On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom voted 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union. The vote for “Brexit” sent shockwaves around the world, rocking financial markets and rekindling global debates about the power of populism and nationalism, as well as the long-term viability of the EU. Aside from calling attention to challenges to mainstream liberal democracy and international integration, the vote for Brexit also highlights the deepening political divides that cut across traditional party lines in Britain and now threaten to further destabilize an already crumbling
On one level, the shocking result served as a powerful reminder of the sheer force of Britain’s entrenched Euroskeptic tradition and of the acrimonious splits among the country’s political elite over Britain’s relationship
with Europe. But on a deeper level, Brexit should also be seen as a symptom of longer-term social changes that have quietly been reshaping public opinion, political behavior, and party competition in Britain as well as in other Western democracies.
What underlying social and attitudinal shifts made Brexit possible? To what extent was the vote for Brexit driven by the same social forces that fueled the electoral rise of the populist, right-wing U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), a party that surged to prominence in the decade before the referendum? And what do these momentous events reveal more broadly about the state of British politics and the divisions in British society?
The social changes that set the stage for Britain’s historic vote to leave the EU began decades ago. As we have argued elsewhere, one key “bottom-up” driver was a slow but relentless shift in the structure and attitudes of the electorate—the growing dominance of the middle classes and of socially liberal university graduates.
In the 1960s, more than half of those with jobs in Britain did manual work, and less than 10 percent of the electorate had a university degree. By the 2000s, the working class had dwindled to around a fifth of the employed electorate, while more than a third of voters were graduates. These changes gradually altered the electoral calculus for the historically dominant Labour and Conservative parties, whose traditional dividing line had been social class.
When the working classes were dominant, Labour could win power by mobilizing its core working-class support, while the Conservatives had to cultivate cross-class appeal. By the 1990s, however, the shift in the country’s class structure had reversed this calculus. Labour was compelled by repeated electoral defeats and a shrinking working-class core vote to develop a new cross-class appeal, a strategy that was explicitly acknowledged and pursued by Tony Blair, who became party leader in 1994. Traditional working-class values and ideology were downplayed in Blair’s rebranded “New Labour,” which focused instead on building a managerial, centrist image designed to
appeal to the middle classes. In particular, it sought to attract university-educated professionals, whose numbers were growing rapidly and whose social values on issues such as race, gender, and sexuality were a natural fit with the liberal left. This proved hugely successful in the short run, handing Labour an unprecedented three successive election victories. Yet success came at a price.
Between 1997 and 2010, under three successive Labour governments, socially conservative, working-class white
voters with few educational qualifications gradually lost faith in Labour as a party that represented them and responded to their concerns. The result among these voters was lower turnout, falling identification with Labour, and growing disaffection with the political system. This could have provided an opening for the Conservative Party, but
David Cameron, who became the party’s new leader in 2005, was focused on building a Conservative recovery by regaining support from the growing pool of university graduates and middle-class professionals that the party had lost to Blair’s Labour in the 1990s. Working-class voters were concentrated in safe Labour constituencies, with daunting local majorities and weak local Conservative organizations, and so the middle-class suburbs appeared to offer a much more promising path back to power.
While demographic change increased the electoral incentive for Labour to focus on middle-class university graduates, enduring geographical differences in vote patterns blunted the incentive for the Conservatives to respond by seeking the votes of working-class school leavers. As a result, white working-class voters were neglected by both parties, in a country where, despite recent and rapid demographic changes, the electorate remains overwhelmingly white (87 percent identified as such in the 2011 U.K. census). White working-class voters noticed the change in the parties’ behavior and reacted accordingly: They grew more negative about the traditional parties and the perceived lack of responsiveness of the political system. Many turned their backs on electoral politics altogether, leading to lower turnout among the working classes and in historically “safe” Labour constituencies, while some began to see the extreme right-wing British National Party (BNP) as an outlet for their disaffection.
A second long-running social change overlapped with these demographic shifts and magnified their importance—growing value divides over national identity, diversity and multiculturalism, and social liberalism more generally. Rising social groups such as ethnic minorities, graduates, and middle-class professionals hold values that are very different from those of the once-dominant but now fast-declining groups—older white voters, the working classes, and school leavers.
As Britain’s two main parties reoriented themselves to focus on the rising liberal groups, a mainstream political consensus emerged on such issues. This socially liberal outlook regards diversity as a core social strength; sees
discrimination by gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation as a key social evil; regards national identity as a matter of civic attachment, not ethnic ancestry; and thinks that individual freedoms matter much more than communal values.
The increased political prominence of this outlook is not just a matter of electoral expediency. It reflects the typical
worldview of the university-educated professionals whose weight in the electorate is rapidly increasing, and who have also come to dominate the top tiers of politics and society. Politicians of all stripes have not adopted these positions solely to win votes. Most come from the professional middle classes and share the values it holds.
Such values, however, contrast sharply with the more nationalistic, communitarian, and inward-looking outlook of the declining segments of the electorate: the older, white, and working-class voters who left school with few qualifications. Such “left-behind” voters feel cut adrift by the convergence of the main parties on a socially liberal, multicultural consensus, a worldview that is alien to them. Among these voters, national identity is linked to ancestry and birthplace, not just institutions and civic attachments, and Britishness is far more important to them than it is to liberal graduates. The “left-behind” groups are more focused on order and stability than on freedom and diversity, so the very things that social liberals celebrate—diversity, mobility, rapid change—strike them as profoundly threatening. Their policy preferences reflect this: They favor not only harsh responses to criminals and terrorists who
threaten social order, but also tough restrictions on immigration, as they do not want a more diverse and rapidly changing Britain.
Intolerance plays a role here too. Such voters tend to emphasize a more exclusive and exclusionary sense of national identity and to hold more negative stereotypes of any minority group that falls outside this identity. But intolerance is not the whole story. Many of the things that such voters value—order, stability, tradition—are valid and legitimate
social ideals. They are just profoundly different from the values of the liberal consensus that has emerged over the past twenty years. Mainstream politicians attached to that consensus were not only ignoring the values and priorities of the “left-behind,” they were actively promoting a vision of Britain that the “left-behind” voters found threatening and rejected.