Britain has voted to leave the European Union (EU), or more accurately, England has voted to leave. The majority in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted to remain. The opinion polls, the bookies and the markets did not predict this outcome. The mood of the nation, it would seem, is becoming increasingly difficult to measure. Or is it?
There is a lot of data suggesting that ‘immigration’ was the dominant concern for those who voted to leave the EU. This should not be too surprising. In the latest Eurobarometer data, immigration was cited as the main concern of UK citizens, alongside Germany and Denmark.
According to YouGov data, which is more revealing, income was the best predictor as to whether someone intended to vote to leave or remain. Basically, the lower your income, the more inclined you were to vote leave. Some have referred to this category as ‘those with lower education’. But let’s be honest, it’s called social class.
Another predictor as to whether someone was more inclined to vote leave was age. Younger, more liberal voters, were much more supportive of remaining in the EU. The only problem with this category of voter, is that they failed to turn out en masse to vote. According to the data, electoral turnout among 18-25 year olds was fairly weak. Older conservative citizens were much more inclined to vote.
The precise data on how particular communities and constituencies across England voted is perhaps most revealing. The poorest twenty districts in England overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Or to get at it another way, according to this report, those areas with the most stagnant wages are the same communities with the most anti-EU attitudes.
What can we infer from all of this? What should EU policymakers infer from all of this?
The core inference is that England is a deeply class divided society, and that the poorest in England are increasingly venting their anger at immigrants and the EU. Further, and not captured in the Brexit data, right-wing political parties are now mobilising working class England.
Those same electoral constituencies most likely to vote leave, and with the most stagnant wages, are the same constituencies most likely to vote for the far-right populist UKIP party. In addition, they are the same people most likely to be discursively conscripted into the anti-immigrant lies of England’s infamous red-top tabloid press.
Class politics in England increasingly overlaps with enthno-nationalism, whereby identity and immigration, rather than economic self-interest takes precedence in shaping electoral behaviour.
In political science, there is a large literature on economic voting. One of the core findings of this literature is that in times of crisis and economic austerity, voters punish incumbent governments. This is partially what happened in the UK. Disenfranchised working class voters punished the Tories, liberal elites, the EU and the city of London.
However, the economic voting literature, whilst useful in describing why voters punish government, tells us very little about who these voters turn to, when expressing their social grievances.
In theory, those voters most affected by austerity, unemployment, underemployment and precarious work, would turn to parties on the left and those parties committed to reducing economic inequality. Most research, particularly within Europe, however, suggests, working class voters are turning to the ethno-nationalist right.
To put it simply, those affected by austerity and right-wing economic policies don’t necessarily vote in their class interest; they increasingly vote in their ethno-nationalist interest. UKIP’s economic policies are aggressively libertarian, not social democratic.
Economic liberalisation, rising inequality, and the complete free movement of peoples has social and electoral consequences. Societies will react to this disruption in different ways. Nationalism provides a sense of meaning, community and belonging, to those most affected by liberalisation. Far-right parties, such as UKIP, know this.
This realisation, however, does not seem to have seeped through to policymakers in the EU or Germany, who, despite a near complete destabilisation of the parliamentary party system in Southern, Eastern and Central Europe, remain committed to their failed neoliberal economic adjustment of austerity induced cost competitiveness.
Most political science research in the aftermath of the great recession increasingly suggests that not only are electorates losing trust in the EU, but that the support for national democracy, in general, is in decline. When the politicians change, yet the policy remains the same, voters lose trust in the institutions of liberal democracy.
The question for national leaders in the European Council, and policymakers in the European Commission, is whether they need to wait for the election of Trump in the US, Le Penn in France, or the Five Star Movement in Italy, to realise that their economic policy response to the crisis has failed, and must fundamentally change?
Polities disintegrate when they begin to loose control of their external borders and their internal legitimacy. Or, as W.B Yeats poignantly wrote in 1919, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“. The UK and the EU are now faced with the potential for disorderly disintegration. Political scientists are accustomed to thinking that ‘more EU integration’ is inevitable. This is wrong.
Yeats wrote this after WW1, which coincided with the end of the first wave of free-market globalisation, when economic inequality peaked, much like today. In many ways Brexit can be interpreted as Europe’s Polanyi moment. It was a counter-reaction to a political economic system that is perceived to be designed in the interest of the comfortable elite.
It would be naive to assume that the popular reaction to rising inequality, precarious work, economic uncertainty, liberal elites and fear of immigration will lead to something politically progressive. The wave of anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment, sweeping England, clearly shows that it won’t. France could be next. The EU should not wait to find out.