The last chance for Brexit

Photo by La Veu del País Valencià via Flickr / Creative Commons

Andrew Curry writes: Successive EU Referendum polls suggest the outcome is still close, and that the strongest predictors of attitudes to Brexit are age and education. Data from Kantar’s TNS shows young people are largely against leaving the EU. Analysis by Bristol University academics shows anti-EU sentiment varies according to qualifications, with graduates more likely to want to remain. This effect is more marked among older voters.

There are two things going on here, one around economics, one around values.

First, the long wave of globalisation has tended to flatten the wages of the less skilled in richer countries, even if immigration itself has had little effect on this. Given that Leavers tend to be worse educated and less affluent than Remainers, this may suggest that voting intention is telling us something about the polarisation of the UK jobs market.

The second is a cultural shift towards more open interpretations of identity, and a greater experience of other countries, especially among the young. This can be seen as part of the deeper shift in values, away from “Traditionals” and “Moderns” towards “Post-materialists” or “Cultural Creatives” that we are witnessing in Europe and North America. As Hardin Tibbs noted in the Journal of Futures Studies, Jonas Salk suggested thirty years ago that as population growth slowed, we would see attitudes and behaviours shift towards “collaboration, interdependence and consensus.” More recently, Ronald Inglehart identified in his World Values Survey a shift towards “post-modern” or “post-materialist” values in which “people valued autonomy and diversity over authority, hierarchy, and conformity.” From his analysis of World Values Survey data, Tibbs argues that the proportion of people holding such values in affluent societies is approaching 50%.

Since the financial crisis the division between post-materialist values and those of “traditionals” and “moderns” has been one of the defining differences in politics in Europe and the United States as support has drifted away from mainstream parties.

So-called “nativist” groups, such as the American Tea Party, or UKIP, tend to be supported by “traditionals”, while progressive groups tend to attract “post-materials”, who tend to be better educated, more urban, and younger. This can be seen is different ways; in London’s position as a Labour Party stronghold, or in the US, in the way that Millennial Democrats have been at the heart of the Sanders campaign. In a recent article in New Left Review, Susan Watkins argued:

“In all the discussion of the symmetries of left–right anti-establishment protest, this major asymmetry is often overlooked. Supporters of Trump, UKIP and Le Pen tend to be middle-aged or over; the young are breaking left.”

Although there are few lab experiments in politics, the recent Austrian presidential election came close. Both of the mainstream candidates were eliminated in the first round, leaving a run-off between the candidate of the far right Freedom Party and a Green candidate, running as an independent. The Green won by a whisker (50.3% to 49.7%), with more support from younger urban voters, from women, and, decisively, from the postal votes of Austrians leaving abroad.

Although the referendum campaign is less clear-cut politically (the elites are in favour of Remain; there is a credible left case for Leave), there are similar faultlines. In “How deeply does Britain’s Euroscepticism run?” the political analyst Professor John Curtice finds that it runs quite deep. Overall Britain has a majority of Eurosceptics. In 2015, 22% of its respondents wanted to leave the EU, and another 43% wanted to continue but to reduce Europe’s powers. This Eurosceptic number has been running higher than 60% since the financial crisis, and hasn’t run below 50% consistently since the first half of the 1990s.

Indeed, one of the problems with British attitudes to the EU is that there is no strong narrative that sat behind accession, as my colleague Joe Ballantyne points out,

“For the founders, it was about creating economic relationships in place of war; for countries such as Spain and Portugal it marked the end of transition from fascism to being a modern state (modernity is part of the story for Ireland as well); for the central European countries and the Baltic states it represents being part of Europe rather than part of a Soviet-dominated bloc.”

For Britain, the 1975 referendum on whether to remain (following Britain’s accession under the Heath government of the early 70s) was more of a shrug.

According to Curtice’ analysis, the issue of identity is at the heart of Euroscepticism.

As Curtice writes, “The more concerned someone is about the impact of EU membership on Britain’s identity, the more likely they are to want to withdraw and the more likely they are to be a Eurosceptic.” One of the characteristics of the “post-materialist” cohort is that it is more likely to be driven by internal or intrinsic values, rather than external or extrinsic values, and this is seen in the more open interpretations of identity seen in the Millennial and Centennial generations.

In other words, we can expect British Euroscepticism to decline. The high-water mark for Leavers, according to British Social Attitudes, was in 2012, and demographics, education levels and values are all running against it. If Britain votes to Remain on 23rd June, there is unlikely to be another referendum.

Source : Kantar, The Futures Company

A version of this post was originally published at

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