Published:

According to Lord Ashcroft’s mammoth poll of over 12,000 people, conducted on the day of the EU referendum itself, the propensity to vote for Brexit increased as voters aged.  Only from the 45-54 age group upwards was there a majority for leaving.

Map of how Britain divided show most of the bigger Leave majorities concentrated outside London and its prosperous hinterland.

The Ashcroft polling also showed that “the AB social group (broadly speaking, professionals and managers) were the only social group among whom a majority voted to remain (57 per cent). C1s divided fairly evenly; nearly two thirds of C2DEs (64 per cent) voted to leave the EU.

In short, the older, less metropolian and poorer you were, the more likely you were to have voted to leave the EU.  This was always going lessen the likelihood of a “liberal Brexit”.

These voters may not be enthusiasts for a bigger state.  But a significant slice of them are major consumers of the third or so of public spending that goes on healthcare and social security for pensioners.  So they have an interest in preserving it.

Nor are they opposed to lower taxes.  However their support for these is balanced by their backing for the NHS, and healthcare was consuming roughly eight per cent of public spending pre-pandemic compared to the year 2000.

Furthermore, the state is a bigger employer outside London and the South East.  That will also influence voters’ views in provinical England.  Meanwhile, many poorer voters have less of an interest than richer ones in cutting taxes (or at least some of them) because they are net gainers from the state rather than net losers.

It would be a mistake to see post-Brexit Britain solely through the eyes of those who voted Leave.  The votes of the near 50 per cent who voted Remain should and do count for no less.

I can’t help thinking that this is just as well for enthusiasts for “Singapore-on-Thames”, since support for lower taxes is likely to flourish among those who pay a relatively high proportion of them: in other words, voters in London and the South-East, with their many former Remain voters.

Am I suggesting that the vision of a future UK with better-off provinces, more manufacturing, more joined-up cities, better skills, higher producticity and lower immigration – in short, levelling-up – is an illusion?

No, but reform was always going to be a long slog (just as it would have been had the referendum gone the other way). Covid explains part of the Government’s slow post-Brexit start; a lack of focus is responsible for some of the rest.  The remainder is bound up with Britain’s inherent conservatism, small c.

The strength of the farming lobby in rural Conservative constituencies was always going to limit the sweep of free trade deals – as will resistance to immigration if the prospect of more is thrown into the bargaining mix.

And while Leave voters outside the Greater South-East undoubtedly wanted the economic “levelling up” that I’m trying to describe (as did Remain ones), the preoccupations of older and and poorer voters were as much cultural as economic – with so many seeing themselves, their families and neighbourhoods as losers from globalisation.

Our proprietor’s polling found the second most prevalent reason for voting Leave was that it “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders”.

The top reason he cited takes us to the heart of Brexit: why it happened and why it matters.  It was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.  This is so simple as to be in danger of being overlooked, as elite opinion of all kinds focuses on the economics.  It shouldn’t be.

In the last resort, voters who cast their ballots to leave were voting for Parliamentary self-government rather than the EU membership model.  How can their votes possibly be read otherwise?

You may say that they didn’t necessarily vote to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.  The counter-case is that continued Single Market membership would have rendered control of EU migration impossible and that continued Customs Union membership would have rendered new trade deals impossible.

Whether you agree with that view or not, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t just Brexiteers, or opponents of Theresa May’s deal, who sunk a different form of Brexit.

It may above all have been pro-Remain MPs, largely on the Labour side, who deliberately wrecked various iterations of a “Norway option” in order to pursue a second referendum.  It is possible to believe that a logjammed Commons might have found a majority for “Norway” had anti-No Deal opinion in the Commons had swung behind it.

The second referendum lobby wanted everything – that’s to say, their “confirmatory ballot” – and lost everything.  Instead of a logjammed and exhausted Parliament eventually settling for one, they got Boris Johnson.

And the voters back him at the next election, we will get him again.  If for whatever reason he has gone by then, and is replaced by, say, Liz Truss, we may get a Free Market Britain.  If Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister instead, we will get a socialist Britain.  And quite right too, if voters so decide.  What part of democracy is so hard to understand?

I opened with a mass of Brexit can’t-dos – or hard-to-does – but end with a has-done: the decision to go it alone on vaccines.  It would have been possible in theory had the UK stayed in the EU, but most unlikely in practice.

Some on the Right will cling to Brexit Britain as a kind of Singapore, and we came close in 2017 to it as a kind of Venezuala.  The success of the vaccine rollout and Kate Bingham’s taskforce suggests a different future – one no less elusive but better suited to the UK (assuming the Union holds).

There was a continuum between Nick Timothy’s “small, smart and strategic” state and Dominic Cummings’ fiercely illusionless Vote Leave vision, based on an eclectic mix of state intervention, science, markets and radical reform.

Cummings has gone, won’t be coming back to the Conservative Party any time soon, and there is little to be gained by going back over how Boris Johnson mistakenly froze him out (and how Cummings then burnt, or rather lasered, his boats).  All the same, the benefits of Bingham’s work endures.

And there are lessons in it for building resilience elsewhere – in energy provision, supply chains, hospitals; in our institutions, procurement, skills base and border control.   The work of Brexit is only just beginning.