In its latest study of the UK after the referendum, the strategic insight agency Flamingo went out to explore what the result meant for the country’s social fabric. Desiree Lopez looks at the profound impact of Brexit and what to do about it.
As a strategic insight agency with a deep understanding of culture, Flamingo acts as a barometer for companies and brands. In the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, our researchers travelled across the country to take the nation’s pulse, knowing that the ramifications of the decision to leave the EU would be deep and far-reaching.
What we observed in the immediate weeks following the vote was a potent and polarising mix of jubilation, devastation and relief across the country. We could see that, in addition to the effect on brands and businesses, this decision was set to irrevocably alter our nation’s identity, values and global future, as well as the position, importance and appeal of democracy itself.
In order to understand how this upheaval has played out in the day-to-day lives of people in the UK (and to ascertain how, if at all, the nation’s mood has shifted) we repeated the research in June 2018 in the same locations: Barnstaple, Sheffield, London, Canterbury and Machynlleth. In addition to returning to some of the same individuals we met two years ago, we spoke to foreign nationals living in the UK, and people who are now of voting age but had been too young to participate in the referendum. We spoke to 18 people in total; using a qualitative approach allowed us to access depth and nuance that has been missing from the many ‘temperature check’ surveys conducted since the referendum.
We found that the polarised emotions felt in the immediate aftermath of the referendum have now given way to a more united sense of frustration, disillusionment (from both leave and remain voters), and a potentially dangerous cynicism towards mainstream politics.
More specifically, we saw four key shifts in people’s views:
1. From Britain’s strength to weakness
The last two years have dealt a damaging blow to the nation’s confidence, giving a perception of being weaker, less credible and more unstable as a nation. Rather than the independent, robust and ‘better alone’ version of the UK sold by the Leave campaign, people’s perception is that we now appear as fools on the international stage, standing to lose much and gain little.
2. Political empowerment to disempowerment
One surprising benefit of the referendum debate was that it appeared to have energised us as a nation, giving us a sense that we as individuals had a significant part to play in shaping the future of the UK. In doing so it gave people renewed engagement in politics and the democratic process. Since then, the situation has stagnated; progress has stopped and the political rhetoric, with its complications about trade agreements, border controls and customs unions, feels irrelevant to our lives. The sense of empowerment has dissipated and collapsed.
3. We were sold an emotional idea but delivered a theoretical one
People were offered a vote on intangible and emotional issues such as sovereignty, identity, democracy and inclusivity. Despite being largely undefined and unsupported, these ideas nevertheless engaged emotion, commitment and, ultimately, voting behaviour. In addition, social and heritage media was full of unaccountable advertising, making assertions and promises that were left unsupervised and unfulfilled. The reality of the EU is that it is essentially the enactment of a rule book and so much of the discussion since the vote has centred on the technicalities of trade, business and infrastructure. These are not areas the general public is expert in, nor should it be, and this leaves a feeling of detachment and betrayal.
4. Society has shifted from multi- to mono-culturalism
In the two years since the referendum, we found that people view the UK as moving closer towards a mono-culture. With the exception of core urban hubs where multi-culturalism still thrives, people believe many parts of the UK have grown more inward looking. Dialogue around resources has licensed people to interrogate notions of Britishness and claim it as theirs.
In short, our research showed that belief in the democratic process has been rocked by Brexit and the wider global changes we are seeing every day in other democratic countries around the world.
Whether leave or remain, very few Brits would say the government has handled Brexit negotiations well, or that their democratic rights have been honoured. People on both sides have lost belief in the political process and this has increased the public’s uncertainty about what’s next for Britain, their families and their futures.