Monday

22nd Jan 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

Stereotypes abound in divided Britain

  • The referendum reveals Britain’s political divisions in technicolour. Deep down, neither side understands the motivation of the other. (Photo: slimmer_jimmer)

The default setting of the staunch ‘Brexiteer’ is to think of pro-Europeans as treacherous quislings. To the average Guardian-reading city-dwelling professional, the ‘Brexiteer’ is a stupid little-Englander.

Crude stereotypes, right?

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  • Edinburgh. A narrow victory for 'Remain' would mean that provincial England has been 'thwarted by a coalition of Londoners and Celts'. (Photo: EUobserver)

Not according to the pollsters.

“For once the differences do match the stereotypes. There is a huge contrast between the kinds of people wanting Britain to stay in the EU and those wanting Brexit,” says YouGov pollster Peter Kellner.

There is little gender gap (although the polling data suggests that women tend to be marginally more pro-European than men), but the EU question splits the population down age, political leanings and education.

Seven in 10 graduates back EU membership, while nearly seven in 10 who left school at 16 back Brexit.

Those belonging to the AB social class - usually in higher managerial and professional occupations - support continued EU membership by a 60 to 40 percent margin. Meanwhile, clerical and blue-collar workers and the unemployed back Brexit.

If this makes the referendum a pollster’s dream - justifying their existence after they collectively failed to predict David Cameron’s surprise election victory last May - it is a politician’s nightmare.

The fact that these stereotypes actually reflect reality explains how Britain has got itself into such a mess over EU membership. In such a polarised environment it is impossible to have a sensible debate, and the defeated side will feel betrayed by their countrymen.

For example, the younger you are, the more pro-European. Seventy-three percent of those aged between 18-29 want to remain in the EU, while 63 percent of those aged over 60 want to leave.

Unlike the Club Med (the southern Europe countries), Britain doesn’t have a youth unemployment crisis.

But like the rest of Europe, its school and university graduates face a job market that is more insecure, a welfare system that is less generous, and a housing market that is far more expensive than that which their parents enjoyed.

A messy divorce always affects the children.

Regional divide

The regional divide is also pronounced. Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London are the strongest supporters of ‘Remain’. Conversely, between 55-60 percent of voters in the Midlands, east of England and Yorkshire are set to back Brexit.

A vote for Brexit will make a second Scottish referendum inevitable and intensify the economic and social divide between international mega-city London and the rest of England. But, equally, a narrow victory for ‘Remain’ will likely mean that provincial England has, in the words of Peter Kellner, been "thwarted by a coalition of Londoners and Celts."

Elsewhere, hard economic rationality doesn’t seem to matter.

In the north-east of England, Sunderland, where Nissan’s largest European car plant is based, makes more cars in a year than the whole of Italy.

With a large and growing manufacturing and automative sector, the North-East is the only region in the UK with a positive balance of payments surplus with the EU.

Most of the UK is a net importer from Europe, prompting the ‘Leave’ campaign to argue, however spuriously, that a sweet UK-EU free trade deal can be struck because the EU needs the UK in the single market more than we need them.

Picking up the pieces

If it is difficult to precisely estimate the number of local jobs that rely on access to the single market, few could deny that thousands of local jobs with Nissan, and along automative supply chain, depend on EU access.

Yet despite a seemingly clear-cut economic interest in EU membership, North-East voters, most of whom are represented by pro-European Labour MPs, break almost 50-50, according to YouGov.

To Brexiteers, immigration and notions of sovereignty are the deciding factors.

“This isn’t about pounds and pence, this is about our democracy,” replied Leave.eu’s multi-millionaire co-founder Arron Banks on whether Brexit would be worth the economics, when pressed by a UK Parliament committee in April.

"Their worst-case scenario of £4,300 [€5,460] per household is a bargain basement price,” he added.

The referendum reveals Britain’s political divisions in technicolour which, in turn, goes a long way to explaining why the debate is quite so bitter. It also suggests that despite the protestations of pro-referendum campaigners that a plebiscite would finally decide Britain’s EU future once and for all, a tight result won’t be respected.

Deep down, neither side understands the motivation of the other. That is why picking up the pieces on 24 June will be a difficult task.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer. He writes the "UK referendum briefing" column during the 23 June referendum campaign.

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