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3:44pm on Saturday, 25th June, 2016:
In a twist of fate, yesterday evening I found myself standing in the House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster.
A couple of years ago, there was an event organised by the Essex University Alumni organisation for a tour of the Houses of Parliament, which my wife and I took. Another one was organised for last year, which we signed up to so we could take our daughters along and let them look around what is the most important room in the country. That second trip was cancelled because of some parliamentary business, so we signed up for its replacement. Months in advance, the day was selected. That day was yesterday.
Essex University's Department of Government is ranked the highest in the UK, and has been every year since these things were recorded. As yesterday was such a momentous day, in the reception afterwards we were treated to a talk by Prof. Paul Whiteley, one of the senior academics in the Government Department, who is regularly used by media organisations as an expert on UK politics and voting.
When I said "treated" there, I wasn't being sarcastic: he did give a very good talk. His topic was the reason that the UK voted to leave the EU. It was rooted in data from a country-wide survey he'd undertaken 3 days before the vote, from which he had called that the result would be leave (and by roughly the right margin).
For the benefit of people struggling to understand what went on, particularly those in the EU and USA for whom it looks inexplicable, I'll reproduce his basic argument here, along with my take on it.
So, he said when it comes to referenda, people tend to make their decision based on three factors. These factors were indeed all in play in Thursday's event.
Factor 1: Calculation.
This is the cost/benefit analysis that people make regarding the proposition upon which they are to vote. How is it going to affect them, personally? For this referendum, it was an easy decision for people who do well out of the EU (such as most university academics) and for people in affluent areas. They like things the way they are, and don't want to risk what they have for an uncertain future. However, for people who aren't doing well, they're going to need evidence if they're to be persuaded by that argument that if they just wait a while longer then their situation will improve. For working-class voters, there was no such evidence (indeed, in my view there was the opposite, given how little Cameron managed to achieve when he undertook his renegotiation exercise in the months before the referendum). The ordinary person didn't see the EU as even close to being of benefit to them as things stood, and the promise that it would improve in the future seemed wishful thinking.
My take: I think he's right. People in a miserable situation at the bottom of the pile in an economy that's not working for them have nothing to lose by shaking things up. The worst that can happen is that they'll be in the same situation; the best that can happen is that they're in a better one. Telling them that actually the EU brings great benefits to their region is pointless if they don't see those benefits. "Yay, our regional opera house has been saved". Pointing out the risks if EU funding is withdrawn is similarly pointless if it makes no difference to the ordinary person. "Oh no, a quarter of the singers in our regional opera house come from the EU and will be unable to work here if we vote to leave". Using EU funds in ways that the working class either doesn't see or (worse) sees but considers a waste of money isn't going to win approval. This is probably why so many traditionally Labour-voting former industrial towns defied the party line and voted to leave.
I'd also add that those charts showing that the more highly-educated someone is, the more likelyit was they would vote to remain in the EU, are often being misinterpreted. The implication is that people who aren't highly-educated are stupid. They're not. A large number of them are older people who didn't get a chance to go to university (people like my parents, who definitely are not stupid, nor ignorant, nor unenlightened). Another big chunk are younger working-class people who couldn't afford to go to university. That whole paternalistic, poor-dears-they-don't-know-what's-good-for-them attitude coming from an affluent, educated middle class does not play well to this audience, and when acted upon leads to counter-productive results.
Factor 2: Community.
The gist of this point is that people often use a referendum to deliver a verdict on the government of the day. A popular government will get its way (I'd guess that this is how come Wales lumbered itself with its Welsh Assembly); an unpopular government will be given a kicking (as happened in Denmark when ratifying an earlier EU treaty). Popular or unpopular politicians on both sides of the debate will be disproportionately influential in how people make their decisions. Cameron, who used to be popular, had waned in popularity in recent years as the austerity measures the coalition introduced took their toll. Johnson, whose charismatic-buffoon persona brings in large crowds wherever he speaks, is still popular. Also, as he wasn't an MP when the austerity measures were introduced, he's not tarnished by them.
My take: I agree; it seems to me that the vote in industrialised parts of Wales went the way it did because a lot of Welsh voters wanted to stick it to the upper-class English elite. However, there's a little more to it than this. The thing is, Johnson may be popular in the shires, but he isn't popular among working-class Labour voters. Also, the other big-name charismatic speaker on the leave side, Nigel Farage, is very unpopular among liberally-minded Conservative voters. What happened was that the leave side ran two separate campaigns: Farage spoke to his 4,000,000 disenfranchised voters, and Johnson and Gove spoke to the middle classes. This meant that when Johnson said something that Farage's constituency didn't like, Farage could dismiss him as an upper-class toff; if Farage said something that alarmed Johnson and Gove's constituency, it was easy for Gove to distance their campaign from it. With the leave side, Cameron wasn't helped by Osborne's increasingly outlandish claims, but there was no charismatic Labour voice to dismiss him as a toff. Labour was almost irrelevant in this campaign. Bizarrely, Labour's MPs were almost all for remaining in the EU, as were the Labour activists who put Corbyn into power, but Corbyn himself was more in tune with actual Labour voters. He's now being pillioried for his lacklustre participation in the debate, as if it was his job to make the Labour voters reflect the Labour MPs' views, rather than the other way round.
I'd also say that there were some sensationally good speakers on the remain side, but they were in Scotland and didn't step onto the national stage. It's all well and good Sturgeon declaring that Scotland now needs to leave the UK so it can stay in the EU, but she would do well to remember that one of the major reasons Scotland voted to remain was because of the efforts of Ruth Davidson. If Davidson hadn't restricted herself primarily to arguing the remain case in Scotland, it could have been a different story.
Factor 3: Cues.
This is the most interesting point raised by Prof. Whiteley. If you ask people whether they feel more European, British or English, then the areas where the most people say they feel more English were the ones where the leave votes were highest. This meant that identity was an important issue — but one completely missed by politicians and journalists. One of the rallying cries of the leave side was "We want our country back" — an articulation of a feeling that their sense of Englishness was being taken from them. Sense of identity is a very powerful motivator (as I'm sure those who feel more European than British or English will be able to attest in the light of the referendum result). If people feel their culture is under threat, they will act to defend it. This is what happened in vast swathes of England. Scotland voted to leave because the Scots sorted out their identity issues in their independence referendum (as a result of which, far more Scots now identify themselves primarily a Scottish than did before the referendum). The identity of the English was never addressed by parliament, though: no English assembly was promised, the Scots got to vote on English matters but not the reverse, and the English were felt neglected by politicians who were still only thinking at the UK level.
My take: Again, this sounds right. It also suggests that the seeds of the referendum result were sown some time ago, when Scotland got its referendum vote. It was always the case that if Scotland got a better deal than England, England would feel aggrieved: if there's one thing that pretty well everyone in England has, it's a sense of fair play. This was not fair play. It may even have its roots much further back than the Scottish referendum, in the formation of the Irish Republic.
There are a couple of further points I'd add to this. Firstly, this conflict crystalised as the "immigration issue". The left paid it no heed, on the grounds that it was racist; they didn't really learn from Gordon Brown's defining encounter with the "bigoted" voter that this wasn't really the case (although of course plenty of racists attached themselves to it). The right was happy with immigration because it saw the (genuine) positive benefits that it brought to the economy. The centre thought of it as xenophobia that could be fixed by education, rather than a manifestation of something more profound. All the arguments about the issue were therefore couched in these terms. The left were talking about how this was to do with stopping people with brown skins coming into the UK. They didn't listen to people who had brown skins who were telling them they were going to vote leave. If the people of Batley and Spen, whose MP was shot dead by a deranged, right-wing racist, nevertheless voted 54.7% in favour of leave, you have to concede that racism wasn't the issue. As for the right, well it was talking about net migration figures and trying to stop benefit tourists. It should, though, have been looking at gross immigration, not net immigration. Yes, if two thirds of a million people enter the UK every year and a third of a million leave, this means that our infrastructure only has to cope with a third of a million extra people. However, it also means that every year another 1% of the UK's overall population has some culture other than that of the (current) majority. This is where the identity concerns come in, and is what all the commentators missed. I recall a story about Jimmy Carter who, when president of the USA, visited China in 1979. He pressed Deng Xiaoping to allow Chinese people to leave China. There were a number of dissidents in the country who wanted to escape, but at the time the borders were closed. Deng replied something along the lines of "Certainly, how many do you want? Would 50,000,000 be enough to start with?". Like so many things, immigration is fine when you think at the level of the individual but more problematical when you think at the level of statistics.
My second point concerns the EU itself. It exhibits qualities as an entity to which the British don't easily relate. It's bureaucratic, protectionist, elitist, inefficient, arrogant, politically unaccountable and of a bullying temperament. What it did to Greece was (and is) disgraceful. Its immediate response to the Brexit vote (wanting to make an example of the UK in order to prevent any contagion) demonstrates just the kind of organisation it is. I don't know how member of other EU states view this kind of behaviour, but to British eyes it looks misguided and vindictive. Whether it's excusable or not isn't the issue: the question is, if your partner is this kind of person who beats up your puny next-door neighbour, do you really want to keep sleeping with them? Also, it's clear that whatever the people (or even leaders) of the EU want, structurally it's set up to become a European superstate. This is something that the people of other EU countries are more comfortable with than are the people of the UK, mainly for historical (and ultimately geographical) reasons. Assuming this new country was a democracy, it would no longer be dominated by France and Germany, because people in weak economies get just the same vote as people in strong ones. Would the British be happy being part of a federal state dominated by the electors of Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, and possibly Ukraine and Turkey if they also joined? Well, enough were put off by the thought of this to make a difference.
Some final thoughts.
If the outcome of Britain's leaving the EU is that the EU undergoes a period of soul-searching that leads to the reforms that everyone can see it needs, the EU will finally prosper. Perhaps, in time, it may consider allowing the UK to rejoin. If it doesn't reform, though, then the UK will suffer, sure, but perhaps not quite as much as it would have done had it remained.
Oh, one last point: both sides in a divorce get a better deal if they go to arbitration, rather than waste time scoring petty victories off one another in face-to-face argument. I suggest we approach Norway to act as honest broker, and ask nicely.
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