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National Discontent

Nobody expected the result of June’s referendum or the American presidential election. Two of the world’s most stable democracies have been rocked by socio-political movements that should have been anticipated but weren’t. What was driving these movements and how lasting will their impact be? Answering that is complicated because voters are individuals, influenced by a variety of factors, which makes generalisation difficult.

Immigration was a major issue in both nations. Taking back control of our borders was a key objective for the Brexit campaign and Trump’s wall to shut out Mexican immigrants was the American equivalent. Both countries have strong economies that attract economic migrants. In Britain’s case the free movement of labour is a core principle of EU membership whatever Boris Johnson might say. Some employers actively recruit migrant labour and the NHS would struggle without them. The flaw in the Brexit argument is that half of our immigrants are not coming from the EU. Whilst it is true the UK is more densely populated that most of the developed economies, it is hard to refuse entry to refugees seeking sanctuary from wars and oppressive governments, especially if they want to join relatives already resident here.

Detailed analysis of the votes cast in the referendum suggests other factors at work. Those most likely to be affected by low wage competition from immigrants are young people at the beginning of their working life but they voted ‘Remain’ 65% to 35%. Pensioners (60%) and people with disabilities (59%) voted to ‘leave’. 53% of those in full time work and 51% of those in part-time jobs voted to ‘Remain’. This suggests economic motivations were not the only factors at work.  Researchers found that 87% of ‘Remainers’ think social liberalism, such as same-sex marriage legislation is a ‘force for good’ whilst 53% of ‘Leavers’ considered it a ‘force for ill’. Asked about their attitudes to multi-culturism, 65% of ‘Leavers’ were hostile and 86% of ‘Remainers’ were positive. The strongest predictor of a ‘Leave’ vote was support for capital punishment. This suggests that in the UK at least we are witnessing a cultural reaction by older voters to the social legislation introduced by Governments of left and right, creating a gulf between the political establishment and the voters, including Labour supporters as well as Conservatives.

One possible explanation of this gulf is the failure of the political establishment to get to grips with some of the major problems facing the nation. The shortage of affordable homes, rising house prices and the prohibitive cost for young couples wanting to buy is a real issue. Home ownership is at its lowest for 30 years whilst the number of homeless people in London has almost tripled in the last decade. We are simply not building enough homes and need at least 250,000 a year more, a target we haven’t met since the 1970’s.

Energy security and reducing our carbon output is another. The Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 with only five MPs opposing it but today the “Vote Blue, go green” motto has been dumped. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has been scrapped suggesting that the green agenda is not one of Theresa May’s priorities. The Government’s critics would add a failure to tackle inequality and the obstacles to social mobility as other causes of discontent. No doubt there are others and together they constitute a disturbing lack of trust and respect for those we elected to govern us. The need for consistent and believing prayer is obvious.     

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