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Brexit: A tale of two visions

A woman with a painted face poses for a photograph during a 'March for Europe' demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union, in central London, on Saturday.

The referendum on British membership in the European Union, commonly known as “Brexit,” has come and gone, with the final outcome being a 52 percent to 48 percent victory for the Leave side. It is clear that British Prime Minister David Cameron badly miscalculated. What originally seemed a good idea for shoring up his base within the Conservative Party may have precipitated nothing less than acute social fracture and the breakup of the United Kingdom. It is also clear that the result caught the establishment by surprise: having voted to leave, the country’s leaders have to sort out, first, who is going to lead them out, and second, what their new relationship with the Europe will be.

What do we know of the vote itself? Briefly, British citizens who lived in urban areas, had more education, and who were younger were much more likely to vote Remain than citizens who were older, lived in smaller towns and the countryside, and were less educated. This stark contrast, based on demographic data, gives us a lot to think about.

What, exactly, did those who wanted to remain, want to remain in? The EU, of course, but specifically, they wanted to remain in the life that they had created for themselves and that they believed the EU had helped make possible. It had created the conditions for easy movement, cosmopolitan feeling, and general European solidarity. Remain voters had grown up appreciating, rather than fearing, differences. They also understood that no bureaucracy is perfect, that any system that sought to harmonize the interests of half a billion people was going to be clumsy. But they had patience.

The Leave voters were another story. They voted to leave the EU because they saw it as a way of protesting the cramped, frustrated, and disappointing conditions of their lives. Small towns and villages are more intimate settings than big cities, and the difficulties of livelihoods and standards of living are experienced there more viscerally and personally. In a town of two grocery stores, the closing of one is a sign that the economy is not on track; in a small village, the understaffed employment office proves the inefficiency of government.

The role of British mass media

Why were these very local difficulties and resentments connected to the EU? Here the role played by the British mass media in the Leave campaign was crucial. Decades-worth of stories in the tabloid press had convinced many readers that the EU was inefficient, that its bureaucrats were overpaid, that its guiding ideas were socialist, even communist, and that Britain was being slowly undermined by its membership in the EU. It didn’t matter that these articles were full of inaccuracies, cherry-picked data, and presented without context. Readers felt they were reading the work of muckraking heroes. Then there was immigration.

While pundits criticized the Remain campaign for relying too heavily on scaring voters about what would be lost if Britain left the EU, the more powerful fears were stoked by United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its leader, Nigel Farage. The infamous campaign poster showing thousands of disheveled migrants trooping through a field and that read “Breaking Point,” was without doubt a brilliant example of the advertiser’s art. No matter that the particular field on display was somewhere in the Balkans. Most important was to convey to those who lived in the British countryside an image of just what vast crowd of brownish, desperate people invading some poor farm looked like. The unmistakable message was that this countryside could be their countryside, the countryside of Devon or Shropshire or East Anglia, if they didn’t leave the EU right now.

Of course the tabloid press circulates in cities as well. But the readers in cities have more chance to check the claims of the papers against the claims of their own experience. Faint whiffs of xenophobia are more easily laughed off when you work with colleagues whose families are from the West Indies, India, and China, and who speak the King’s English; when you live in neighborhoods where everyone went to university, and where you collectively share the ecstasy and despair of the soccer or cricket league results. Cities elide and compress differences; in a small town, difference can rankle, especially if one is bombarded with hints that there is a looming threat just around the corner.

Lessons for U.S. voters

What are the lessons of Brexit for us? There is indeed a way that the structure of “leaving” and “remaining” does apply to us on the other side of the pond. Donald Trump wants to leave the way American politics has worked in the postwar era; Hillary Clinton wants to remain. Leaving requires Trump to compost, fertilize, and harvest the anger and dissatisfaction of older, less educated people, and he understands that the place to do this is in the small towns of economically depressed countrysides. Several decades of conditioning by right-wing media outlets that repeat the single message that politics as usual is just a cover for elite, immoral, and perhaps un-American interests, have helped prepare the soil. Clinton, though, has it tougher than Cameron. She has to defend the status quo while coming up with programs for its renovation and transformation.

The major difference, though, is that Americans have never belonged to any greater political body that could be a source of stability. There is only that “global union” of humanity facing a wide range of acute problems. So perhaps the fall election is indeed a referendum of a sort: Does the American public want to remain a leading player in the admittedly abstract work of confronting all those issues like global warming, wealth distribution, public health, and demographic change, that transcend national borders? Or does it want to leave, pull itself out of these networks and hunker down, the colony following the lead of the empire it once defeated?

Thomas Wolfe is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. He is affiliated faculty with the Department of Anthropology, the Institute for Global Studies, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/07/2016 - 09:38 am.

    Well written

    This is a very good post, in my opinion. I think, though, that the situation is more complicated in the US. I don’t think that there’s simply a “leave” group following Trump and a “stay” group following Clinton. There’s a “fix” group–often inaptly lumped with the “leave” group by the Press–that followed (still follow?) Sanders, who may or may not decide to go with “stay” because the “leave” camp appear poised to break things even further. Yeah, there are parallels, including the xenophobia in the “leave” group, but the group that will ultimately vote to “stay” are far more complex than those that voted to stay in Britain.

  2. Submitted by Paul Purdy on 07/07/2016 - 11:19 am.

    Thomas Wolfe article

    Best article on the subject I have read. Please help us if you can! Leaving the EU makes us poorer, more at risk and alone. A big victory for the ignorant and racists among us.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/07/2016 - 11:52 am.

    The main lesson with brexit (and Trump) is that while there is significant unhappiness with the all that comes with the modern, small, connected world, there are really no immediate, doable answers for eliminating the dissatisfaction.

    Now the big concern in England is the possible departure of Scotland, Northern Ireland, the key international financial sector, and the many international manufacturers based in England predicated on England as a member of the EU, and the worker and executive class that values the easy transit from one country to another. And notice the very quiet silence of the brexiteers who have no answers to any of these problems and hold out for the impossible idea that they can access the EU as easily as they did before. Mr. Farage had the slight wisdom to leave before the “rubber had to meet the road”. It is instructive to read the last few lines of his speech to the EU assembly, pleading for a tariff-free access to the EU:


    Why don’t we be grown up, pragmatic, sensible, realistic and let’s cut between us a sensible tariff-free deal and thereafter recognise that the United Kingdom will be your friend, that we will trade with you, cooperate with you, we will be your best friends in the world. Do that, do it sensibly, and allow us to go off and pursue our global ambitions and future.

    (end quote)

    The ability to pick and choose what you want in the modern world is severely limited.

    Trump would have the same problems when he got into office–the practical implementation of his proposals to address the dissatisfaction and their unintended consequences.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/07/2016 - 01:28 pm.

    Analysis by Omission

    While the author’s main points follow a reasonable first level outline, they certainly gloss over the deeper indentations.

    First of all, any attempt to compare Brexit with current U.S. political circumstances simply lacks sufficient correlation. So, let’s focus on Great Britain, the UK, its parts and past tensions and European relationships. This has been a very long process of brewing English Breakfast tea, if you will. To place signature emphasis on xenophobia is simply topically superficial here. England, in particular, has long been a welcoming country for very many from former British colonies and protectorates: Africa, India, Pakistan, Asia… Shared critical cultural attributes of language and traditional allegiances afforded successful blending, where skin color has never been a vital point of differentiation. Anyone who knows the demographics of greater London knows this. Very few Americans do somehow, assuming the constant tensions of Detroit, Chicago and LA prevail. They mostly don’t. Sure, some areas have had outbursts of suppressed reaction (the old Brixton Riots, for example), but these have been more about living conditions and poor government response rather than race or culture. The author completely misses this key element to the “London Remain” majority.

    So, let’s discuss what once was appropriately called “cultural anthropology.” Significant differentials exist in the heart of Great Britain– England, Scotland, Wales–going back decades and centuries in some respects.
    [I omit Northern Ireland here because it is not a significant element of the Brexit campaign.]

    Before the 1970s, and into the ’80s, Wales was a fairly isolated UK member of great cultural traditions controlled (some would say “oppressively”) by England’s coal interests, and metals to a lesser extent. Although given its own Parliament for local governance, Wales became ever more bureaucratically tied to London [think Kentucky with respect to Washington DC] Local control was limited. Wales maintained its own original language, taught in Welsh schools alongside the “Queen’s English.” Things settled down quite a bit with retention of important cultural pride. Then, as London’s Parliament became more fixated on “UK unification measures,” London proclaimed cessation of teaching Welsh, only English. I understood the deep significance of identity destruction, having spent time in Wales one Spring getting to know some of these elements of Welsh pride. After much unnecessary resentment and political posturing, London relented. Any American who believes all this was forgotten when PM David Cameron pushed a pretty vicious “Remain” campaign toward the end, simply does not understand the significance of post-WW II and more recent history. Of course the long-frustrated Welsh Labour vote came out for “Leave.”

    If we remove the Welsh language and significant cultural history with London, we should understand what happened in the English Midlands, Near North and North. Coal, the Labour Party conflicts and similar suspicion of London Parliament treatment of the old English industrial heartland (yes, Ohio and Michigan and Indiana for us) surfaced again with a vengeance to “Leave.” Although of direct Norfolk and Yorkshire heritage with original namesake coming from London to 1650 Virginia, I have no ancestral images of living at the will of various Earls and Barrons. My various English relatives certainly do. Again, for somewhat different reasons, the Labour voters north of Cambridge came out strongly for “Leave.”

    Now, for Scotland: The Scots have always been the most independent UK member, tied more closely to history than Wales or even North England. The Scottish Parliament is a strong power in Westminster, now represented by its own majority party, the SNP, which caucuses and greatly influences the Labour bench in the House of Commons. After just failing to recently win its own “Leave the UK” referendum, the SNP came out strongly for “Remain” in the EU, because Scotland needs the EU backing more than the rest of the UK in voters’ minds, anyway. Scotland’s success in these ventures hangs very firmly on future oil prices, because that’s what it has to sell to pay its bills of independence…and proposed separate EU membership. The SNP needs a spot price far above the current $47 to make that work.

    Had Scotland previously succeeded in its own “Leave UK” referendum, the EU Leave/Remain spread would have been even greater than the significant 4 points it was with Scotland included.

    Of note here, is that since the EU referendum went “Leave” by 4 points, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has been all over Brussels desperately trying to work a special deal with EU leaders to allow Scotland EU status as some odd ex parte member of the UK. She has been directly rebuffed to date, and is now proposing yet another Scot referendum to leave the UK, hoping to retain EU membership in that way. That scenario has far too many twists, turns and technicalities to discuss here.

    Yes, increased EU immigration quotas were one of several decision points for “Leave,” hardly the most significant. The various “Xenophobia” headlines in Europe and U.S. have been mostly convenient superficial media triggers. Americans should understand the UK “Leave” vote is more representative of Kentucky, West Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania than it is akin to Texas or New Mexico.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/07/2016 - 04:12 pm.

      The key to the brexit vote was the removing the ability for people from the other EU countries to freely enter into Britain.

      It wasn’t about restriction of EU goods into Britain–look at the last paragraph of Farage’s speech–even he still wants a tariff-free arrangements with the EU. Free trade has to work both ways–not just one. So erecting trade barriers was not a driver in the vote.

      Some effect on the vote may be had from the removal of EU rules and regulations, but those rule-removal voters were mostly the concern of a relatively few, almost artisanal manufacturers who did not want to conform to the rules of a larger marketplace.

      Agriculture in Britain is very dependent on subsidies from the EU so there was no pressure from the agriculture sector to leave.

      The “savings” that would come from leaving the EU are especially dubious because those costs would be readily replaced by added taxes within Britain to cover the services and structures previously covered by the EU government.

      The biggest and most effective ads in the campaign showed hordes of foreigners coming to England to go on the dole and drive down wages.

      It may surprise you, but some of the most vociferous attacks are against the people from Poland, so it’s not just the darker-skinned pepole who are now being told to go home.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/07/2016 - 05:39 pm.


        There were several long-standing issues, which I discussed, and some others regarding sovereign decision-making I did not. Perhaps your sources prefer the immigration issue, but that’s only one, as I have noted. That’s the issue that plays effectively to a special audience, especially an American audience this year.

        I didn’t bother to mention purely internal concerns like pressures on an over-burdened NHS, where junior doctors have been threatening strikes and slowdowns over low wages and work load. Some of the immigration concern goes to that, as well, as do old age pensioner concerns.

        Another point of contention has been the fairly high weekly “dues,” if you will, that London pays to Brussels. Some honestly feel that sum can be better used internally.

        As for Poles vs. “darker-skinned people,” that’s your comment, not mine. That is my only “surprise” here.

        Of immediate interest should be that Michael Gove today dropped out of the Tory contest for new PM, leaving two…both women, by the way. The current favorite appears to be Theresa May, who happened to be in the “Remain” camp, but has promised to carry out the exit expeditiously in the best interests of the UK decision to “Leave.”

        The preliminary vote: May 199, Andrea Leadsom 84, Michael Gove 46.
        The final decision comes Sept. 9, so which ever way it goes, the next British Prime Minister will be a woman.

        I must again make it clear that this is about UK/EU, not about U.S. Let’s let them get on with their mission. I’ve been following British politics for a very long time, not just for a few months of American headlines. I have never mentioned tariffs or flow of goods. Don’t know where that came from.

  5. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/11/2016 - 01:35 pm.

    New PM on July 13 (not Sept. 9)

    Andrea Leadsom just withdrew from the contest, leaving Theresa May to become new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom this Wednesday, when David Cameron will officially resign.

    The acceleration of this transfer from Cameron to May seems beneficial to all parties wishing to get on with it, including EU officials in Brussels. While Labour continues rather chaotic infighting, the Tories have settled themselves. The “New UK” government is officially born this week.

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