Why? Three weeks on from the European Union referendum and the question still squats over everything, demanding an answer: why did so many people vote to leave the European Union on 23 June?
One of the most significant aspects of Theresa May’s speech outside Downing Street last week upon being installed as Britain’s new Prime Minister was a handbrake turn in Conservative rhetoric.
Out went the optimistic Cameron-style talk of an economy that was steadily recovering and delivering broad-based prosperity. And in came a pledge of economic and social reform; revolution, even.
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise,” said May. “We will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
The startling similarity of the message to Ed Miliband’s 2015 Labour election manifesto has been widely noted.
So what changed? Well, Brexit obviously.
May and those around her apparently believe the vote to Leave was not really a reflection of optimism about Britain’s future outside the European Union, but a howl of pain and frustration from “left behind” parts of the country.
This is certainly the most popular narrative among researchers, intellectuals and pundits in the wake of the 23rd June political earthquake: the idea that years, even decades, of pent-up anger over inequality of income, opportunity and power were what drove the massive Leave vote.
But if this was indeed an economic vote of protest, what precisely was the economic grievance?
Wages, say some. Statistical work by the labour economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin suggests that areas where average wage growth have been weak for the past two decades were more likely to vote Leave.
Jobs, say others. Separate research by the Resolution Foundation has found a strong correlation between relatively low employment levels in an area and a tendency for that area to Leave.
But de-industrialisation is the real answer, others insist. Two Italian economists, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, say that the UK areas that swung to Leave were also areas that had experienced the biggest “import shock” over the past quarter century, with local manufacturing workers thrust into brutal competition with Chinese firms.
The 6 most important issues Theresa May needs to address
The 6 most important issues Theresa May needs to address
The big one. Theresa May has spoken publicly three times since declaring her intent to stand in the Tory Leadership race, and each time she has said, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ It sounds resolute, but it is helpful to her that Brexit is a made up word with no real meaning. She has said there will be ‘no second referendum’ and no re-entry in to the EU via the back door. But she, like the Leave campaign of which she was not a member, has pointedly not said with any precision what she thinks Brexit means
2/6 General election
This is very much one to keep off the to do list. She said last week there would be ‘no general election’ at this time of great instability. But there have already been calls for one from opposition parties. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2010 makes it far more difficult to call a snap general election, a difficulty she will be in no rush to overcome. In the event of a victory for Leadsom, who was not popular with her own parliamentary colleagues, an election might have been required, but May has the overwhelming backing of the parliamentary party
Macbeth has been quoted far too much in recent weeks, but it will be up to May to decide whether, with regard to the new high speed train link between London, Birmingham, the East Midlands and the north, ‘returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ Billions have already been spent. But the £55bn it will cost, at a bare minimum, must now be considered against the grim reality of significantly diminished public finances in the short to medium term at least. It is not scheduled to be completed until 2033, by which point it is not completely unreasonable to imagine a massive, driverless car-led transport revolution having rendered it redundant
4/6 Heathrow expansion
Or indeed Gatwick expansion. Or Boris Island, though that option is seems as finished as the man himself. The decision on where to expand aviation capacity in the south east has been delayed to the point of becoming a national embarrassment. A final decision was due in autumn. Whatever is decided, there will be vast opprobrium
5/6 Trident renewal
David Cameron indicated two days ago that there will be a Commons vote on renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent on July 18th, by which point we now know, Ms May will be Prime Minister. The Labour Party is, to put it mildly, divided on the issue. This will be an early opportunity to maximise their embarrassment, and return to Tory business as usual
6/6 Scottish Independence
Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are in no doubt that the Brexit vote provides the opportunity for a second independence referendum, in which they can emerge victorious. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood has the authority to call a second referendum, but Ms May and the British Parliament are by no means automatically compelled to accept the result. She could argue it was settled in 2014
Other explanations fly around too, more related to social cohesion than living standards. Many claim that the referendum was essentially won on the issue of opposition to immigration. It’s noted that areas with the biggest change in the number of foreign-born residents in the preceding 15 years were some of the ones with the highest Leave votes.
Yet there are problems with all of these narratives. If stagnant wages were the key driver, why did these disgruntled places not vote in larger numbers for Ed Miliband’s economic reform programme in the 2015 general election? Similarly, if there is such anger at Tory welfare cuts, why is Jeremy Corbyn’s unambiguously anti-austerity Labour Party so weak in the polls today?
Similarly, de-industrialisation is hardly a new phenomenon. Why would a mass protest vote only materialise now? Scotland has seen its share of heavy industry disappear since the 1980s. Yet it was strongly pro-Remain. Wales, as a region, voted to leave, having struggled economically for many years. Yet Northern Ireland, which has had easily the worst economic performance of any region of the UK over the same period, voted overwhelmingly to Remain.
If the issue is a post-crash squeeze on incomes, why did young people, who have suffered disproportionately since the 2008 financial crash, apparently vote heavily in favour of continued EU membership while a majority of the over-50s, whose incomes have held up relatively well, vote against?
The immigration story is complicated too. Areas with the highest levels of foreign-born population – including London - were also the ones with highest Remain votes. Clacton, the seaside constituency with that has returned the country’s only UKIP MP, has a very low share of foreign-born residents.
The inequality explanation is tricky to sustain too, given the nationwide distribution of income across the population has not actually shifted much in recent years. If it’s about wealth, why did (as the Resolution Foundation has also found) areas with high levels of home ownership incline towards Leave?
Seeking a single over-arching “cause” of the Brexit vote is, in truth, a wild goose chase. There’s no “real reason” why people voted in the way they did. All these factors probably played some part to some extent and these analysts and politicians might be like the proverbial blind men describing different bits of the elephant.
Binary referendum questions can accommodate all manner of grievances, hopes and motivations in either box. And, on top of that, there’s the filter of local politics and institutional allegiances.
It’s also possible that a great many people simply did not understand the full implications of their vote. One of the strongest correlations with a leave bias identified by the Resolution Foundation was actually relatively low levels of graduates in an area. Large parts of the tabloid media did little to inform their readers.
There’s a danger of politicians and pundits latching on to the explanation for the Brexit vote that fits their existing pre-occupations, or existing preferred policy solutions.
Last week, before he was fired as Chancellor, George Osborne was talking about how the vote underlined the importance of his cherished “Northern Powerhouse” agenda.
Boris Johnson, before he dropped out of the Tory leadership race, was trying to talk down the importance of immigration as a motivator of Leave voters, apparently eyeing an EU trade deal that would allow the continuation of free movement.
May’s new stated economic approach sounds appealing to me personally, but it’s possible she’s making the same mistake of projecting on to the referendum result the message she was already inclined to read.
Yes, the people have spoken. But it’s a fallacy to assume that they spoke with a single voice.Reuse content