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Britain’s choice to vote Leave, we are told, is a protest by those left behind by modernisation and globalisation. London versus the regions, poor versus rich. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brexit voters, like Trump supporters, are motivated by identity, not economics. Age, education, national identity and ethnicity are more important than income or occupation. But to get to the nub of the Leave-Remain divide, we need to go even deeper, to the level of attitudes and personality.

Strikingly, the visible differences between groups are less important than invisible differences between individuals. These don’t pit one group against another, they slice through groups, communities and even families. Our brains deal better with groups than personality differences because we latch onto the visible stuff. It’s easy to imagine a young student or London professional voting Remain; or a working-class man with a northern accent backing Leave.

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Open and Closed personalities are harder to conjure up: yet these invisible differences are the ones that count most – around two or three times as much as the group differences.

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A second problem is that many analyses are spatial. Don’t get me wrong: I love maps and differences between place are important, especially for first-past-the-post elections. However, some characteristics vary a lot over space and others don’t.

Figure 1 ranks Local Authorities and England and Wales by the average social grade of their White British residents. The lower the average class position of White British residents, the higher the vote for Brexit. In fact this working class index explains 58% of the variation in the Leave vote across districts. But, according to the 2015 British Election Study Internet Panel of over 24,000 respondents, class only explains 1-2% of the variation in Brexit voting intention among individuals. There may have been a slight shift over the past year, but this won’t have altered the results much.

Figure 1.

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Source: https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/ (census data); http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/

Why the discrepancy? Social characteristics such as class, ethnicity or region are related to where people live, so they vary from place to place. Psychology and personality do vary over space a little because they are affected a bit by social characteristics like age. But they’re mainly shaped by birth order, genetics, life experiences and other influences which vary within, not across, districts.

Aggregate analysis distorts individual relationships even when there aren’t problems caused by the ecological fallacy. The sex ratio, for instance, is more or less the same from one place to another, so even if gender really mattered for the vote, maps hide this truth. On the other hand, maps can also exaggerate. If 1% of Cornwall votes for the Cornish nationalists then Cornwall would light up on a map of Cornish nationalist voting with a 100% correlation. But knowing that all Cornish nationalist voters live in Cornwall doesn’t tell us much about why people vote for Cornish nationalists.

As with region in the case of Cornish nationalism, class matters for the vote over space because it affects, or reflects, where we live. This tells us a lot about a little. Notice the range of district average class scores in figure 1 runs only from 1.8 to 2.4 whereas individuals’ class scores range from 1 (AB) to 4 (DE). The average difference from the mean between individuals is ten times as great as that between districts.

Let’s therefore look at individuals: what the survey data tell us about why people voted Brexit. Imagine you have a thousand British voters and must determine which way they voted. Figure 2 shows that if you guess, knowing nothing about them, you’ll get 50 percent right on average. Armed with information on region or their economic situation – income and social grade – your hit rate improves to about 54 percent, not much better than chance. In other words, the big stories about haves versus have-nots, or London versus the regions, are less important.

Age or education, which are tied more strongly to identity, get you over 60 percent. Ethnicity is important but tricky: minorities are much less likely to have voted Leave, but this tells us nothing about the White British majority so doesn’t improve our overall predictive power much.

Invisible attitudes are more powerful than group categories. If we know whether someone supports UKIP, Labour or some other party, we increase our score to over 70 percent. The same is true for a person’s immigration attitudes. Knowing whether someone thinks European unification has gone too far takes us close to 80 percent accuracy. But then, this is pretty much the same as asking about Brexit, minus a bit of risk appetite.

Figure 2.

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Source: British Election Study 2015 Internet Panel, waves 1-3

For me, what really stands out about figure 2 is the importance of support for the death penalty. Nobody has been out campaigning on this issue, yet it strongly correlates with Brexit voting intention. This speaks to a deeper personality dimension which social psychologists like Bob Altemeyer – unfortunately in my view – dub Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). A less judgmental way of thinking about RWA is order versus openness. The order-openness divide is emerging as the key political cleavage, overshadowing the left-right economic dimension. This was noticed as early as the mid-1970s by Daniel Bell, but has become more pronounced as the aging West’s ethnic transformation has accelerated. Figure 3 shows that 71 percent of those most in favour of the death penalty indicated in 2015 that they would vote to leave the EU. This falls to 20 percent among those most opposed to capital punishment. A similar picture results for other RWA questions such as the importance of disciplining children. RWA is only tangentially related to demographics. Education, class, income, gender and age play a role, but explain less than 10 percent of the variation in support for the death penalty.

Figure 3.

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Source: British Election Study 2015 Internet Panel, waves 1-3.

Karen Stenner, author of the Authoritarian Dynamic, argues that people are divided between those who dislike difference – signifying a disordered identity and environment – and those who embrace it. The former abhor both ethnic and moral diversity. Many see the world as a dangerous place and wish to protect themselves from it.

Pat Dade at Cultural Dynamics has produced a heat map of the kinds of values that correspond to strong Euroskepticism, and to each other. This is shown in figure 4. Disciplining children and whipping sex criminals (circled), keeping the nation safe, protecting social order and skepticism (‘few products live up to the claims of their advertisers…products don’t last as long as they used to’) correlate with Brexit sentiment. These attitude dimensions cluster within the third of the map known as the ‘Settlers’, for whom belonging, certainty, roots and safety are paramount. This segment is also disproportionately opposed to immigration in virtually every country Dade has sampled. By contrast, people oriented toward success and display (‘Prospectors’), or who prioritise expressive individualism and cultural equality (‘Pioneers’) voted Remain.

Figure 4.

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All told, the Brexit story is mainly about values, not economic inequality.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He may be found on twitter @epkaufm.

Many Britons went to bed last night thinking that their country’s membership of the EU was secure. They awoke this morning to hear UKIP leader Nigel Farage declare ‘independence day’ after 52% of voters chose to leave the EU.

Shock seems to be the prevailing mood among politicos, but the referendum result is not entirely unexpected. Opinion polls were too close to call in advance of yesterday’s vote even after, what appeared to be, a late surge for the Remain side. Bookies were even more optimistic about the chances of a vote for Remain but they have now joined the ranks of discredited elites in this country.

EU referendums are always difficult to win, as evidenced by ‘no’ votes against the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon Treaties and the European Constitution. Winning an EU referendum in Britain was never going to be easy given the country’s fractious form on Europe. Asking a high-stakes question about membership rather than the ratification of a treaty made little difference in the end.

Prime Minister David Cameron knew these risks when he committed himself to a referendum in January 2013 but he judged the rewards to be worth it. With Conservative backbenchers spoiling for a fight on Europe and UKIP surging in the polls, the referendum pledge bought Cameron time and, so it seemed until he resigned earlier today, a second full term in Number 10.

A dynamic campaign in support of Remain might have helped to mitigate these risks but it failed to materialise. Although EU supporters won the economic argument, they failed to address people’s legitimate concerns about how the EU was governed. This left room for Leave’s rallying cry to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, a powerful political slogan that trumped dire economic predictions about the consequences of Brexit.

The UK’s fragmented political parties were another complicating factor in the referendum campaign. That the Conservatives would implode over Europe was always a possibility. Implode they did when Michael Gove and Boris Johnson joined the Leave campaign, allowing the less politically palatable Nigel Farage to stay behind the scenes.

None in 2013 would have predicted that Labour would move to the left and elect Jeremy Corbyn, a leader with little love for Europe. Labour MPs Alan Johnson and Chuka Umunna, among others, made a strong case for EU membership. However, their efforts were undermined by a leader who, when asked to put his passion for Europe on a scale of 1 to 10, replied: ‘seven, or seven and a half’.

Whatever the reasons for the referendum result, and it will take time for the evidence to emerge, Europe has entered a period of profound political uncertainty. All eyes are now on next week’s European Council to see how EU heads of state or government manage the political process set in motion by UK voters. Expect this process to play out over years rather than weeks or months.

The UK will be central to this process but not the sole focus. EU leaders will be concerned too about member states, such as the Netherlands, which are weighing up referendums of their own. Greece too will be closely watched for signs that Brexit might renew risks of Grexit. The euro crisis has demonstrated EU leaders’ ability to do deals during moments of high political drama. Such diplomatic skills are now needed more than ever.

The EU has been deeply damaged by the UK referendum, but crises are endemic to a political project as experimental as European integration. While no member state has ever left the EU, the Union has encountered a succession of constitutional crises since the 1950s. The EU has not always handled these crises well but it has developed a standard operating procedure in such situations based on intensive intergovernmental diplomacy between heads of state or government. This deliberative intergovernmentalism now faces a major new challenge.

The UK faces constitutional turmoil of its own – after a majority in Northern Ireland, London and Scotland voted to stay in the EU – but it lacks comparable operating procedures. Within minutes of the referendum result, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on Irish unification, confirming that fears about Brexit and the peace process were not devised by ‘project fear’. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon soon followed with a statement that a second referendum on Scottish independence is now ‘highly likely’.

Intergovernmentalism within the UK is considerably less developed than it is in the EU. David Cameron promised to include the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations but he said little about how this might work. There is quite simply no template to tackle deep regional divisions in a political system that, in spite of devolution, remains highly centralized.

Dr Dermot Hodson is Reader in Political Economy at Birkbeck.

One argument by the Leave campaign that has resonated more than any other in the EU referendum debate is that the UK should take back control. The EU is undemocratic, this argument goes, and its powers should be restored to British MPs, who can be held to account by voters. A rousing argument to be sure but how reasonable is it? Continue reading

Prince had many talents but a firm grasp of politics was, perhaps, not among them. In an interview, the late singer recalled his rage when he learned that there were ‘eight presidents before George Washington’. Prince’s teachers had not, as he implied, lied to him as part of some vast political conspiracy. He was simply confused about the early history of the United States, which saw a loose confederation of colonies led by one type of president replaced by a republic led by another. Continue reading

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On 8th June Birkbeck Politics staff discussed the UK’s EU referendum, looking at what has happened so far and what may yet take place on the 23rd June.

The panel began by looking into why the UK was having a referendum, discussing the many hidden and not to hidden factors behind it. These stretched from Cameron’s gamble, that a referendum would cure the short term threat of UKIP and unhappiness in the Conservative party, to the long term distrust towards the European Union project in the UK, harking all the way back to Britain’s campaign of attempted sabotage of the project in the 1950s and reluctant joining in the 1970s.

Reflecting on the campaign so far, the panel spoke of how referenda are, by their nature, proxies for all sorts of other subjects. The EU referendum is actually about immigration, democracy and sovereignty. Despite their popular appeal, they can also be anti-democratic in focusing so narrowly on a single decision, and pursuing a seemingly simple answer to what are complicated issues.

There was also concern at the low level of debate and failure, on both sides, to engage with facts or global realities, from international trade to the modern mass movement of people (see the Treasury Committee report here that similarly complained of the ‘inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’ made by both sides).

The panel also reflected on how different views of the EU split different parts of England and the United Kingdom-creating what has been called a Disunited Kingdom of intentions and support. What would happen if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain but England and Wales wished to leave? It could all get complicated and this paper speaks of some of the profound constitutional consequences. But do referenda’s ever solve an issue (think Scotland in 2014)? The panel thought it is unlikely to be the last EU referendum the UK has.

In terms of the voting itself, the polls so far show a knife edge result, resting on the margin of error. To find out what our panel think will happen on the 23rd June (and why José Mourinho’s views could prove decisive) listen to the podcast below.

Link to the podcast: https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/the-eu-referendum-will-it-be-in-or-out

To Find Out More

  • For polling data and analyses see John Curtice’s What UK Thinks website and Matt Singh’s Number Cruncher Politics
  • The betting odds are here  (it looks roughly 77% remain vs. 25-28% Leave)
  • The House of Commons Library impartial background research on the referendum, Brexit and issues it raises here
  • On the panel were: Rosie Campbell‎; Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos‎; Dermot Hodson‎; Deborah Mabbett‎; Jason Edwards

 

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Nigel Farage speaks at CPAC, 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

Having lost the economic argument, the Leave campaign is now trying to shift the debate towards immigration. This element of the EU referendum debate is as closely linked to the issue of sovereignty as is the management of the economy.

There are two arguments that the Leave side tend to emphasise in relation to immigration. The first relates to security.  The most extreme version of this argument takes the form of the false claim that the UK cannot veto Turkey’s accession to the EU and – as a consequence – the arrival of millions of Turks on this island is virtually unavoidable.  A less extreme version of the same argument relates to the impact of migration from other EU member states on public services at the local level, including schools, hospitals etc., and ignores the contribution that these people make to the exchequer (and beyond).  More recently, however, another argument has been made. Aware of the deleterious nature of the association of Brexit with anti-immigration rhetoric, Brexit supporters have argued that

“Brexit refers only to an exit from the EU and there are no specific policies of any kind tied to Brexit. What happens afterwards and how the UK chooses to manage its affairs in the light of an exit is up to the British government, which is ultimately answerable to its electorate. […] [T]he fact remains that Brexit is compatible with both open and closed borders. Which it will be depends on decisions made by an elected government. […] [W]e should use an exit from the EU as an opportunity to have a proper debate for the first time about whether we want the UK to be open to migration or not, and then base our laws on the outcome of that.” (Chris Bickerton)

Leaving aside the fact that the debate on immigration has been going on for many years in the UK, their central point is one that all souverainistes like to make: through an exit from the EU, the British people will reassert their sovereignty and that is what matters above all other considerations.  The precise way in which it will be handled is a separate issue. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

For all its major faults (including the unedifying image of government ministers who lie live on TV), the referendum-related debate has highlighted the fact that membership of the EU involves a whole array of trade-offs, including those that relate to immigration. But this is precisely what the souverainistes see as a problem since sovereignty is, for them, a zero-sum game.   You either have it, or you do not.

So to achieve their main objective – Brexit – they appear to imply there will be no need for such trade-offs in the post-Brexit future.  This is unrealistic to say the least, since – even if we ignore the cultural benefits of immigration – demographic conditions, the state of the economy, the domestic economy’s relationship with its main partner, i.e. the rest of the European Union, will still need to be managed.

They also conveniently ignore two points that are directly linked to each other and show that the balance of forces is likely to be conducive to a particular immigration policy if Brexit occurs.  The first is the fact that historically this country is normally governed by the Conservative party, and the second relates to the domestic balance of power in the aftermath of Brexit.

Specifically, if Brexit begins to materialise on 24 June, it will not be on liberal terms. Rather, it will be on the terms used by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express – that is to say, immigration-phobia.  In other words, it will be done in a way that will make openness not more but less likely.  Even a cursory look at the statements made by Nigel Farage and his de facto allies within the Conservative party and beyond shows their overwhelming emphasis on numbers, not the need for a more liberal immigration regime. The use of the term “burdens” is indicative in that respect. In the event of Brexit, David Cameron’s successor will almost inevitably come from the Brexit-supporting side of the Conservative party and they will have virtually no room for manoeuvre on this issue, even if one naively assumed they would actually want to wiggle away from the extreme statements made in the run up to the referendum.

The haste to dissociate Brexit from the toxicity of many Brexit supporters’ anti-immigration rhetoric is understandable for another reason: academic research shows that ‘the effects of demographic change fade over time, probably because local white residents become accustomed to minority residents, have positive contact with them, or come to perceive minorities as legitimately belonging in the area.’ In that sense, those – like Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform – who rightly claim that EU membership is a way to preserve the UK’s openness and increasingly cosmopolitan nature have the wind in their sails.

Dionyssis G Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

This post was originally part of the BREXIT debate at LSE

Tonight Birkbeck hosts its own EU referendum debate