“What did he mean by that?” asked the Austrian statesman, Metternich, after news reached him that his French rival, Talleyrand, had died.
A silly question, of course, albeit a lesson in how an excess of political intrigue can addle the brain. Speaking of politics and addled brains, 17.4 million British citizens have voted to leave the European Union, killing the UK’s membership of the biggest and most prosperous trading bloc in the world (and one that has significantly enhanced our prosperity over the past four decades).
What did they mean by that? Not such a silly question, given the magnitude nine shock delivered by the result, which has already decapitated the government, threatened the economy and left question marks hanging over the very survival of the United Kingdom.
Why did so many millions of people vote to leave the European Union? The idea that they were motivated by an obsessional revulsion at “Brussels bureaucrats”, or some deep anxiety about diminished national sovereignty, can be discounted.
Whenever pollsters ask the public to name the most important issue facing the country, Europe and sovereignty never come anywhere near the top of the list, trailing well behind the likes of immigration, the condition of the NHS and the health of the economy. There was no mass popular clamour for last week’s referendum.
Yet there was a high turnout on Thursday. And many millions chose to put a cross in the box marked “Leave”, despite the contrary urgings of an impressively broad and deep coalition of opinion that encompassed the leaders of the three biggest political parties, the trade unions, major business leaders, distinguished scientists, the majority of economists, Barack Obama and David Beckham.
So why did they do it? Was it about money, or rather the lack of it? Some new research by the labour market economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin, seen by The Independent, suggests the Leave vote tended to be bigger in areas of the country where wage growth has been weakest since 1997. This would seem to support the popular theory that this was essentially a giant protest vote against the political class by people who feel economically “left behind” in modern Britain.
But others suggest it was really a cultural divide that was revealed, rather than an economic one. Another popular explanation for the mass support for Leave is that it was a protest by those who are inherently uncomfortable with the social changes in Britain in recent decades, particularly with immigration, and that the Leave vote symbolised a mass longing to turn the cultural clock back. A poll by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft seems to support this, with Leave voters being generally much more hostile to concepts such as multiculturalism, social liberalism, feminism and environmentalism.
Eric Kaufmann of London’s Birkbeck College also points to polling evidence from the British Election Study that suggests those inclined to favour withdrawal from the EU were also much more likely to have strong views on subjects such as the death penalty.
Kaufmann argues that this kind of divide in values is more important than income disparities in determining attitudes to Europe. The big gap between those over 50 and those below in support for Leave is also seen as fitting with this “values” thesis, with the young (of all incomes) seen as more liberal and comfortable with social changes.
Or is this the wrong way to think about this issue? It’s possible that material conditions determine cultural attitudes – that people would be more comfortable with phenomena such as multiculturalism if they were better off and did not feel so hard-pressed economically. On the other hand, it’s also possible cultural values shape economic outcomes – that people’s unwillingness to embrace economic opportunities perhaps due to certain mental shackles ends up leaving them worse off.
Immigration is an area where things get especially hard to unravel. When people complain about immigrants (and the European Union rules permitting free movement of labour into Britain) is this a manifestation of a cultural anxiety about the fast-paced modern world? Or is it a proxy complaint for the unfair distribution of national economic resources, linked as it often is to complaints about pressure on the NHS and housing and low wages?
Getting the policy response right requires a sound diagnosis of the problem. Is the solution to popular discontent to lavish more economic resources on deprived areas so people don’t feel left behind? Or is it curbs on immigration, which might make those with certain values feel less uneasy, but which would also harm the economy and make everyone, including the already economically marginalised, poorer?
Or maybe all of the above is all misplaced. Could the huge Leave vote merely have reflected the fact that, for more than 30 years, right-wing UK newspapers have been pumping out poisonous anti-European propaganda, leaving a great many people woefully misinformed and latently hostile to the EU? Was this simply an accident waiting to happen?
It’s too early to draw firm conclusions from the evidence we have, but this is plainly the national inquiry we need. The crude majoritarian politics of this referendum has seen half of the population (a generally poorer, less well-educated and elderly half) effectively strip major freedoms and even a cherished identity from the other half (a more prosperous and predominantly younger half). That has already set off an explosion of rancour and frustration. And if our national prosperity is diminished in the coming years – as the economic consensus suggests it will be – that grievance is very likely to grow.
We’re heading out of the EU, but we still need to live together on these islands. The two Britains somehow need to be reconciled. And for that to happen we need to get a proper handle on what divides us.