Ethan Shone 12th April 2019
It’s been three years, a general election, several Brexit ministers and a number of tensely-agreed extensions since the Brexit vote and still, a few myths persist.
Namely, this idea that Brexit is a project primarily of the northern working class, and therefore that they (we) are to blame for it all. As an organisation made up almost exclusively of northern, working-class people, we find this pretty irritating.
A few things have aided in popularising this misconception. There’s a particular type of vox-pop interview that we’ve become all too familiar with, carried out countless times before, during and since the referendum. Invariably they take place in somewhere like Rochdale or Doncaster and typically feature a white, middle-aged or older man. Usually, they say something sort-of incorrect and vaguely racist as justification for their vote to leave. The most famous example is in Barnsley — which is a genuinely great place, with loads of brilliant people, as if it should need to be said — and features a man telling us that it was “all about immigration” and stopping Muslims.
These people exist; of course they do. Ignorance, racism and xenophobia are all too common all over Britain, and the north is no different. I think and hope that most people, at least by now, have worked out that these examples aren’t an accurate portrayal of the average northern Brexit voter, never mind the average northerner.
But in the minds of a certain type of Remain campaigner, racist Barry up there is the average Brexit voter. Not only that, but he’s the average working-class northerner, too.
There are, I am absolutely convinced of it, people in particularly leafy areas of London who work in PR and spend their lunchtimes asking Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter why he hasn’t stopped Brexit yet, who genuinely believe that between say, Birmingham and the Scottish Border, more or less everyone is a 58-year-old man called Ian who is angry about brown people and/or bendy bananas (stop, please, with your dreadful bendy banana banter, you dullards). “If it weren’t for those stupid northern Ians,” they sob into EU-flag handkerchiefs, “everything would be fine. :(“
The problem with this analysis is not just that it’s wildly offensive and dumb — it clearly relies on some pretty ugly and classist assumptions — but that it’s just not borne out by the facts. It’s easy to forget in this highly -polarised climate but the referendum was actually pretty close. Even in the most Remain-y regions, around four out of every 10 people voted to leave, and the same is more-or-less true in reverse.
Thought it can be difficult to say with certainty exactly who voted what in a referendum, the 2016 Brexit vote has been analysed extensively from the moment it happened, and according to basically all that research, there are some things we can say with a degree of confidence which undermine entirely this idea that it was the northerners wot done Brexit.
First off, other than London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, every region of the UK voted to leave. That’s right, all of ’em. According to Ipsos MORI’s analysis, those which did so by the highest margin were the East and West Midlands, and those that did so in the highest numbers were the South East and West. Of the five areas which registered the highest proportional Leave vote, three are on the southeast coast, and two are in Lincolnshire, which, as a Leodensian (yes, that’s someone from Leeds), I would contest is not the proper north, though that’s a battle for another day.
It’s not the case that the impact of austerity correlates with a vote to leave
Already, we can see how the prevailing narrative is flawed, but let’s go further, for the #FBPErs at the back. According to polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft, around 59% of all leave voters were middle-class, coming from the ABC1 social grades, and around 52% of all Leave voters come from the South. Bring that up at your next Clapham dinner party, Francis.
It’s also well worth remembering when attempting to paint a picture of the working class as being hegemonically Leave-voting, turnout was lowest among those in the C2DE social grades, meaning we’re less equipped to make generalisations about these groups than any others.
There’s almost certainly some merit to the idea that the crippling effect of austerity was a significant factor in certain areas’ decisions to vote Leave, but it’s not the case that the impact of austerity felt by an area correlates with a vote to leave. Recent analysis carried out by the Centre for Cities found that cit -regions — which mostly voted to remain — and the north generally have been hardest hit by austerity, suffering the largest cuts in central government funding. As you’d expect, there are areas among those hardest hit which voted to leave, like Barnsley, Doncaster and Huddersfield, but conversely, Liverpool and Newcastle appear in the top ten too, and they voted to remain.
A convenient mistruth
One factor which has aided in the longevity of this misconception is our outdated understanding of class. Too many people rely on very old-fashioned ideas and highly questionable signifiers in trying to determine class, rather than an individual’s material wealth and position within the economy. This means that the salt-of-the-earth White Van Man with a mortgage, savings in the bank, and a holiday every year is seen as being working class, while a struggling student who balances studies with two jobs is said to be part of the middle-class metropolitan elite. For a full, succinct and rather savage deconstruction of the failings of most class-focused discourse, check out Phil McDuff’s analysis.
Mostly though, this myth persists because it’s a comforting and useful thing for certain groups on both sides of the Brexit debate to believe and to tell others. It persists because we don’t particularly like complicated, nuanced answers, particularly when there are people willing to give simpler, more binary ones.
This is obviously true of hardline Brexiteers, who went to Eton and run venture capital firms, but need to present Brexit as a project of the working class in order to ascribe to it an air of legitimacy and a crucial anti-establishment flavour. They take this caricatured idea of the working class uniformly backing the hardest version of Brexit, and wield it to bat away valid criticisms of their agenda and rhetoric.
It’s easy to deal with the idea that some ill-educated louts from far away ruined everything for you, and your tribe is innocent
It’s equally true though of the ultra-liberal dinner party set, for whom it’s far easier to bemoan the ignorant, chattering masses that exist beyond the bounds of the M25, than confront the reality that we are a country truly divided on this question as well as many others, and that the divide exists, though maybe to a lesser extent, in Hampstead just as it does in Halifax. It’s easy to deal with the idea that some ill-educated louts from far away ruined everything for you, and your tribe is innocent. It’s harder to grapple with the nuances and realities, so many just don’t.
It might not sound like it at first, but what I’m actually calling for here is unity. Someone is to blame for Brexit. Whether you had high hopes for the project of Britain leaving the EU or not, what’s crystalline clear at this stage is that the whole thing’s gone to shit. One group of people is absolutely, 100%, categorically to blame, and should be punished endlessly for this seemingly endless state of malaise and chaos in which we currently reside.
It’s the Tories. It is always, always the Tories.
Ethan Shone 12th April 2019