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Healing the Brexit divisions

Few would deny that Britain is more divided than at any time in living memory.

If we want to heal those divisions, we have first to understand their causes. Superficially, the 2016 referendum and the vote to leave the EU is the cause, but one has to dig deeper to understand what motivated 52% to vote to leave and 48% to vote to remain in the EU - and there is no one simple reason. How and why individuals voted the way they did was personal, but research has identified a number of factors that seem to have influenced the result.

Age is one of them. 81% of 55-64 year olds and 83% of those aged 65+ voted, whilst only 36% of 18-24 year olds did. The significance of this is that the older citizens were more likely to have more socially conservative values than the younger voters. Their attitudes to immigration were significant. The seniors were more likely to be hostile to large numbers of immigrants; membership of the EU requires free movement of labour across the national borders of member states. Those in the 18-44 age groups were more likely to see immigration as a force for good.

The Cameron government promised in the 2015 election to reduce the number of immigrants to tens of thousands rather than the 506,000 that arrived in 2014. More came from beyond Europe than from the EU, but in 2018 there were still a net number of 282,000 immigrants. Healing in this area might begin by recognising our need for skilled labour. Currently we have record numbers in work and only 4% unemployed, but there are significant shortages of skilled labour in many industries and public services.

The NHS is a major example. It is one of the biggest employers in the world with 1.2 million workers, but too many posts are currently unfilled.  The Royal College of Nursing reports a shortage of 40,000 nurses, and that could increase to 70,000 in the next five years. There is a shortage of GPs, expected to be 7,000 by 2023/4 as older practitioners retire.  Nearly three quarters of all medical specialisms have unfilled training posts, especially cancer, psychiatry and emergency medicine. The most serious shortages are in the northern regions. Sooner or later attitudes to immigration have to change to meet these needs.

The NHS is not the only sector struggling with shortages of skilled labour. The construction industry is another. We have a shortage of affordable dwellings and the government plans to build at least 300,000 new homes to9 combat this - but house builders struggle with shortages of skilled bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and plasterers.

The food and agriculture sector has similar labour problems. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) reports a 30% labour shortage. Hospitality, leisure, personnel services and information technology have similar shortages of skilled labour.

Attitudes to immigration were by no means the only factor influencing voters in the 2016 referendum. There was also evidence of a sense of powerlessness amongst older voters as a result of globalisation. This nurtured a nationalist desire to leave the EU and restore sovereignty to Westminster. Younger voters were more likely to recognise that so many of the challenges in the world today are global and beyond the capacity of nation states – even the most powerful ones – to resolve on their own. Climate change, movements of large numbers of migrants, international crime syndicates and Russian expansionism are not issues that our government can handle effectively on their own.

There are no quick fixes for the deep divisions Brexit has caused. Healing them will call for a quality of leadership that has been absent from British politics in recent years.  Our politicians will need to be realistic both about the reasons people voted for Brexit, the damage the referendum has done to social cohesion and to their own credibility. They are more likely to make a positive difference if they are honest about the issues and possible ways forward. The rest of us can pray for them to be humble, honest and realistic.

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