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.

fig 1

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.

fig 2

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.

fig 3

Source: (census data);

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.


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.

fig 5

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.

fig 6

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.

The Leave campaign’s stunning upset has barely sunk in and already the pundits are flogging a familiar storyline. Those ‘left behind’ in the hard-luck provinces have punched privileged, corporate London in the nose.

The facts tell a different story: culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters. This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education and even party. A nice way to show this is to examine the relationship between so-called ‘authoritarianism’ questions such as whether children should obey or the death penalty is appropriate, and support for the EU. The British Election Study’s internet panel survey of 2015-16 asked a sample of over 24,000 individuals about their views on these matters and whether they would vote to leave the EU. The graph below, restricted to White British respondents, shows almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor. By contrast, the probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.



A similar pattern holds in the British Values Survey for the strongly worded question probing respondents’ desire to see those who commit sex crimes ‘publicly whipped, or worse.’ Political psychologists show a close relationship between feeling fearful of change, desiring certainty, and calling for harsh penalties for criminals and discipline for children. These are people who want a more stable, ordered world. By contrast, those who seek change and novelty are willing to embrace immigration and the EU.



Precisely the same relationship – based on values rather than class – characterises support for Donald Trump. “I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism,” wrote Matthew MacWilliams back in January.

This doesn’t mean age, education, class and gender don’t count. But they largely matter because they affect people’s level of authoritarianism. Genes, strict parenting and straitened circumstances contribute to people’s aversion to difference, which gets wired into their personality. For Karen Stenner, this makes authoritarians resistant to exhortations to embrace diversity. Younger, wealthier and better educated people, and women, are a bit less oriented toward order and intolerance. But education is not the reason. A recent study in Switzerland showed that liberal-minded kids select into university – their liberalism was apparent as early as age 13. University itself had no liberalising effect on attitudes.

As large-scale migration challenges the demographic sway of white majorities, the gap between whites who embrace change and those who resist it is emerging as the key political cleavage across the west. Compared to this cultural chasm, material differences between haves and have nots, managers and workers, are much less important. From Trump to Hofer, Le Pen to Farage, the authoritarian-libertarian axis is taking over politics.

Where does this leave Britain? The country has emerged from a bruising battle in which those fearing change lined up to Leave while folk comfortable with difference plumped for Remain. However, the two lines don’t perfectly overlap. Boris Johnson, Douglas Carswell and other Vote Leave leaders are libertarian or even globalist in instinct. As negotiations move forward, this freedom-oriented leadership will be inclined to cut deals with Europe on migration in order to secure Britain’s access to the European market. While this ‘soft Brexit’ pose will irritate the authoritarian majority among Leavers, Johnson’s credibility as the man who led Britain out gives him the latitude to make compromises. The history of right-wing populism from the southern US to Northern Ireland is one of populist leaders riding their base to power but rapidly moderating once in office. Expect a fuzzy divorce, not a clean break.

Erc Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College

Originally posted here