HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England — Martin Bradford played guitar at a local venue for the better part of a decade, but he avoids the place now because performing there would mean working with its sound engineer.
And that would not end well.
Sipping a pint in a riverside pub, Bradford recalls how he casually mentioned his vote to leave the European Union and instantly lost a friend.
“’You’ve taken my retirement away,’” Bradford was told, the reasoning being that the sound engineer hoped to move to another EU country, a right that Brexit could threaten.
“Once that conversation had happened there was no going back,” said Bradford, who also avoids members of his old band after some posted comments on social media that, he said, “painted the people who voted leave as racists, bigots, evil, stupid.”
Like the election of President Donald Trump, the 2016 Brexit referendum vote crystallized divisions between cities and towns, young and old, the beneficiaries of globalization and those left behind.
And far from fading, the Brexit divide seems to have become entrenched within many British workplaces, families and social circles.
Friendships lost or relationships broken by Brexit have been bemoaned by politicians, featured in newspaper advice columns and spawned novels and at least one play.
According to one survey, more than a third of those who wish to remain in the EU would be upset if a close relative married a strong leave supporter, suggesting that Brexit has morphed into a clash of values.
In the aftermath of the referendum, Relate, a counseling service, said a fifth of the 300 relationship support practitioners surveyed had worked with clients who argued over Brexit. And analysts say Britons are increasingly likely to define themselves in relation to Brexit, rather than allegiance to a party, a dividing line noticed by psychotherapists too.
“It’s a bit like 16th-century France between the Catholics and the Protestants,” said Brett Kahr, senior clinical research fellow in psychotherapy and mental health at the Center for Child Mental Health, adding: “I think there is a great deal of hatred of one position toward the other, and a lack of willingness to engage.
“It doesn’t make sense to begin to doubt your position if you are so certain your position is the correct one,” Kahr said.
Of course, many Britons have tuned out, bored by endless and incomprehensible Brexit twists in Parliament. Talk of a religious war sounds overblown to Giles Fraser, rector of St. Mary’s church in Newington, South London, but he accepts that “people are talking past each other in a way that perhaps believers, and nonbelievers, might talk past each other.”
“It’s definitely visceral, it’s definitely nasty, and there are certainly people who won’t accept the core of the other person’s position,” added Fraser, who thinks that his support for Brexit in London, which generally voted the other way, cost him friends.
If it is hard being a pro-Brexit clergyman in London, it is no easier being a remain supporter in Meden Vale, a former mining village in Nottinghamshire, 150 miles north of the capital, where most people voted leave.
But not Chris Hawkins. “I can’t honestly think of anyone from Meden Vale among my group of friends or people I know who voted remain, apart from myself,” said Hawkins, who works with children with educational problems.
After arguments about Brexit, Hawkins sees less of his two best friends, who now tend to socialize or take bike rides without him. With his parents there has been tension though the major conflict was with one of his partner’s relatives. The discussion was “not very good,” he said with understatement. “He erupted.”
“We’ve not been invited to family birthday parties or get-togethers post referendum, whereas before we were,” said Hawkins who thinks that, here, remainers are seen as being removed from the real world. “I did get a lot of, ‘You went to university,’ after the vote,” he added.
Some experts worry that, rather than open feuding, a chilly silence has descended across parts of a population that is often adept at avoiding confrontations.
“Brexit is ever-present in the consulting room,” said Sarah Niblock, chief executive of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. “It is now so excruciating, and so difficult for people to have conversations about Brexit — families, workplaces neighbors are so split — there is so much of a division between groups in society that it is almost as if the therapeutic room has become the last place people can talk with any ease.”
Those trying to make sense of it all include Candida Yates, professor of culture and communication at Bournemouth University, who is researching Brexit sentiment.
Her idea was to get the two groups in the same room but, when that proved impossible she initially met them separately.
“They were very, very emotional,” Yates said. “It was a very powerful experience: people coming together who didn’t know each other, there were tears — and these were all with people who voted the same way.”
For the remainers it was rather like a bereavement group. “There was this huge sense of loss. People talked about waking up on the day of the vote crying and in shock and they didn’t fully understand it themselves. They understood that they were upset but why did they feel so strongly? So it was a bit like a therapy group.”
For leavers there was more a sense of grievance than grief, Yates said, and a feeling “that they had been left behind, they had been forgotten, it was really this town-city divide.”
Winning the referendum was an unexpected victory — some described it as a gift — but a precarious one.
“They couldn’t quite believe their luck and also said — even back then in 2016 — ‘It will be taken away,’” Yates said. “They were saying, ‘They won’t let us have it.’ There was a real feeling of ‘them and us’ and a feeling of powerlessness. They had managed to get this, but how long they could hang on to it, they didn’t know,” she added.
More recently, Yates managed to cajole two groups into the same room. “People talked about it being like a civil war,” she said. Indeed, some mentioned Britain’s Civil War, which took place in the 17th century, or even episodes further back in history.
“They talked about the Civil War, they talked about the Norman yoke, people have gone back and back. It’s as if these earlier schisms had been reawoken.”
She noted tension within families, a fact that chimes with Samantha Raaphorst, a part-time language student who cares for two autistic children in Leeds, and who struggles to communicate with the family of her elder son’s father, from whom she separated some years ago.
When Brexit featured on the news during a visit, she said, “They asked me how I voted, and I said I voted remain, and suddenly the atmosphere of the room completely changed.”
“They didn’t understand my point of view at all,” Raaphorst said. “They said, ‘Why wouldn’t you want this country to be great again? Why wouldn’t you want us to start trading with other global powers? Why wouldn’t you want us to be Great Britain?’ And they started talking about empire. I was absolutely stunned.”
“I wrote them a letter saying I was quite upset about what happened,” Raaphorst said. “They sent my son a letter saying that they just want to protect him from people coming in and out of the country that might hurt him.”
For Andrew Parnall, a software trainer who lives in Derby, Brexit has also caused family tension, in his case with his niece, a leave supporter. “We don’t talk much now, it has poisoned the well,” he said.
Parnall recalls crying on the morning of the referendum result and says he feels emotional still.
In his former office everyone knew his views and, at Christmas, the referendum featured satirically in his secret Santa gift: a signed copy of a photograph of the Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.
“I chucked it in the bin,” he said. “Everyone else was getting bottles of wine and saying thank you. I was jumping up and down on a picture.”