase beyond their pre-crash size. Every other region is less well-off than it was ten years ago.
Many of those worst affected by straitened economic circumstances feel bitterly towards the people whom they blame for them. ‘Blame’ is a useful construct for considering our widening divisions. Some people blame the establishment: witness the kicking that political and business leaders have been given in recent years. Some people look to blame others, such as immigrants and/or benefit claimants.
“Time and again, history tells us that it is much easier to achieve social harmony in times of prosperity, while social conflict often goes hand in hand with economic turmoil”.
Immigration barely registered as an issue in the economic good times between 1997 and 2003. The issue achieved greater salience immediately following the accession of several Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004. However, the real surge in concern about immigration only emerged after the financial crash and peaked in September 2015. Since then, immigration has often been quoted as the most important political issue on the electorate’s agenda.
Immigration high on the agenda
An obvious conclusion is that economic growth is not enough to tackle these sources of division, for we have seen significant economic growth in the last five years. Rather, we need a different type of economic growth that is more evenly distributed around the regions of the UK, across demographic groups and among rich and poor, generating real income growth for those who have not seen a significant pay rise for many years.
“A closer look at the Brexit referendum voting patterns provides additional insight into what has been called, ‘Intergenerational Conflict’ – the division between young and old in the UK”.
There is no single silver bullet that can reverse the trend towards increased division. It has many roots and manifestations and a suite of policies is required. Corporate and individual elites may need to recognise that paying a little more tax might be in their long-term self-interest. Politicians may need to truly appreciate that we have a national housing crisis and put in place appropriate incentives for affordable home building. A re-balancing of fiscal policy in favour of younger people could alleviate the feeling among the millennial generation that they have been dealt a poor hand. And support for the Northern Powerhouse concept, such as properly delivering HS3, might reduce the division in wealth between the South East and the rest. Taken together, these policies might just create a climate in which the competition for jobs, resources and government funding feels less like a zero-sum game. A divisive game where the winners keep on winning and the losers keep on growing. Then perhaps Britain can start feeling and acting more like a United Kingdom, rather than a divided one.