A short time after the EU referendum I saw a tweet in my timeline prophesying that ‘in about 20 years’ time the answer to any pub quiz question will be 2016’.1Credit where credit is due, the tweet was by @robboma3, although it is hard to be definitive on originality. You can see the reasoning; the year started with a glut of celebrity deaths, Leicester City won the Premier League as 5,000-1 outsiders, astronaut Tim Peake became the first Briton to participate in a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, then there was Brexit, the resignation of the Prime Minister, a record medal haul for Team GB in Rio, and then President Trump.

2016 has been remarkable in many ways, but Brexit was the take-your-breath-away moment. While the term hasn’t yet made the Oxford English Dictionary – apparently because of its shifting meaning2Despite the Prime Minister saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’! Source: Joy Lo Dico, Evening Standard, 13.9.16. New entries included moobs, YOLO and the Westminster bubble. Meanwhile ‘Brexit’ has spawned ‘Breget’, ‘Hard/soft Brexit’, ‘Brexodus’ and many other derivatives. – it will surely be on the shortlist of words of the year (as it was last year3In 2015, it was beaten into second place by an emoji http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/11/word-of-the-year-2015-emoji/, and according to @amybotwright on 15.7.16, there were “more UK tweets about Pokémon Go in the last 2 days than UK tweets about the EU referendum since January”.) and will shape Britain for many years to come.

There has been much dissection of the 52% vote for ‘Leave’ and what it says about Britain.4See, for example, Matthew Goodwin ‘Why Britain backed Brexit’ (1.7.16), and Stephen Bush http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/divided-britain-how-referendum-exposed-britains-culture-war What is clear is that Brexit was not made in 2016; rather, it was the moment we looked in the mirror and saw changes to our appearance, changes which had been creeping up on us for many years. As historian Robert Saunders put it the day after the vote, “The referendum has exposed – but not created – a crisis in our representative system. That crisis has been building for some time, but last night it erupted in full force.”5http://gladstonediaries.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/democracy-and-disconnect-brexit-in.html

There are likely to have been many reasons for Brexit, but what 2016 has revealed is that our world views really matter and they are splitting our country, our localities, our workforces, even our families and friends. The troika of tensions I described as integral to British socio-culture in last year’s Almanac – identity, aspiration and fairness – cut through in spectacular fashion.

Like many of my colleagues I was reminded of the surveys and discussion groups which, in hindsight, didn’t exactly foretell Brexit but did point to the multitude of forces which caused it to happen and which reveal what Britain is like today. Thus, for example, our 2013-14 Global Trends Survey found many, not all, Britons unconvinced about the merits of globalisation, strongly attached to tradition, and concerned about the pace of change.

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The referendum results similarly showed division; in Scotland, 38% voted Leave but it was 59% in the Midlands, and only 40% in London. These differences reflect quite different cultural standpoints. To put it in terms of brand preference, as one study did this year, while HP Sauce and Bisto are ‘Leave’ brands, Remainers prefer BBC iPlayer and LinkedIn.6‘Do your favourite brands show how divided Brexit Britain is?’ bbc.co.uk, 10.8.16.

Reflecting again on focus group discussions with Britons over recent years, pretty much any topic quickly leads to references to ‘them’ and ‘they’. When we ask who ‘they’ are, we are told the people in charge, those outside the ’real world’ (‘others’ also extends to immigrants). This is symptomatic of a deep disconnection, not just with Westminster and the ‘bubble’ (and in many places, London), but also with the economy, with many struggling to comprehend how this works and who it actually works for. Their sense, though, is that it needs rebalancing, if not rebuilding; a case of ‘the economy stupid’, and the stupid economy.

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‘Politicians’ and the ‘boss class’ are considered inept, impotent or disinterested (or all of these) and the change anxiety described in previous Almanacs is heightened by a sense that no one is in control, making ‘Take Back Control’ such a potent message. Alongside this, there is a sense of nostalgia and pessimism; a feeling that we “don’t make anything anymore” and that “Britain is falling behind”. This compounds perceived injustice, worries about inequality and the uneven effects of austerity. We also detect sensitivity about the decline of towns and high streets, overseas investment and locals being ‘priced out’ of homes and jobs.

The lived experience for many Britons over the past few years has been one of subtraction and sacrifice; they quietly yearn for something to be positive about, for an injection of ’something’. During the referendum campaign David Cameron might have described the referendum as “existential” – a high-stakes vote on the future of Britain – but many felt they had nothing left to lose.

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Then there’s immigration. In June our monthly Issues Index recorded 48% of the population were concerned with immigration and in the final two weeks of the referendum campaign it replaced the economy as the top-ranked issue which would impact how people would vote. This year our colleagues in the States drew parallels between Brexit, the rise of Trump and Western Europe’s right-wing parties. The common denominators are cultural detachment and immigrants being perceived as the cause of long-term economic uncertainty.7http://spotlight.ipsos-na.com/index.php/news/its-nativism-explaining-the-drivers-of-trumps-popular-support/

While this year has seen the election of the first Muslim Mayor of London, it has also witnessed the tragic killing of Jo Cox MP and a sharp rise in hate crimes.8https://fullfact.org/crime/hate-crime-and-eu-referendum/ But just as we are now seeing those sceptical about house-building prefacing their opposition with “I’m not a nimby but …”, so those worried about immigration have tended to ditch the apologetic preamble they used a few years ago. Yes, there are wild inaccuracies and misperceptions, but the public often have legitimate concerns about public policy (including immigration), and are united by a sense that they matter little in the scheme of things.

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None of this is particularly new. But Brexit brought these strands together, tying up several loose ends. We will see what Brexit means, and time will tell whether and how it can be delivered in our fragile coalition of a country, but it is clear that things will have to change. Received wisdom is that public policy in post-Brexit Britain must deliver for the ‘left behinds’ and, sensitive to this, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have set out their (very different) stalls to achieve a step-change in social mobility and opportunity.

There are some grounds for optimism. First, we should not over-state division because the British have much in common – so much so that it is rare in our surveys to find 52%-48% splits in responses to attitudinal questions! Second, devolution and technology offer an opportunity to reset politics. Moreover, Britain probably isn’t more ‘ungovernable’ than it was in 1970s or 1980s, and the interventionist state described by Theresa May can still make a difference.

But there must surely be a big question mark about how much we actually understand our country, even in our data-rich times. Are we actually investing enough in listening and observing? Do we leave our particular bubbles often enough to see kaleidoscopic Britain through a different lens?9A good example of this can be found in the excellent TED talk by Alexander Betts, June 2016, who calculated that he had visited the top 50 Leave areas just four times in his lifetime. Surely we need more ‘ground truth’,10Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times, ‘The best economist is one with dirty shoes’, 19.7.16. See also Simon Roberts, ‘Knowing a Country: A Post-Brexit Polemic’, 27.6.16. and for the metropolitan punditry class to spend more time outside London.

2016 has been a remarkable year; a year of change, a cause and effect of change anxiety. Will next year be dull and unspectacular by comparison, the answer to very few pub quiz questions? I’m not so sure.

Image credit: By GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49225210

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