Focusing on the ‘left behind’ thesis ignores the real message exposed by the referendum: the UK is a fragmented and fast dissolving state
Despite all the uncertainties generated by the referendum result of 23 June, one assertion is now commonly made with increasing confidence: that support for a ‘leave’ vote was a protest from those left behind by the twin forces of globalisation and neo-liberalism. One of the few dissenting voices I have come across is Tony Payne’s blog on this site – and he dissents on the grounds that we must not conflate globalisation and neo-liberalism, and on the grounds that the global decline of the British economy is an old story.
There are two difficulties with the ‘losers left behind’ account: it is hard to reconcile with the evidence about voting patterns; and it quite fails to recognize the political forces that have driven Brexit – notably those forces unleashed by the breakdown of the historically prevailing model of United Kingdom politics.
Let’s deal first with certainties. Those most obviously ‘left behind’ by the modern economy took no part in this referendum. Electoral Commission data tells us that about 15 per cent of eligible citizens are disfranchised: somewhere around six million eligible adults do not appear on the electoral roll and therefore could not vote on 23 June. Identifying the unregistered is not easy, but they certainly consist disproportionately of the economic casualties of the competitive economy: people with housing status ranging from the most precarious to outright destitution; those without skills, or even the basic aptitudes, to get a toe hold in the labour market. A second group also took no part in the vote: the 27.8 per cent of those registered who did not turn up in the polling booths. Identifying the social characteristics of non-voters has always been tricky, but we can with some certainty say that they too contain disproportionate numbers of the ‘left behind’: the young, especially those concentrated in the unemployed and in precarious jobs; those without skills; and those with precarious housing tenure.
When we turn to the identity of those who did vote, the only definitive data is the evidence provided by the territorial distribution of the vote, and this has been trawled exhaustively. The ‘left behind’ account is heavily influenced by this data, with its picture – especially for England – of wrecked local economies in small provincial towns, a contrast with, in particular, the booming service economy of pro-remain London. But we know that inferring individual preferences from population-level data is fraught with peril, which is why we also have to use the (often uncertain) evidence from opinion pollsters. Of these the Ashcroft polls and YouGov collections are probably the most revealing. When we scrutinise the polling data the materialist ‘left behind’ thesis starts to fray, and population data should give us further pause for thought. The city most exposed to globalisation and neo-liberalism; the city where precarious employment in the emerging ‘gig economy’ is most obvious; the city where housing tenure is most insecure in the face of the influx of foreign money and foreign labour: that city is London, which voted by a clear majority for remain.
Polling data analysis of the gaps between classes, educational levels, nations of the UK, and regions within England also reinforces the sense that something more than materialism is at work. Such patterns have of course been widely analysed but one huge variation jumps out: the influence of age on voting preferences. The Ashcroft and YouGov polls are consistent on this: the young wanted to stay, the old to leave. In the YouGov poll, for instance, 71 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted ‘remain’; the comparable figure for those aged over 65 was 36 per cent. This difference is simply not reconcilable with the ‘left behind’ thesis. On the contrary: we know that far from being ignored and left behind, older voters have been courted and bribed by political leaders, because parties are aware that older voters are more likely than the young to turn out. Data on living standards tells us that in the age of austerity since the Great Financial Crisis the income of pensioners has risen while that of the young has fallen. That happened in part because of deliberate policy choices, notably the Osborne ‘triple lock’ on the state pension. In addition more impersonal forces, like the changing shape of property ownership and the crisis of occupational pension schemes, have protected the assets of the old while depleting the assets of the young. The young are least likely to own property, to be enrolled in anything resembling a final salary pension scheme, and most likely to be employed under precarious contract terms in the ‘gig’ economy. When did you last see a pensioner working as a Deliveroo despatch rider?
The gap revealed by the referendum in age-related preferences obviously raises troubling questions about intergenerational equity. But age profiles are also consistent with the picture suggested by the aggregate data about territorial variations in the vote. In post-referendum debates a consensus has developed within the metropolitan elite that the British people have spoken and their will must be obeyed. Even ‘remainers’ have accepted this and have only looked for the wriggle room of a ‘soft’ Brexit. All these reactions accept the spirit in which the referendum was conceived. But that spirit emanates from a particular state formation. Although sometimes pictured as a constitutional innovation, referendums since the pioneering Wilson referendum on Common Market membership have been traditional tools of statecraft in the hands of the metropolitan elite. They have been offered, as was the June 2016 referendum, to solve a problem faced by that elite (and they are withheld, as in the case of the imposition of elected mayoralties on English city-regions, when the calculation is that voters would give the ‘wrong’ answer to a question.). They are the product of the court politics of Whitehall and Westminster, used to legitimise choices made for the ‘British people’ by the central state. In June ‘the people’ of course gave the wrong answer, and they gave the wrong answer because the entities over which the metropolitan elite claim suzerainty – the British state, the British people – do not exist anymore.
The state has been fragmenting along territorial lines for a generation, and the two recent landmark referendums– Scotland in 2014, Brexit in 2016 – have accelerated that process. The picture presented by the June result is indeed one of a ‘country’ divided: between the Irish, the Scots and the rest; between big city and small town; between graduates and the rest; between young and old; between the multi-ethnic and mono-ethnic. Lamentations – especially on the part of ‘remainers’ – about the depths of national division are beside the point. Buried in the Ashcroft polls is one particularly striking finding: in England, leave voters (39%) were more than twice as likely as remain voters (18%) to describe themselves either as ‘English not British’ or ‘more English than British’.
We are seeing, in short, the waning of British identity, the reconstitution of new territorial identities, and widening divisions between groups with very different identities – encapsulated in the gap between generations. The court politics within the Cabinet, as rival grandees struggle for advance, will continue to obsess those who practice and report the politics of that court. But alongside the big overt message of the referendum – a vote for Brexit – is an equally important more tacit message: that after the vote the real action lies beyond the court politics of the metropolitan elite, in the fragmented and dissolving elements of the state that was once the United Kingdom.