Abstract Why did the country vote for Brexit? What was the relative importance of factors such as education, age, immigration, and ethnic diversity? And to what extent did the pattern of support for Brexit across the country map on to past campaigns by Eurosceptic parties, such as Ukip? In this article we draw on aggregate-level data to conduct an initial exploration of the vote. First, we find that turnout was generally higher in more pro-leave areas. Second, we find that public support for Leave closely mapped past support for Ukip. And third, we find that support for Leave was more polarized along education lines than support for Ukip ever was. The implication of this finding is that support for Euroscepticism has both widened and narrowed – it is now more widespread across the country, but it is also more socially distinctive.
Writing in the aftermath of Britain’s first referendum on its membership of the then-European Community, held on June 5 1975, David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger observed how that earlier vote was of interest for mainly three reasons. First, it had delivered an unambiguous public endorsement of Britain’s continued participation in the Common Market. With 67 percent of voters opting to stay in the European Community the public had returned a level of support that was ‘beyond the dreams of pro-Europeans’. Second, for observers of party politics at the time the vote also represented an historical episode of peculiar fascination, cutting across established patterns of party competition, in particular with regard to the Labour Party that had seen the referendum crystallize and exacerbate internal ideological conflicts. Third, the vote was a distinct innovation in British constitutional practice, being the first nationwide referendum in the country’s entire history.i
Forty-one years later, on June 23 2016, Britain held a second referendum on its relationship with Europe and one that impacted directly on all three of these areas, albeit in profoundly different ways. If the result of the referendum in 1975 had delivered a level of public support for the pro-Europeans that had been beyond their dreams then the result that arrived forty-one years later realized their nightmares. When all votes had been counted 51.9 percent of the electorate had voted to leave the European Union and 48.1 percent had opted to remain. Leave won the vote in the United Kingdom by 3.8 percentage votes but its lead was even more striking in England, where it extended to nearly 7 points. Leave also won the popular vote in Wales, securing 52.5 percent and only one month after the insurgent UK Independence Party (Ukip) had won its first (seven) seats on the devolved Welsh Assembly. Only in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London did the Leave vote fail to surpass 50 percent. The result sent shockwaves around the world, wiping more than three trillion dollars off the value of financial markets in only a few days and prompting Eurosceptic parties in at least seven other member states to demand similar ‘British-style’ referendums.
As in 1975, the outcome of the 2016 referendum also shed light on tensions that had long been evident within domestic party politics. In the aftermath of a defeat that had been partly engineered by the Eurosceptic tradition within his own party, David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister since 2010, promptly resigned. The act triggered a leadership election that would not only determine the next Prime Minister but also push the centre-right party –and the country- down a more overtly Eurosceptic path. The Labour Party, meanwhile, which had officially campaigned to remain in the EU, descended into turmoil as Jeremy Corbyn, its newly-elected but unpopular leader, faced immediate pressure to also resign. Labour MPs argued that Corbyn had failed to demonstrate leadership and communicate a compelling case for why Britain should remain in the EU, claims that were supported by polling data released only weeks before the referendum and which suggested that nearly one in two Labour voters were unaware that Labour was advocating a Remain position.ii Amid the new landscape the only unified parties appeared to be the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who quickly pledged to campaign at the next general election for Britain to re-join the EU, the insurgent Ukip that twenty-three years after its formation had achieved its defining goal of withdrawal from the EU, and the Scottish National Party (SNP), which argued that the result revealed the need for a second independence referendum in Scotland.
Lastly, and as reflected in the positioning of the SNP, while the 1975 vote attracted interest because of its constitutional innovation the referendum result in 2016 posed a direct and far more profound challenge to the British constitutional settlement. In the first instance the result required parliament to sustain a pro-Brexit policy that was opposed by most MPs, which as Vernon Bogdanor has observed is an event without precedent in British history.iii While it has been estimated that 421 of the 574 constituencies in England and Wales voted to leave the European Union, we calculate that only 148 MPs in England and Wales voted the same way.iv Meanwhile, that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU as England and Wales voted to Leave has not only revived calls for Scottish independence but sparked new concerns about how the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be managed.
These introductory observations underscore the need to make sense of Brexit and explain the 2016 referendum result. In this article we draw on aggregate-level data to conduct an initial exploration of the vote and identify areas that future individual-level research will want to explore in greater depth. Why did the country vote for Brexit? What was the relative importance of factors such as social class, age, immigration, and ethnic diversity? And to what extent did the pattern of support for Brexit across the country map on to past campaigns by Eurosceptic parties, such as Ukip? While attempting to shed light on the possible answers to these questions we will also reflect on what the result reveals about broader fault lines that run through contemporary British politics and society.
Brexit Britain: An overview of the results The result of the 2016 referendum revealed a society which had on the issues of EU membership and immigration become divided by social class, generation and geography. The Leave campaign, which in the final weeks focused heavily on immigration, received its strongest support in the West Midlands (59.3 per cent), a historic bastion of Eurosceptic and anti-immigration sentiment, followed by the East Midlands (58.8 per cent), the North East (58 per cent), Yorkshire and the Humber (57.7 per cent) and Eastern England (56.5 per cent). The Leave campaign attracted its weakest support in Scotland (38 per cent), London (40.1 per cent) and Northern Ireland (44.2 per cent). Leave surpassed 70 per cent of the vote in 14 local authorities, many of which had at previous elections been targeted by Ukip at local, European and general elections. In descending rank order authorities that delivered the strongest Leave vote were Boston, South Holland, Castle Point, Thurrock, Great Yarmouth, Fenland, Mansfield, Bolsover, East Lindsey and North East Lincolnshire. Leave also polled strongly in a large number of northern and often Labour-held authorities, recruiting at least 65 per cent of the vote in Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Burnley, Stoke-on-Trent, Walsall, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham, and also traditionally Labour-held areas in parts of Wales, such as Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil. At the constituency level it has been estimated that while three-quarters of Conservative-held constituencies voted to Leave the EU seven in ten Labour-held seats voted the same way.v
Such areas reveal how Leave won its strongest support in specific types of areas; communities that tend to be more economically disadvantaged than average, where average levels of education are low and the local population is heavily white. Such areas contrast very sharply with those that gave Remain its strongest support. Aside from Gibralter, where 95.9 per cent voted Remain, the vote to remain in the EU was strongest in the London authority of Lambeth, followed by Hackney, Foyle in Northern Ireland, Haringey, the City of London, Islington, Wandsworth, Camden, Edinburgh and then East Renfrewshire in Scotland, and the young and affluent city of Cambridge. Of the 50 local authorities where the Remain vote was strongest 39 were in London or Scotland.
These results point clearly toward the importance of deeper divides in British society. In this respect one useful starting point for interpreting the result is earlier research on the bases of support for Ukip and Euroscepticism in Britain. In Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin demonstrated how changes to Britain’s economic and social structure had pushed to the margins a class of ‘left behind’ voters – older, working-class, white voters, citizens with few qualifications, who live on low incomes and lack the skills that are required to adapt and prosper amid the modern, post-industrial economy.vi But this research also emphasized the importance of long-term generational change in the values that shape the outlook of voters toward a range of social and cultural issues, including but not limited to immigration, national identity and EU membership. These generational differences in values were also exacerbated by changes in party competition, including how the established parties had shifted toward a ‘liberal consensus’ on EU membership and immigration, which fueled this underlying value conflict.vii Whereas political and media elites broadly shared values that translated into support for social liberalism, multiculturalism and EU membership, left behind working-class voters and older social conservatives were united by an altogether different set of values that translated into support for a more authoritarian and nativist response.
Building on this research we will now examine the results of the 2016 referendum in more-depth, exploring whether authorities with high concentrations of ‘left behind’ groups were also more likely to vote to leave the EU. In doing so we seek to answer two questions. Do the results of Britain’s 2016 referendum suggest a hardening of the lines between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ that in earlier years had underpinned the rise of Ukip? Or has Britain’s Eurosceptic movement broadened its social appeal, making these lines of conflict between different social groups less distinctive? To examine the extent to which these factors are associated with the Leave vote we draw on local authority data from 380 out of the 382 counting regions in the United Kingdom and link this to census data from 2011 (we exclude the counting regions of Gibraltar and Northern Ireland for which we lack comparable data on some variables). Clearly, as our analysis is based on aggregate data we need to be cautious about drawing inferences about the attitudes and voting behaviour of individuals. Nonetheless, these data still provide a useful snapshot about the kinds of factors that might have influenced the overall outcome and, ultimately, led to Brexit.
We can start by considering turnout. At 72 percent the overall level of turnout was the highest recorded in a nationwide vote for many years – and was the highest since the general election of 1992. Over 33 million votes were cast across the country, making the 2016 referendum one of the largest exercises in democratic decision making that Britain has ever seen. Yet turnout was not even across the country. Throughout the campaign Remain organizers had devoted significant attention to targeting urban, more densely-populated, younger, more diverse and typically more affluent cities, including London and the university towns. However, in the shadow of the results it became clear that turnout in cities such as Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester and authorities in London such as Newham, Hackney, Lewisham, Barking and Dagenham and Camden was at least six points below the national average. Of the 50 areas that recorded the lowest turnout exactly half were in London or Scotland. The level of turnout across all authorities in London was 70 per cent, 2 points below the average. Turnout tended to be high in authorities that had also given above average support to Ukip at the 2014 European Parliament elections, such as the south eastern areas of Chiltern, East Hampshire, Horsham, Sevenoaks and Wealdon. Turnout was also noticeably high in authorities that have a large population of pensioners, such as East Dorset, the Derbyshire Dales, South Lakeland and South Hams, and where there is a large proportion of people with qualifications, such as Richmond upon Thames, St Albans, Winchester and South Cambridgeshire.
Table 1 presents the results of a multivariate analysis of turnout. Across the country turnout was higher in predominantly white areas where Ukip had polled strongly in the past and where there were large numbers of pensioners. Turnout was also higher in areas where it had also been high in the European Parliament elections (which itself may have signaled a protest vote against Europe). Overall then, high turnout might have helped the Leave vote, as turnout was generally higher in more pro-leave areas. However, we should treat these results with caution as it does not necessarily follow that it was Leave voters who were disproportionately more likely to turnout and vote. There could also have been a ‘counter-mobilization effect’ whereby Remain supporters were more likely to vote when they were motivated by the awareness that Leave was popular in their local area
Table 1 Multivariate Analysis of Turnout, linear regression