The Brexiteer: Not a black box

By Jan Eich­horn.

It is easy and pop­u­lar to blame cer­tain groups of the pop­u­la­tion for deci­sions that chal­lenge our open soci­eties. Par­tic­u­lar­ly often sin­gled out are the social­ly dis­ad­van­taged. Whether pop­ulist lead­ers get elect­ed or ref­er­en­da are won by peo­ple with nation­al­ist ori­en­ta­tions, com­men­ta­tors (who often form part of a civic, media, or polit­i­cal elite) are quick to explain it as a form of resis­tance by the losers of glob­al­i­sa­tion. How­ev­er, look­ing at the avail­able research data we quick­ly see that we should be very cau­tious with con­clu­sions and typolo­gies as there are a set of fac­tors at play when it comes to people’s polit­i­cal choices.

One of the most poignant cur­rent cas­es illus­trat­ing this issue is the dis­cus­sion that has fol­lowed the ref­er­en­dum vote of the Unit­ed King­dom to leave the Euro­pean Union. Many news­pa­pers have linked the Brex­it deci­sion to peo­ple char­ac­terised as the “losers of glob­al­i­sa­tion” who sup­pos­ed­ly saw the ref­er­en­dum as their oppor­tu­ni­ty to rebel. This nar­ra­tive is present in dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions and media out­lets, rang­ing from the Finan­cial Times to the Guardian or the Wash­ing­ton Post. The issue is also linked to class, with The Tele­graph, for exam­ple, pro­claim­ing that “Mid­dle class lib­er­als were only social group to emphat­i­cal­ly back Remain”. These sto­ries leave us with a feel­ing that the so-called “Brex­i­teer” is a clear­ly defined per­son, who felt they need­ed to rebel against the sta­tus quo because of a (per­ceived) per­son­al posi­tion of disadvantage.

Fig­ure 1: Brex­it vote by socio-occu­pa­tion­al class (BES 2016) — only vot­ers included

And indeed, we do see dif­fer­ences in sup­port for Brex­it based on social posi­tion. As fig­ure 1 illus­trates (show­ing data from the British Elec­tion Study col­lect­ed short­ly after the ref­er­en­dum), peo­ple in low­er socio-occu­pa­tion­al class­es have a greater ten­den­cy to sup­port leav­ing the EU (61 and 64 per cent respec­tive­ly in the two low­est groups) com­pared to those in the high­est socio-occu­pa­tion­al groups (41 to 50 per cent respec­tive­ly). How­ev­er, the tran­si­tion by social class is rather grad­ual – and not always lin­ear. High­er inter­me­di­ary mid­dle class cat­e­gories are split rough­ly even­ly over Brex­it, for exam­ple. Aver­age dif­fer­ences between the low­est and most oth­er socio-occu­pa­tion­al class groups are only about 10 to 14 per­cent­age points (with only one excep­tion: high­er pro­fes­sion­al occupations).

While one’s per­son­al eco­nom­ic posi­tion is relat­ed to Brex­it atti­tudes, we are far from see­ing a coun­try divid­ed into dis­tinct groups of social class­es, where the advan­taged whole­heart­ed­ly embrace the open­ness of the EU and the dis­ad­van­taged reject it outright.

The fig­ures actu­al­ly paint a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Near­ly half of those in high­er mid­dle class posi­tions also sup­port the UK exit­ing the EU. While per­cent­ages are low­er than in some oth­er groups, it sug­gests that divides run deeply through all groups of the pop­u­la­tion. It appears to be a mat­ter of degree, not type.

Indeed, oth­er researchers have warned about over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a sin­gu­lar type of “Brex­i­teer”, based on social class alone.

Fig­ure 2: Brex­it vote by age (BES 2016) — only vot­ers included

The rela­tion­ship between age and Brex­it atti­tudes, for exam­ple, is much stronger than that of social class (see fig­ure 2) and, impor­tant­ly, edu­ca­tion has been shown to be strong­ly relat­ed to a person’s views about whether the UK should leave or remain. How­ev­er, even such com­par­isons do not allow for per­fect typolo­gies. Did “the old” as a group cause Brex­it? Those aged 66 or above were most like­ly to vote for it (around 60 per cent), but even amongst them four in ten opposed leav­ing the EU. And while most young peo­ple want­ed to remain, around 30 per cent still opt­ed for Brexit.

So cau­tion is most apt. When dis­cussing demo­graph­ic dif­fer­ences, we should talk about rel­a­tive dif­fer­ences and ten­den­cies, but avoid paint­ing sim­plis­tic pic­tures that iden­ti­fy sin­gu­lar, homoge­nous groups for blame, when those groups do not actu­al­ly exist in such a dis­tinc­tive form.

When try­ing to under­stand the moti­va­tions of peo­ple, we also need to go beyond the mate­r­i­al, phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics we usu­al­ly con­sid­er when dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing groups. Oth­er­wise, it would be hard to explain why, for exam­ple, also regions in the South of Eng­land that are rather wealthy, vot­ed for Brex­it — con­trary to the often claimed nar­ra­tive about Brex­it being a prob­lem of an appar­ent­ly poor­er North). Ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, for exam­ple, mat­ter as well and sub­stan­tial­ly so, as fig­ure 3 reveals. Peo­ple in Eng­land who feel strong­ly attached to their Eng­lish nation­al iden­ti­ty are much more like­ly to sup­port Brex­it than those who do not. Of those who chose the high­est val­ue for Eng­lish iden­ti­ty on a 7‑point scale, over 70 per cent vot­ed to leave the UK. Con­verse­ly, over 80 per cent amongst those who only empha­sise their Eng­lish­ness slight­ly (2 on a 7‑point scale) vot­ed to remain. Nation­al iden­ti­ty mat­tered strong­ly in this ref­er­en­dum, but is rarely talked about to the same extent as ques­tions of class or even age, although the divide is much more dra­mat­ic and cuts across dif­fer­ent socio-eco­nom­ic groups in the population.

Fig­ure 3: Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Eng­lish­ness and British­ness by Brex­it atti­tudes (BES 2016) – only vot­ers in Eng­land included

But even here, we have to remain care­ful not to jump to over-sim­plis­tic con­clu­sions. Iden­ti­ties are com­plex and it appears that British­ness, while slight­ly relat­ed to views on Brex­it, was much less impor­tant in dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing between groups than Eng­lish iden­ti­ty was, con­firm­ing oth­er research that a par­tic­u­lar aspect of the Brex­it deci­sion had to do with per­cep­tions of Eng­lish­ness specif­i­cal­ly – which is rarely addressed.

Socio-demo­graph­ic fac­tors relate to a person’s like­li­hood of sup­port­ing Brex­it, but with­out con­sid­er­ing a broad­er spec­trum of atti­tu­di­nal con­cerns, such as iden­ti­ty, we will not be able to devel­op a gen­uine under­stand­ing of Brex­it. The con­sid­er­a­tions pre­sent­ed here should act as a cau­tion­ary reminder that we should be vig­i­lant in avoid­ing the mis­take of tak­ing on exten­sive, typol­o­gis­ing nar­ra­tives about polit­i­cal deci­sions. We should chal­lenge expla­na­tions that mis­rep­re­sent atti­tu­di­nal ten­den­cies in some groups of the pop­u­la­tion as the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of par­tic­u­lar groups that should be blamed as a whole for deci­sions that we might not be com­fort­able with and that chal­lenge ideas of open soci­eties. Instead of sin­gling out dis­tinc­tive groups based on a few demo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics, we should instead try to under­stand the inter­play of the var­i­ous tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble fac­tors that may affect the views of peo­ple across dif­fer­ent groups of the pop­u­la­tion. Sim­plis­tic typolo­gies may cre­ate plau­si­ble sto­ries, but instead of pro­vid­ing start­ing points for solu­tions, they are like­ly to fur­ther the con­struc­tion of arti­fi­cial divid­ing lines that we may bring into exis­tence our­selves. We all, as read­ers, researchers, and mem­bers of soci­eties should there take this on as a task in our dai­ly lives: to chal­lenge those expla­na­tions that might just be too com­fort­ing and easy to be accurate.


Data ref­er­ence: Field­house, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, C. van der Eijk, J. Mel­lon and C. Pross­er (2015) British Elec­tion Study Inter­net Pan­el Wave 9. DOI: 10.15127/1.293723

Dr Jan Eich­horn is the research direc­tor of d|part and over­sees the work on the Voic­es on Val­ues project. He also teach­es Social Pol­i­cy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edinburgh.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

Related Posts

Leave Your Comment