While it may be tempting to conclude that Britain’s 2016 Referendum is a straightforward vote about the country’s EU membership, the reality is quite different. Underlying the Referendum are divisions in British society that have existed for decades and will find their latest expression in the plebiscite on June 23. There are essentially two chapters to this story.
The first concerns long-term structural change, and in particular, how Britain’s economy has been fundamentally transformed over recent decades to one that has become increasingly dependent on post-industrial and service-based employment. Amid increased competition, not only from a global economy, but also the European single market and – from 2004 – the free movement of EU workers, certain social groups have been pushed increasingly to the margins. Among these are the older, working-class and white voters who also identify strongly with an English rather than British national identity and who lack the qualifications, skills and income to adapt and thrive amid the more volatile environment and an integrated European market.
This helps to explain why support for Brexit has been consistently voiced by those voters who occupy a more precarious financial position, are on lower incomes and feel more pessimistic about their own and the country’s future. It also sheds light on why support for Brexit has consistently been stronger within more economically disadvantaged areas of the country, where average levels of education are lower and, often, there has been scant inward investment. The lives, backgrounds and daily experiences of those citizens who reside in areas that have been shown to be the most Eurosceptic in Britain, places like Havering, Boston, Mansfield, Clacton or Kings Lynn, are very different to those of citizens who reside in areas that are among the least Eurosceptic, places like Hackney, Lambeth, Edinburgh, Haringey, Oxford, Cambridge or Brighton.
The second chapter in this story concerns long-term generational change in the attitudes and values that have influenced the reactions of different groups of voters to questions that are now being put on the political agenda, such as whether or not Britain should vote to continue its membership of the European Union. There is a deep generational divide in attitudes toward EU membership, and it is visible in the polls and academic surveys, which consistently reveal how citizens aged over 55 years old are far more in favour of Brexit than more recent generations. But this sharp generational divide does not only apply narrowly to the question of Europe, but also extends to the broader issues of race, national identity, gender equality and same-sex marriage.
Shaped by their formative experiences in earlier decades, as well as their social interactions, older and less advantaged Britons also feel more strongly opposed to the new cultural consensus that was first advocated by sections of the so-called ‘New Left’ in the 1970s and 1980s. This political position has since been embraced by younger, more highly educated and socially liberal majorities in British and other West European societies – a cultural consensus that accepts and often celebrates social changes such as immigration, rising ethnic and cultural diversity, same-sex marriage and, the subject of this article, EU membership.
Across European societies, the rise of the New Left and, slightly later, the openly Eurosceptic radical right, is encouraging a realignment in politics where older loyalties that were once organized around capital and labour are making way for new ties that are anchored more strongly in disputes over cultural issues. Whereas more highly educated, middle-class professionals in the public sector, media and finance have leant support to the new consensus, production workers, the self-employed and lower educated have rejected the arrival of this new climate, either exiting politics for apathy or expressing their voice by switching to the radical right or remaining in the mainstream parties, but registering opposition during specific moments, such as at elections to the European Parliament or at a referendum.
Unlike younger Britons, many of whom know nothing other than a Britain in the EU, and whose social and employment interactions have reinforced the new value set, those who were born before the 1970s have essentially led a national communitarian backlash against the progressive and universalist positions of the new majority. In Britain, this divide has manifested in falling levels of working-class support for the Labour Party, declining levels of identification with the main parties and, in more recent years, electoral support for the UK Independence Party. Seen through the eyes of these voters, who approach the 2016 EU Referendum prioritizing their concerns about immigration over questions of sovereignty, Britain’s membership of the European Union is merely one of an array of perceived threats to their national identity, culture and ways of life.
This helps to explain why, should Britain vote to remain in the EU, there will nonetheless continue to be a significant reservoir of public support for campaigns that oppose the EU, free movement and rising ethnic diversity – and which seek to revolt against social liberalism and the new cultural consensus. Indeed, our analysis of Euroscepticism in Britain reveals how a perception that immigration poses a fundamental threat – not only to the economy, but also national culture and the welfare state – is one of the strongest drivers of public support for Brexit. This underlines how for many voters immigration and the EU have merged in the public mindset – a finding that is mirrored in many other studies of public attitudes across Europe.
So long as issues of immigration, national identity, borders and integration remain salient, there is likely to remain a significant amount of public opposition to the EU in Britain, regardless of the result on June 23.