There’s a lot to mull over in the wake of the referendum result. A bunch of good articles have already emerged from several corners, I’m largely drawing on them here and adding some of my own thoughts. Readers should take a look at the following in more detail if they get a chance (though I certainly don’t agree with everything said in all of them):

The referendum, living standards and inequality
Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit (a very insightful analysis, though without much in the way of stats, highly recommended)
What sort of crisis is this? (by the same author, also well worth a read)
Looking behind the Brexit anger
Brexit Voters: NOT the Left Behind
Brexit was fueled by irrational xenophobia, not real economic grievances
Brexit isn’t about economics. It’s about xenophobia
An Antifascist Brexit Poll Reading (also has some very worthwhile analysis)

Unless otherwise stated the graphs taken below are from Oxford Migration Observatory briefings (on EU migration and public attitudes).

Economic explanations

Some have been seeking to downplay the xenophobia of the referendum result, or to paint a picture of a working class rebellion against the status quo from a left-wing point of view (including, for instance, quite a few Lexiters, but also those leftists who are intent on seeing only the good in everything).

A popular explanation with these people is that the referendum result is all about class and living standards: the working class have felt the pain of austerity and have either wrongly associated this with immigration as a result of ruling-class conservative ideology spread through the right-wing press, or they have correctly identified that immigration is in fact a baleful aspect of globalisation which has a real negative effect on working class living standards. But in neither case are people really being racist, or xenophobic, according to these people—they are just being realistic, and perhaps a little misguided, about how they are getting shafted by neoliberalism.

Neither of these arguments really stands up to the evidence, as far as I can see. Firstly, the evidence seems to basically conclude that immigration doesn’t have a negative effect on wages and employment for the native population; when effects have been found, they have generally been limited to specific industries and specific types of work, income brackets, etc. These limitations of the effect would make it far too small to explain the general public sentiment, which is clearly widespread given the narrow majority for Leave.

On the other hand, even the “hurt by austerity and misled by ideology” explanation isn’t necessarily foolproof either (thought it certainly seems a lot stronger to me). Brexit support doesn’t seem to correlate very well with local authorities’ changes in wages since 2002, though it does correlate more noticeably with local authorities’ current earnings (Bell says that the results are similar for 2002 earnings too, though there is no chart for that).

Resolution Foundation
Resolution Foundation

So while there is clearly an economic element to explaining Brexit, Leave areas are not necessarily those hit hardest by austerity, at least in terms of wages. Perhaps there is a better correlation with other effects of austerity, such as reduction in public services, but I’ve yet to see an analysis of that.

Other demographics

I’ve already discussed some of the other demographic divides, such as level of education, region, age, etc in my previous article. I won’t go into detail on those here, because there is enough to say already and much of what has been said about these cleavages has been pretty divisive and unhelpful (such as the “old people all screwed us and they’ll be dead before they have to deal with the consequences” meme). I haven’t seen anything particularly insightful about these issues since the result. What I will say is that it’s worth considering how these divides intersect with the other issues discussed in this article.

Social and Cultural attitudes

While it relatively difficult to produce a strong economic analysis of Brexit, social and cultural attitudes produce much starker results. Some of the most decisive factors predicting referendum vote in the Ashcroft post-referendum polling were attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism (with attitudes to social liberalism also being very notable, particularly in the case of those opposed to it). But what is perhaps most interesting here is that all kinds of other attitudes also played a role: those who thought of the internet as a force for ill were more than twice as likely to vote Leave than Remain, while those who saw feminism as a force for good were more than twice as likely to vote Remain than those who saw it as a force for ill.

Lord Ashcroft Polls. Be careful when interpreting this chart, as it’s easy to be confused and misinterpret it. For instance, the yellow bar in the bottom-right doesn’t mean that 79% of Remain voters though immigration was good—it means that 71% of those who thought immigration was good voted Remain. These are different things.

Voters were also strongly divided over whether life in Britain is better or worse now than it was 30 years ago, and somewhat over whether life will be better for today’s children than it was for their parents’ generation. Remain voters were also less likely to have a net fear of threats to their standard of living compared to opportunities. Attitudes to class mobility and hard work were pretty similar, interestingly—I wonder whether this can be taken as a clue that the divide is not fundamentally along class lines (i.e. can we assume that working class people are less likely to believe that ‘anyone can make it’?).

Lord Ashcroft Polls


Perhaps most interestingly and strikingly, there is some great data correlating views on punishment with attitudes towards EU membership. First, there is a correlation between those who say that “sex criminals” should be “publicly whipped, or worse.” The second chart is even more useful for our analysis, as it breaks respondents down by income. Propensity to vote Leave is very strongly correlated with support for capital punishment among White respondents, regardless of income bracket—with income having relatively little effect on EU support.

Fabian Society
Fabian Society

Kaufmann concludes that, much like MacWilliams’ findings on support for Trump, support for Brexit is largely determined by authoritarianism, which is itself significantly linked with fear of diversity, novelty, uncertainty, and change:

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.

If this is correct, then we have even more reason to be fearful of the rise of the far right than is immediately evident in the wake of the referendum result, with the evident increase in racial hatred and racially-motivated crimes.

Nationalism and the EU

One of the interesting results in the wake of the referendum is that attitude towards the EU varies by nationality in intriguing ways. Voting Remain was correlated with identifying as more Scottish than British in Scotland, but with identifying as more British than English in England. In particular, those who see themselves as English and “not British”, actively rejecting a British identity, are more likely to vote Leave.

Lord Ashcroft Polls

I have to wonder whether these statistics are part of the explanation as to why there has been relatively little concern in the most strongly Leave and Remain regions for the integrity of the UK. Perhaps the ‘British’ project of Union is of relatively little importance to many of the most Scottish-identified voters (who are likely to be nationalists) and the most English-identified voters (who reject the idea of ‘Britishness’ as relevant or important to them).

Good immigration and bad immigration

It’s worth bearing in mind that if the referendum result was a rejection of immigration, it wasn’t just a rejection of EU immigration. The British Social Attitudes Survey 2013 asked the public whether the benefits outweigh the costs or vice versa (with options of ‘about equal’ and ‘do not know/depends/no answer’ available too). The results to this question were almost identical for EU workers and non-EU workers, despite the fact that they have totally different rights and entitlements.

I’d be tempted to wager that this was because most of the public doesn’t actually understand any of the differences, and just has a generic attitude about “immigrants”; this can also be seen in the way that people frequently conflate asylum seekers with “illegal immigrants”, etc. This stands in contrast to the narrative given by some of the Leave campaign that what they really wanted was to free themselves from an unfair and asymmetrical relationship with other EU countries, with no negative ramifications for non-EU migrants.

See, I’m not exaggerating when I say almost identical.

On the other hand, the British public is well able to draw distinctions between immigrants on the grounds of nationality, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc. If proof of this is needed, just look at recent polling showing that while rejecting freedom of movement with the rest of Europe, most of the British public is perfectly happy to have freedom of movement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are other possible explanations for this attitude, but the most obvious seems to me to be that most of the British public regard migrants from these countries as almost certainly White, English-speaking and either Christian or atheist.

EU accession migration

It’s also well worth noting that the number of people resident in Britain who were born in pre-2004 EU countries has been relatively constant over time. The surge in EU migrant numbers over the past 12 years has been almost entirely from countries that joined the EU from 2004 onwards, roughly tripling the total number of EU migrants. If you limit the figures to employed migrants, the increase is fourfold. Whereas emigration also increased in the wake of the 2004 accessions, it didn’t match the increase in immigration, like it had previously been pretty close to doing. All of this can help to explain the public’s different attitudes towards, say, French migrants compared to Polish migrants.

Attitudes over time

But it is worth considering the coincidence between this rise in immigration and the ‘type’ of immigration it represents (i.e. the racialised status of the migrants involved). While many wouldn’t have guessed it, most non-UK-born UK residents have traditionally been Irish. It was only in the 2000s that Ireland was overtaken in a relatively spectacular fashion, falling from 1st place in 2001 to 4th place by 2011. The countries that overtook it were, in order from most common to least common: India (long in 2nd place), Poland (which hadn’t even made the top 10 a decade earlier), and Pakistan (in 3rd place for a few decades). 2000 is also roughly the start of the period over which immigration has become an increasingly important political issue in Britain.

To clarify, the number of Britons who believe there are too many immigrants in the country seems to have been falling over the long term, but this fall seems to have slowed over the past 15 years or so, and over the same period the number of Britons who have identified immigration as among the most important political issues has risen. It could be coincidence that this took place at the same time as the most visible immigrant population going from Irish to Indian, and with the emergence of Poles as a significant immigrant group, or it could be something more. It’s worth thinking about.

Endemic xenophobia

As you can see from the charts above, although immigration only became a really core political issue for many voters in recent years, we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this means that resistance to immigration among vast swathes of the population is a new thing. It would be easy to write off the National Front, even in their most popular days, as a small minority in contrast to a generally very welcoming society; this would be a mistake.

Back in the mid-60s, ~10–12% of the population were born abroad; moreover, many of those ‘born abroad’ would have been born in territories that were historically British, so they may have spent at least their early lives as subjects of the British Empire. Yet at the same time, >80% of the public thought this figure was too high. Even in recent years, the number of people who think there are too many immigrants in the country remains over 50%. Presumably, the number among White, British-born people is higher, as migrants (especially recent ones) are less likely to think that immigration is too high.

Taken from an ONS report


It seems pretty obvious to me that looking for a simple, reductive explanation of Brexit is a mistake. Not all Leave voters did so for the same reasons (though it is worth noting that Labour and tory voters both gave the same top reasons in the same order for voting either Remain or Leave), and they do not represent a homogenous social bloc. At the same time, there are some very widespread sentiments that clearly relate to Brexit support (such as thinking there are too many immigrants in the country).

Negative attitudes towards immigration have been endemic in Britain for decades, but the identification of immigration as a significant ‘political issue’ is a relatively modern phenomenon. The change coincides with increasing EU migration that comes overwhelmingly from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as with the Irish being overtaken as the most significant immigrant population. The British public generally thinks that the costs of migration outweigh the benefits across most categories, but have much more favourable attitudes to immigration from White-majority Commonwealth countries. Their attitudes towards EU migrants and non-EU migrants otherwise exhibit little variation.

White British Leave voters are more likely to be authoritarian, to identify with Englishness more than Britishness, and to have more conservative or reactionary attitudes on various political issues across the board, from criminal punishment to environmentalism and feminism. In general, British people opposed to immigration seem to often be opposed to the basic notion of multiculturalism in the first place. It should come as no surprise that movements such as the National Front have made headway in the wake of the referendum debate, bringing old slogans like “send them all back” with them.

Leave voters are also somewhat more likely to be from poorer areas and to fear for their standards of living. They are afraid of the future, and think that life was better in “the good old days.” However, there is still substantial variation between Leave voters in different areas and demographics. It may well be that there is an element of truth to the picture that some on the left wish to paint of Brexit as a middle- and upper-class project, though they also seem to underestimate its working-class support. ‘Leave’, it seems, may be a coalition of the disenfranchised and resentful working classes alongside the more authoritarian and monoculturalist/nationalist elements of the middle and upper classes.

Taken together, this paints a picture of a potent mixture of attitudes and circumstances: without wishing to sound hyperbolic, it is a significant element of the recipe for the rise of a far-right movement. This can only be aided by the fact that Farage was excluded from the official Leave campaign, which is now widely seen as backtracking and making promises they never intended to deliver; moreover, it looks entirely likely that the tories will elect a leader who campaigned for the Remain side, as Johnson seems to have been shouldered out and I suspect Gove would have a hard job of beating May.

Let’s hope that this concern does not become a reality, but let’s also be realistic that hope alone cannot influence the outcome. The left, and society more generally, needs to be particularly mindful of far-right politics and movements at the moment and going forward—we should seriously consider what we can do to prevent a resurgence of White supremacist movements, authoritarian public sentiment, and so forth. This is all the more reason to have a veteran anti-racist and anti-fascist like Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party—but that’s another article.

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