IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Brexit driven by cultural values and national identity more than social class

16 February 2021

Brexit was not driven by social class but by cultural values and national identity, according to new research by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and Stockholm University.

EU flag and Union Jack flag

The researchers found that social class, a measure of people’s long-term economic security, prospects and interests, does not predict Leave support, once social status is included in the model. Rather, the decision to vote Remain or Leave in the UK’s EU Referendum in 2016 appears to be down to people's worldview: whether they take a more cosmopolitan or a relatively insular view of Britain's place in Europe.

The analyses confirm previous research that people who were older were more likely to vote Leave in the EU Referendum, as were those with lower educational attainment. People with a university degree were more likely to vote Remain.

The paper also suggests that people in relative poverty or those living in regions that have seen greater Chinese import penetration are slightly more likely to support Brexit. However, Leave-support goes far beyond these groups.

Individuals professing stronger British identity, when considered on its own, are more supportive of Leave. But when British identity is juxtaposed with national identities (e.g., English and Scottish), those who claim to be British only are less pro-Leave than those who see themselves as English only or British and English. Furthermore, people with a more diverse cultural consumption were more likely to support Remain.

By examining regional areas in England, the researchers found that differences within English regions in Brexit support are quite small. Once the immigration level in local areas is taken into account, support for Remain is higher in some English regions than in London, such as the North East and the North West.

The research team also found that the impact of immigration on Leave-support is quite subtle. People living in areas where there is a concentration of immigrants are actually less pro-Leave.

Lead author Professor Tak Wing Chan said: “There is a narrative that people in relative poverty voted for Brexit as a revolt and that social class predicts leave support. But Leave-support goes far beyond these groups. Indeed, quite a lot of people in comfortable circumstances or living in leafy neighbourhoods support Leave. Many of them do so because they subscribe to a more nationalistic view of Britain's place in Europe.

“Of course, such a worldview is itself shaped by social and political processes. It remains a challenge to understand the appeal of this outlook to a large section of the British public. But it would be misleading to pin the Brexit vote outcome on the left-behinds alone.

“Our study considers economic and cultural factors as separate proximate correlates of Brexit support in our paper. It is quite possible that they interact with each other if we take a longer view. For example, long-term economic decline might make nationalism or populism more appealing to people. We plan to address this question in a future paper.”



Image from Dave Kellam via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)