Over the years, this subject has been long beaten with a hammer. Analysts have gone into detail on the causation of the result. But recent developments may require us to take a look under the hood again.
Over the past few months, the UK government has overstepped international law to resit the EU. It amended provisions within the originally agreed Brexit deal of October 2019. The aim was to deter the EU from using the Irish border as a ploy to further impose its regulations on the UK after it leaves the Single Market and customs union on December 31st 2020. This essentially creates a hard border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the remainder of the UK. To move goods across from NI, customs and tariffs would need to be paid. It is clear the current UK government wants to completely abolish the EU’s free movement.
This occurring against the backdrop of the current COVID-19 recession is troubling. At a time when the UK should be leaning more towards the EU to cushion against the economic consequences which could be exacerbated after the transition period should be surprising. But we have been here before. We haven’t left and it's unlikely we will leave anytime soon.
It is possible to interpret this as the UK standing firm on its British national values to return back to the days of its imperial glory and deep desire to maintain its sovereignty. This has been a common theme among a majority of the members of parliament, especially within the Conservative party. It also populated debates following the Brexit results. Though the “left behind” thesis stood tall. Perhaps a comparison between these two could yield insights into this behavior.
A Cultural artifact?
Eric Kauffman has shown the 2016 referendum outcome to be a result of ‘culture’ contrary to the “left behind” thesis. In his experiment, he uses the relationship between “authoritarian” questions such as advocacy of the death penalty and support for leaving the EU. These betray the depiction of modern Britain and somewhat highlights the anxieties of waning national values. A desire to go back to the good ole’ days, free from a supranational tyrant. The results are shown in the below graph:
The above graph illustrates that regardless of income disparity, most of the electorate in the referendum voted to leave the EU based on their values indicating the vote was more about culture. Similar findings were derived in the British Values Survey regarding advocacy for ‘Brexit’ and whipping of sex criminals. Although this shows a correlation not so much a causal relation.
A critique is whether economic insecurity perhaps feeds other insecurities including those of a cultural nature. Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath show that despite groups most vulnerable to poverty being more susceptible to vote for Brexit, in fact, educational inequality was the strongest driver. Their evidence shows support for leave is 30% more for those with a GCSE or below than those with a degree. This is important as in the low skilled communities, they were least likely to derive economic opportunities from the increasingly modernized global economy. Due to limited opportunities, they were more likely to vote ‘leave’ than the more skilled communities.
Seeing as the modern economy operates in the context of globalization and is increasingly competitive their incompatibility in it makes it hard to imagine them cheering it on. Traits like the free movement of people and immigration which have been shown to have benefits like increasing contributions to public finances. In this context, they are more likely to derive fault with them and place more emphasis on their contribution towards the reduced income levels and popularity of cheap labour which immigration is correlated with.
This frustration is clear in Lisa Mckenzie’s discussions with some working-class people. They felt like their interests, their falling living conditions were not being heeded to or sympathized with by elites and the government. Brexit was a way of making their voices heard purely because of their economic situation. Afterward, however, they still saw sentiment reject their falling living standards and gushed out hatred towards the elite. One of the local women in her story stating “What has that **** Beckham got to say about this” when David Beckham a wealthy footballer advocated for the remain campaign. In this context, it is hard to imagine leave voters forgiving the cultural influences the EU represents and therefore indicates their economic circumstances fed into their cultural perspectives.
What about the wealthy?
The saying usually goes money is a coward. The wealthy are credited with seeking lower barriers to business, a stable economic and political environment, and bigger markets all of which were provided by the EU. It's hard to see how nationalist culture drove their decision making when they gained the most from the EU. Though it seems nationalist pride still runs wild in these circles regardless of the financial detriments. In fact, there is confidence in greater economic benefits from national pride than remaining in the EU.
Many seemed to believe that the country would prosper and emulate the likes of Singapore or Hong Kong due to its prominence as an important financial center of the world. Capabilities the EU depended greatly on the UK for. Out of the EU, there would be a greater likelihood for it to maintain its position as a world power, one that was at least a resemblance of its once imperialist history.
Although many types of research show high economic costs to the UK leaving the EU. Most prominently its other partnerships with “old friends” and new powers, Global Britain, will still not replace the void left by the EU. Perhaps one could argue the cultural aspect of the wealthy stems from the country’s imperial past which has always made it an advocate of free trade and globalization. Even when the rest of the world were protectionist during the mid 19th century leading up to the first world war. This dedication to free trade and globalization, one which the government has been hammering on following the election results and this COVID-19 crisis would unlikely change after Brexit’s finalization.
But as previously indicated, globalization was still a concern for many of the electorate. Though following on from its history, it merely suggested that its approach would take a different form. Whether this form would be superior to the EU system is a different story. Its single market system is more efficient and ahead of the World Trade Organization’s free trade rules and principles. Thus, the cultural argument seems to be somewhat rooted in the economic argument.
Though it is impossible to argue that economic consideration were prominent causalities as evinced by work by Koenig-Archibugi and Sorace (2019):
Income distribution based on household income and personal income yielding a position on the side of the referendum, leave or remain, is clear but not overwhelmingly.
Moreover, Kauffman’s graph above still shows very limited disparity between the different income classes and their cultural influences. This suggests culture was embedded within their position on the elections. But it seems to be rooted in or coupled with other influences. To suggest that culture alone was significant in the determination of the referendum result would not be optimal.
Thus, culture is important in the discussion of the outcome of the referendum but on its own is not the sole or dominating factor. The truth is the referendum outcome is attributed to a conflux of factors and cultural-based arguments are important in the deliberation especially considering its high correlation with the result. Therefore, this may also be a reflection of the current deliberations on the Brexit negotiations. Certainly, cultural influences are inherent though economic arguments seem intertwined with them. For these reasons, Brexit arguments may still contextualise future UK-EU relations.