Understanding Brexit: Cultural Resentment Versus Economic Grievances
Paper for presentation at the Panel on ‘Populism in Advanced Capitalist Democracies’, Thursday 30 August 4.00-5.30pm at the American Political Science Association’s annual convention, Boston.
32 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2018 Last revised: 12 Oct 2018
Date Written: July 30, 2018
This study considers the evidence for ‘demand-side’ theories seeking to explain the outcome of the Brexit referendum and subsequent divisions in UK politics. Economic theories suggest that the Leave decision was driven mainly by the ‘left-behinds’ in jobs or wages, such as those living in struggling communities in the North of England, the Midlands, and Wales. By contrast cultural accounts emphasize political attitudes and values, including long-term British suspicion about the European Union project, public disgust with the political class at Westminster, anxiety about the effects of the refugee crisis and migration from other EU countries, and opposition to the government’s austerity cuts. These theories can also be regarded as complimentary rather than rivals, for example if economic deprivation catalyzed resentment about immigrants and the rejection of open borders. To examine these issues, Part I sets out the electoral context and historical background in the run up to Brexit – and its implications for party competition in the UK. Drawing upon a larger book-length study, Part II sets out the arguments based on economic and cultural theories about the British electorate. Part III describes the evidence from the British Election Study panel surveys, which allows us to examine the factors dividing supporters in the Leave and Remain camps in the 2016 Brexit referendum, as well as those predicting support for UKIP from 2015-17. Part IV examines the impact of demographic control factors like age and sex, indicators of economic grievances, and the cultural profile of voters in their authoritarian and populist values, as well as their attitudes towards the Europe Union, immigration, and left-right ideology. The conclusion in Part V considers developments since Brexit and their implications for the future of populism in the UK. The main advocate of Brexit, UKIP, succeeded in attaining this goal, but then failed to achieve a decisive break through as a parliamentary party. Yet authoritarian-populism remains alive and well in post-Brexit Britain, absorbed into the bloodstream of the body politic, disrupting and dividing both major parties.
Keywords: Populism, Brexit, Public Opinion, British Politics
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