Two years on from the vote to the leave the European Union, arguments about the merits of the decision still polarise the country. Rob Parsons met the ex-Yorkshire academic hoping to shed light on the most divisive of subjects.
As the dust settled on the seismic Brexit referendum vote in the summer of 2016, Anand Menon, a Professor of European Politics at King’s College London, was dispatched by BBC Radio 4 to Wakefield to take the temperature on a divided Britain.
The aim was to produce a half-hour documentary comparing the views of locals in the city, who voted two to one in favour of leaving the European Union, with those in Oxford, which saw an even more overwhelming vote in the opposite direction.
But for Professor Menon the trip was more personal, a contrast between the West Yorkshire city where he spent his formative years and the place where he now lives - 160 miles apart but “two different worlds with very little in common”.
The Brexit vote revealed a nation polarised in a number of key areas, with gaps in aspiration, health outcomes and even perceptions of reality. But as the academic observes, the resulting focus on the “forgotten” parts of the country that largely voted for Brexit may ultimately give those areas the ability to shape their own destiny.
The son of immigrants from Kerala in southern India, Professor Menon arrived in Wakefield in 1966 at the age of one and lived there until going off to university at the age of 18.
What I want to do is give the evidence. I am happy to say, the sort of Brexit the Government seems to want at the moment will mean our economy will be smaller than if we had stayed in.Professor Anand Menon
Three-and-a-half decades later, and a regular fixture on the nation’s airwaves as director of research initiative The UK in a Changing Europe, he revels in a return to Yorkshire as he discusses his work on a sunny Leeds afternoon.
Not that growing up in an Indian family in Wakefield in the 1970s and 80s was always easy, and he admits that Yorkshire at the time was a “very racist place”. He describes a bus driver shouting ‘Kunta Kinte’ at him, a reference to the black character in a 1970s television drama, after he forgot to show his bus ticket.
“It’s a lot worse when I think back to it now than I probably thought it was at the time, you sort of take it for granted. When I started at secondary school I was the only Indian kid.
“One of the great eye-openers for me about going to university in Oxford in 1984 was that I didn’t get racially abused in the streets, ever. For me in Wakefield I would never go out by myself in town on a Saturday night, because someone would try and beat you up.”
Despite this, he remains attached to the city and its “resilient and entrepreneurial” people and recalls feeling emotional last September when he took his son to Leeds, where he is at university.
“I remember being surrounded by Yorkshire accents and it dawned on me ‘he is going to live in West Yorkshire for three years, how fantastic is that’.”
It was at university that Professor Menon himself encountered snobbery from the affluent students who didn’t understand his (now absent) Yorkshire accent, but he he now fears what he describes as a “deeply-rooted social snobbery” that divides the country.
“Brexit has revealed (the polarisation), I’m sure it was there before, and it has given it labels, which makes things easier. No-one is going to go round saying ‘I’m social authoritarian, I’m social liberal’, which is probably the distinction, but ‘I’m leave, I’m remain’ probably captures it.
“It’s almost nothing to do with the EU, it just captures a social hinterland, albeit that people voted leave for wildly different reasons, I don’t think Boris Johnson has much in common with the people in Wakefield who voted leave.”
It is in this partisan environment that his organisation, The UK in a Changing Europe, has operated since coming into being in 2015. Academics funded with tax-payers’ money, he describes his team as ‘user-friendly geeks’ with a mission to provide accessible research about Brexit and what it means for each part of the economy.
Its work is designed to be is “tailored to be easily accessible to policy makers, businesses, journalists, civil society organisations, educational institutions and the general public who are interested in the UK’s relationship with the EU”.
“We’re impartial, you’re not allowed to know what I think about Brexit,” he says. “What I want to do is give you the evidence. I am happy to say, the sort of Brexit the Government seems to want at the moment will mean our economy will be smaller than if we had stayed in.
“In a sense the notion that either leaving the EU will be easy and brilliant, or that staying in the EU will be easy and brilliant, are both flawed. if we leave the EU, we will suffer an economic hit.
“It’s not going to be armageddon, we’re not going to turn into Somalia overnight, we will still be one of the big economies of the world, we’ll still be relatively prosperous, but we will be slightly less prosperous to the tune of two or three per cent, maybe three, four per cent, than if we had stayed in, because trade will fall.
“But if you turn that on its head and say ‘we will solve all our problems by staying in’, no you can’t.
“17 million people voted to leave, a significant proportion of those 17 million voted in part because they are hacked off with the political and economic establishment.
“What are they going to think if they go out and vote for the first time in their lives, some of these people are Ukip voters who have never won anything in the ballot box, for the first time in their lives they win, and then they find out ‘we’ve decided not to listen to you because you’re being silly’.”
With the Brexit vote thought to be in part due to the widely-held sentiment that places outside London are getting a ‘raw deal’, he believes the case for devolution is now compelling for a government that wants to achieve a successful departure from the EU.
“Having more political and economic power outside of London would help, because we have massive levels of inequality”, he says.
“One of the most scandalous things in these country is the massive gaps in life expectancy, not income, between richer and poorer parts of the country.
“There was already a compelling case, it seems to me, for devolution, but given the fact that Whitehall is clogged, it’s going to be clogged with Brexit for five or six years, it strikes me that the case is compelling.
“The problem is having that debate and not getting bogged down in debates over what is Yorkshire, but saying what we want is political power and economic clout. If the borders aren’t exactly what we wanted, and this or that place isn’t included, fine, we’ll make a start.”