The story of 48:52 is not just one of European policy or tribal political discourse. The decision to leave the European Union was a bold and unequivocal statement for millions of people who wanted to change the political, economic, and social status quo. It was a moment in time, a rational choice, when those who had not felt heard by the establishment expressed their desire to take back control—control of their wages and of their public services.

The events of 23 June must therefore kick-start a national conversation aimed at understanding why, as our research has revealed, there are such deep divides in our nation. How can it be that two halves of the UK see the same country so completely differently, and what can we do about it?

Although this research brings many of the well-known Brexit themes to the fore—concern about immigration, a desire for sovereignty, and community alienation—our analysis also reveals a huge swathe of British society who are concerned about their wages, the security of their home and access to public services. While the blame for these was easily pinned on the EU and uncontrolled immigration during the referendum campaign, it does not follow that simply leaving the Union and gaining control of our borders will satisfy the disenchanted. There is a deeper malaise to be treated.

In our view, the vote was a cri de coeur from millions of people who feel Westminster no longer knows, or even cares, how it feels to walk in their shoes. In light of this it is perhaps no surprise that the vote disregarded the dire warnings of the establishment including the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition, the Bank of England, the World Bank, the IMF, and President Obama. Their threats and warnings showed that the establishment understood little of the lives of the 52 percent that voted Leave.

Voters Had Nothing to Lose

Our analysis shows that poorer and less-well educated voters were more likely to back Leave. The majority of those not in work backed Leave. Those living in council housing and social housing tenants backed Leave. Those dependent on a state pension backed Leave. Those over the age of 44 backed Leave.

At every level of earning there is a direct correlation between household income and your likelihood to vote for leaving the EU—62 percent of those with income of less than £20,000 voted to leave, but that percentage falls in steady increments until, by an income of £60,000, that percentage was just 35 percent.

This trend was reinforced by further polling by Ashcroft polls, which found that 57 percent of voters in the more affluent ‘AB’ demographic group voted Remain, while only 36 percent of voters in the ‘C2’ and ‘DE’ groups voted Remain. It is perhaps the most significant figure that exemplifies this divide—that of the various income groups, AB, C1, C2, D and E, the only group to vote to remain in the EU was the AB group. In short, the people with little or nothing to lose—as they saw it—backed Leave. The ones who had gained most from EU membership and globalisation backed Remain. It would be wrong to make too many sweeping statements about the state of the nation based on one vote. But it would be far worse to ignore the clear message that underpins it.

There is Hope

The referendum result itself has given a voice to many of those who may have felt disenfranchised, and seeing their will enacted can bring them hope of a stake in the future. Changes to immigration, altering the trend of the past 15 years, will make it possible to address the immediate and damaging issues of low wages and public service pressures.

But if we are truly to change how people’s lives feel to them at present, whilst leaving the EU is a critical first step, the vote must also trigger wider social reform and a better and clearer vision of social justice.

Leaving the EU is Only the Beginning

In light of the Brexit vote and what it has revealed about us as a nation, we have a once in a lifetime chance to reshape public policy so that it genuinely helps those who feel they have little stake in society and responds directly to the concerns that were surfaced in the referendum.

The clear link between stagnant, low wages and a vote to leave the EU demands that the government review employment and productivity, which has flatlined for too long. From schools that prepare people for work, to the training and development that help people on in their careers, we need to look at how individuals do not just remain employed but thrive in their work. The poor level of skills amongst low income groups is a long standing problem and one which has been exacerbated by access to cheap labour from the EU. From encouraging entrepreneurs to driving new industries and infrastructure, the productivity shortfall must be addressed.

One of our main findings was that many voters feel that public services no longer work for them. How can we reshape them? Are we giving parents the resources they need to access high quality childcare, organise their family lives as they see fit, and move back into the labour market? Have we got the right choice of schools in the right places? Are health services truly available to those that need them most?

When many individuals and communities feel so alienated, the Government must address ways of rebuilding relationships. We must look to strengthen the social fabric of the UK. This starts with a renewed commitment to strengthening families through marriage and relationship skills. It must look at how communities can be bound together in shared experience, tackling social problems without first calling on the state, but via social bonds, charity, and philanthropy. A lack of social capital and life chances characterise our most deprived communities. Addressing this situation must be the goal of the Prime Minister’s social reform programme.

The clear links between age and voting intention also point to an intergenerational sore that must be addressed. Initiatives such as the inquiry into intergenerational fairness that is being conducted by the Work and Pensions Select Committee are welcome, but they must be encouraged to find not just the size of the gap between generations’ experiences but ask how it can be redressed. It is not enough for such inquiries to answer whether generations are experiencing variations in housing, wealth, public services, welfare and pension entitlements, without also asking for solutions to the split it drives in civil society.

A Better Society

In years to come, the EU referendum will be seen as a turning point in Britain’s long history. Depending on what we do next, it could simply be remembered as the moment we triggered Article 50 and left the EU. A moment of political process, a technical adjustment to the UK’s relationship with Europe. But if that is the case, then we will have failed. Instead, we must listen with compassion and humility to those who desperately wish for another way. For our political leaders, their duty is to provide the wisdom and courage required to allow us to move towards a new settlement for Britain, there there is prosperity and social justice for all.

This summer must go down as the moment when millions of people cried out for help, the Government heard, and offered a better, new and inclusive vision for society.

Baroness Stroud, CEO, Centre for Social Justice
Lord O'Shaughnessy, Senior Fellow, Legatum Institute


  • Press Release: 'Tough on Brexit, Tough On the Causes of Brexit’, Urge Leading Think Tanks [View]
  • The Road to Brexit—Report [PDF]

Media Coverage

  • May’s 48:52 Challenge, by James O'Shaughnessy and Philippa Stroud, ConservativeHome [Read]
  • Tory ex-ministers urge speedy Brexit, BBC Online [Read]
  • Prime Minister urged to speed up Brexit by Conservative ex-ministers, Sky News [Read]
  • Theresa May under Brexit pressure ahead of Conservative Party conference, City A.M. [Read]
  • Former Tory Cabinet Ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson draw up ‘A Route Map to Brexit’ and demand strict new immigration rules for Britain, The Sun [Read]
  • Britain's ruling classes were only group to vote to stay in the EU at referendum, major new report finds, Daily Telegraph [Read]
  • The ‘just about managing’ won’t forgive May if she botches Brexit, The Guardian [Read]
  • We voted Brexit, so let's get on with it: IDS says 100 days after the historic vote it is time to make the most of Britain's new opportunities, Daily Mail [Read]