How is Brexit affecting community cohesion?

January 29, 2019   By Jessica Studdert, Deputy Director, NLGN

While the Westminster Bubble obsesses over the daily drama of haggling and brinksmanship over the shape of EU withdrawal, the NLGN Leadership Index reveals new insight into what is actually happening in our country. This quarter, our survey of leaders, chief executives and council mayors explored how Brexit is affecting community cohesion.

Brexit is having a negative impact on community cohesion, according to a majority of respondents (52.8 per cent), while only 1.6 per cent felt it is positive. A significant minority (45.6 per cent) indicated that it had been neither positive nor negative. The mixed results possibly reflect the highly localised impacts of Brexit in different areas – and the answers provided by those who elaborated paint a more complex picture of what is going on.

Some regions felt the impact on community cohesion more – the North East, South West, West Midlands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all reported a negative impact to a greater extent than the average. That negativity seems to have manifested in similar ways. Some respondents cited general feelings of division, and others more specifically point to a “rise in hate crime”. Where this has appeared, this has taken the form of racial abuse “which seems to have been okayed by the Brexit vote” or “verbal abuse against non-white Britons”, and anti-immigrant sentiment, for example, “EU nationals generally feeling unwelcome”.

In some areas, there is evidence that more organised groups have fomented tensions, with “anti-Semitic graffiti and some community tension…use of rallies drawing in factions from other groups”. The notable exception was Northern Ireland, where concerns unsurprisingly focussed on the Border areas and the Good Friday Agreement.

A negative impact on community cohesion has not been the experience everywhere. In just as many other areas, respondents indicated that community cohesion had not been an issue either way. But this doesn’t mean all was plain sailing in those areas – feelings of frustration still came through. In one area of the North West, a respondent felt their high Leave vote was “more a response to being forgotten by central government and a London-centric view of the world than a comment on Europe and immigration”.

Two strong sentiments were evident in our findings, which expanded the impact of Brexit on communities beyond cohesion. The first was uncertainty, which was undermining local economic confidence with “companies delaying investment”, “detrimental effects…particularly exports” or “destabilising workforce”. Some areas dominated by particular industries were feeling specific effects: “until clarity is provided around aviation, the future of the major industry in our area is uncertain” or “this is a rural area with a big agricultural base…we are really vulnerable to major economic changes”.

The second notable perspective that came through was a sense of impatience. A good few reported that their residents were “just getting on with it” or are “fed up…they just want action to complete and leave”. One respondent highlighted differences between two constituent groups – that their “community of residents just want to get on with Brexit – business community somewhat different”.

The divisions in the NLGN Leadership Index findings probably reflect the divisions in our country – a range of views were conveyed, from “Brexit is a catastrophe” to “everybody can see project fear for what it is”. One view may transcend those who feel negativity, uncertainty or impatience, however – a warning to national politicians that there is a “loss of trust in and respect for politicians whether Remainers or Leavers”.

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