Is Brexit to take back control or a revolt against change?

The central Leave aim in the EU referendum is to “take back control over our country”, a powerful, emotional appeal to the dispossessed and disempowered. The Remain warnings fall on deaf ears and the Leave cause now leads in the polls. Despite Cameron’s best efforts Gove and Johnson look likely to triumph. Reasonable, liberal, mild-mannered, educated people ask, “What’s going on? How can this be?” The campaign has all the hallmarks of a revolt against change.

Despite well-argued rational campaigning, an emotional revolt against the liberal Establishment consensus is under way, an anger stirred by decades of income stagnation, loss of well-paid jobs, economic insecurity, a crumbling NHS, limited choice of schooling and lack of affordable housing. The targets are immigrants and the remote, bureaucratic and authoritarian Brussels elite, arguably scapegoats for economic recession, marginalisation and globalisation.

The alliance that is led by the Tory right wing’s neo-liberal free market grandees also embraces both ends of the political spectrum and, in its supporters, shows all the hallmarks of a non-metropolitan, white English working class revolt against the consequences of economic change. The resentments stirred up by the campaign have touched into deep-seated feelings, now aimed at “immigrants” but reflecting how for large chunks of the country change has left them behind. The EU has become a glaring symbol of all that is wrong, although arguably a scapegoat for anger.

Populist revolt against the liberal consensus

This coalition has at its head the Tory right, such as Gove and Duncan Smith who have both pursued a neo-liberal agenda as ministers, and the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. They are unlikely bedfellows and the coalition has been prone to division. They are bankrolled by billionaires like Aaron Banks. The politicians would be impeccable upper middle class elitists, often privately educated. Yet they head a campaign that is stridently populist (populist: one who claims to represent the common people, often against a ruler or ruling elite). Thus being anti-EU is about reclaiming power that is perceived to have been lost, but also a revolt against a remote Westminster “political class”, the Establishment (1). What is so striking is how the Leave campaign have struck a very powerful chord with working class people particularly outside London.

Leave voters Populus survey May 2016Thus recent surveys have shown the socio-geographic distribution of Leave and Remain (2). Leave is strong in the South East outside London, along the coast, up Eastern England and in Somerset and Cornwall. Many come from what would in the past have been seen as Labour voters. It is an overwhelmingly English movement, with Scotland, Wales and Norther Ireland favouring Remain, a factor that could trigger a further independence referendum in Scotland if Leave win. Age-wise there is a preponderance of over-65’s, something of a 80%-20% split for Leave against Remain. Remain is middle class and professional, strongly urban and metropolitan, with a high proportion of younger voters. The further you go “down” the socio-economic groups the more people are Leave. Remain is strong amongst more educated people, with 78% support among graduates. Leave are thought to be more mobilised to vote, although working class voters historically have a low turnout record.

Younger voters back Remain while their grandparents tend to back Leave, those with a university education are strong Remain supporters but those without are a key part of the Leave coalition. Scotland and Wales both support Remaining in the EU (the former more strongly than the latter), but in England only London is solidly Remain – outside of London, much of England backs Leave. There are clear differences on socio-economic grounds too, with those in professional or managerial roles backing Remain, and those in manual roles supporting Brexit“. (Populus survey. See Note (2))

Two competing visions of the Britain we want

There is a strong sense of a division between two competing visions of the Britain people want to be a part of. One seems forward-looking, urban, cosmopolitan, tolerant of diversity, socially liberal, youthful, professional, aspirational. With these people, it is easier to contemplate collaborating with others in other countries. They inhabit, it seems a different universe to those in smaller towns, away from the cities, economically marginalised, in insecure work, or with stagnant incomes, lacking good health services, priced out of affordable housing, victims of recession and globalisation, “left behind” by change. To the latter, the EU is an easy target, remote and bureaucratic, made the cause of an immigration that seemingly has deprived them of their traditional livelihood or otherwise impacted their status and living standards. Anecdotal reports by canvassers have shown a strong refusal amongst traditional Labour voters to listen to arguments. The Leave campaign is emotional, appealing to the gut instincts of the “left behind”.

Fertile territory for Populist leaders to exploit

This is fertile territory for leaders like Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump in the US able to sell a cause without the need for coherent rational argument supported by evidence. Emotion does it. Populism often taps into mass discontent, although often unable to meet the need expressed. Thus the Leave leaders come from political stables at variance with their supporters, being neo-liberal whereas their support would need interventionist policies. It can divert into anti-EU rhetoric what is socio-economic discontent at marginalisation and globalisation.

The danger is that, win or lose, such discontent won’t be satisfied by Brexit and, if there is another recession after Brexit, re-emerge under some more demogogic, nationalist and anti-democratic figure. This problem, if we may call it that, is not unique to the UK. It is occurring right across Europe and in the US. It is releasing forces that could put into question the whole post-war world political dispensation. If history is any guide, then the 1930’s provide ample evidence of where this can end.



(1) An important background to the Brexit movement has been the fall in trust for politicians and the rise of an “anti-politics” attitude among voters. For more information, you can read the articles from Southampton University on this site.

(2) For an important study of the socio-economic-geographical make-up of Reamin and Leave, click here

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