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Why Britain is destined to keep fighting over Brexit and ‘culture wars’

Brexit was more than just about our trading relationship – it illustrated a growing divide that is not going away

The next election will also be fought over Brexit

If you’ve been following the Tory leadership contest closely, one or two questions have almost certainly crossed your mind: such as why the candidates are so intent on fighting over Brexit, or so-called “culture war” issues like trans rights – rather than the cost of living or inflation. And that’s entirely intentional.

Liz Truss and her backers have tried to portray her as the true Brexit candidate, even though she voted Remain, while Penny Mordaunt has claimed she would get Brexit "re-done". Then Rishi Sunak offered yet another bonfire of EU regulations that have apparently “held Britain back”. Kemi Badenoch came closest to saying it was time to move on, but the Tories just ignored her. In other words, the next election will also be fought over Brexit.

Brexit was more than just about our trading relationship, it illustrated our cultural divide. We got bitterly angry over it because the EU came to symbolise a set of cultural values – for both Remainers and Leavers – that they either embraced or loathed. Values such as internationalism, multiculturalism, liberalism and globalisation – which became tied to our sense of identity.

You can give them labels if you like: immigration, sovereignty, cooperation, freedom of movement, etc, but they are still codewords for cultural values. People don’t get that bitterly divided over trade deals, only when it’s about their identity. If Brexit had just been about the economy, the Remainers would have easily won.

Brexit, and the election of Trump, were not an aberration, a one-off event or a bad dream we can put behind us. Both were the culmination of a growing divide that we didn’t see coming – one less about class and more about education.

I’m not the first person to say this: a growing number of political scientists have now shown the Brexit divide was most strongly defined by whether we graduated from university or not. In 2016, the American political scientist Nate Silver explained how, “Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump.” Four years later, USA Today wrote the 2020 election had “widened the education polarisation” and had “come to define American politics”.

This divide didn’t just spring upon us, it has slowly come to dominate our society over the last 30 years due to the expansion of higher education. Graduates developed a different set of cultural and economic values to non-graduates, and this divide exploded out into the open when these votes came up.

Graduates largely voted against Trump and Brexit, while non-graduates voted for it. Education was the strongest indicator for how a person or an area voted, way better than social class or age. In other words, Brexit and Trump are less a one-off event – and more a Pandora’s box that can’t be closed so easily.

Politics makes it necessary to fight these battles over and over again. The Conservative Party has to keep going back to Brexit to rally its voting coalition of 2019. The Labour Party will always, no matter how far Starmer goes, be accused of trying to undo Brexit. But the Brexit the Conservatives refer to isn’t about trade deals or the Northern Ireland Protocol – which are regarded as irritating side issues by true Brexiteers – but our identity as a nation.

Leave voters may not see any economic benefits from Brexit, but they may be persuaded by what are being sold as cultural benefits – like the Rwanda policy, for example. After all, Brexiteers want more closed borders and they want everyone to know that.

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So how did the rights of trans people get caught up in this battle? I suspect the Conservatives see it as another sign of the left’s cultural zealotry, and a way to attract gender critical feminists into their camp. They see it as a way to divide the left and attract more votes. They’ve already gone on record for being hardline with their refusal to ban conversion therapy for trans people.

I suspect Rishi Sunak represents the only hitch in the Brexiteers plan. The frontrunner is more focused on the economy than culture war issues, which is why he is still unpopular with the grassroots and many Tory MPs.

My colleague John Rentoul wrote last week that Rishi Sunak is the Tory David Miliband: the boring but economically-focused candidate who is ideologically out of step with his party. For that reason, I suspect the Conservative grassroots will ensure that he loses against Mordaunt, Truss or even Kemi Badenoch.

The Tories want a Brexiteer. They want a culture warrior (on their terms). Not just because it will help them retain voters, but because they want to reshape the country in their image. And that’s why these debates will continue to haunt Britain and the next prime minister.

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