1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A divided UK

Samira Shackle, LondonJune 23, 2016

The mood is muted in Britain as people anxiously await the verdict on membership of the European Union. Samira Shackle took to the streets of London to gauge the mood of voters.

London Brexit Abstimmung Wahllokal
Image: DW/S. Shackle

Polling stations across the UK opened early this morning as the public votes in a historic referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union. On a grey, damp day, there was some concern that poor weather in London and the south-east of England - where there have been thunderstorms and floods - might affect turnout.

This is only the third nationwide referendum in British history and comes after a four-month campaign as the Leave and Remain campaigns tussled for votes. The contest is still too close to call. Last ditch polls on Wednesday showed mixed results; two placed Remain in the lead, and two suggested leads for Leave. Most polls suggest that as many as 10 percent of voters are still undecided, meaning that the result could end up hinging on the turnout. In the Scottish independence referendum last year, undecided voters swung the result toward remaining part of the UK.

"It's a difficult thing to be undecided about - it's very tribal," Mike Crowhurst, who works in educational policy, told DW. "I am leaning towards voting Remain. What's stopped me is the idea that we have to choose between current frustrations and possible worsening if we leave. A starting point is that no one likes Europe, but it would be worse if we left. I can't think of the last time anyone on the remain side referenced any of the things Cameron set out to obtain as part of his deal in Brussels, or talked about where the EU will be in five or 10 years time."

Entrenched divides

After a protracted and polarizing election campaign, many people remain set in their views. Byron Sanford is a campaigner with Grassroots Out, the pro-Brexit activist movement associated with the UK Independence Party (UKIP). As an American citizen (he is a student who moved to the UK in January), he does not have a vote. "I support UKIP because it support sensible immigration controls. If you have open borders, you have uncontrolled migration from poor countries, people that naturally want to come here but that drives down the wages which hurts the indigenous working class," he told DW. "My opposition to the EU is mostly because of immigration but also democracy. As Farage says, the EU is anti-democratic because the commission, which isn't elected, determines what the legislation is."

man standing in front of a bus copyright: Samira Shackle
Leave campaigners like Byron Sanford says the EU has failed on immigration and democracyImage: DW/S. Shackle

Many people, on both sides of the political divide, have been dispirited at the tone of the debate. Political rhetoric on both sides has been overwhelmingly negative, with inaccurate facts and statistics widely circulated. For many, a nadir was reached when UKIP released a poster heavily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

"I am voting to remain in the EU because to leave would be a danger to our economy, a danger to workers rights and human rights, and a real danger to the very people who have been fooled into thinking that Brexit is the answer to their problems," says TV producer Owen Kean. "More importantly I'm voting to remain because I've been dispirited by the tone of the debate, particularly the rhetoric on the Leave side which has been barely concealed and sometimes flagrantly open racism. It's been frightening to watch this xenophobia derail the public debate entirely and I worry that a vote to leave will empower the very worst elements of British political life. I don't want to live in a Britain won over by willful lies and hatred."

On the Remain side, many people are frustrated that a positive case for EU membership has not been made. "I've lived, worked, and studied in Berlin, Madrid, Paris and London," says Rachel Perry, who works in communications. "I feel passionately European and amidst the number-crunching and vitriol, would have liked to see someone make the simple case that connections are always better than divisions. I'm genuinely scared about waking up tomorrow in an isolationist country that is smaller both economically and spiritually."

campaign flyers copyright: Samira Shackle
The Remain camp says facts and figures have been distorted by the Leave campaignImage: DW/S. Shackle

Future prospects

The day before the referendum, the financial markets appeared bolstered as confidence grew for a Remain victory. Shares and the value of sterling both rose. But with the polls too close for either side to decisively call it, many are wondering what comes next. Whether Britain votes to leave or remain, it will most likely be by a fine margin. The debate about Europe and Britain's role within it is not going away.

"The EU as an institution is one going in the wrong direction and it urgently needs to be reformed," says Joe Bekhor, a financial services professional who plans to vote Leave.

He's convinced that the UK doesn't have the bargaining power within the EU to push through significant reforms. "We have a fork in the road: either you disintegrate or you integrate further and it's very, very clear that decision taken in the EU has been to integrate further. Frankly, this isn't a vote to stay in the status quo, this is a vote to stay in a Europe that is going to be changed into a completely different animal. And many of the Remain campaign's arguments implicitly state we are small and insignificant and can't fend for ourselves."

Crowhurst, the undecided voter, is also concerned about what might happen next. "It's a trade off between frustrations and the negative effects of leaving - which I don't doubt there would be. They would fall on people in society who could probably least afford them. I'm unlikely to be significantly affected, but leaving the EU would impact a lot of people and would not fix things in the way they want to fix them. People see a vote to leave as an easy solution to their problems. It's not."