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Who won the referendum?

Brexit should be seen as a series of different responses to globalisation.

Leave stall, Doncaster. photo: Adam Ramsay 

As always, once the people have spoken, the people has to work out what they were all saying, to whom, how and why.

Consequently, there are hundreds of interpretations out there including a confusing array of numbers and charts and a lot of hostility, resentment and name-calling.

I therefore apologise for adding to the racket. But I wanted to try and describe what people were saying with their vote in terms which are general and simplified but also, I think, relatively clear and accurate terms. I also wanted to point out that of all the different constituencies or groups which shaped the outcome of the referendum there is one very important group that doesn’t get anywhere the attention it deserves.

The key to it all is that in voting in the referendum a large number of people weren’t voting on our relationship to the EU but, rather, manifesting their attitude towards – and experience of – ‘globalisation’. So, to make sense of what happened you have to think about the changes to the UK economy and society that started with the liberalisation of the UK economy under Margaret Thatcher and which continued under the Blair governments as an attempt to make us at ease with cultural and financial ‘modernisation’. 

The core of such globalisation was the opening up of UK markets to more international competition through the reduction of barriers to trade and ownership and the encouragement of the movement of money, goods and people. Areas of economic activity that had been largely contained within the UK became more integrated into an international economy and sometimes subsequently dispersed across the globe. In many areas of manufacturing, for example, we don’t now make things but assemble them from parts made elsewhere and shipped here (or we make the parts and send them abroad to be assembled). So, some of our money, goods and people moved out of the UK as a result of globalisation – but other people’s money, new goods and new people moved in.

The effects of all this can be thought of – crudely – as being of two kinds: economic and cultural. The economic effects are on things like the kinds of jobs available in the UK, their pay and conditions and also levels of both absolute wealth and relative inequality. The cultural effects are on tangible things like access to cultural products (such as food but also all kinds of entertainment), intangible things like attitudes (due to our exposure to a wider range of ideas, outlooks and experiences) and, of course, on literal cultural diversity. That includes multiculturalism through immigration but not only that. By changing economic opportunities, requiring people to move away from home to find work and (allied to new technologies) making information and ideas available easily to people without their having to go anywhere, globalisation also facilitated the renewal of national and regional cultures and furthered the visibility and acceptance of, for example, diverse sexualities. 

It seems to me that a good way of understanding the politics of the UK right now is in terms of five different kinds of reaction to these cultural and economic changes.

Firstly, there are those people who like and benefit from both the cultural and economic effects. Globalisation has enabled them to open up businesses or attain well paid jobs in the new sectors (high tech, design, financial trading and so on). It has increased their wealth and also provided them with great things to spend their money on: good restaurants in London and in the parts of Cornwall where they holiday at Easter; foreign travel; the Polish builders doing the attic conversion. Most of these people voted Remain. 

Secondly, there are people who like and benefit from the cultural effects of globalisation but not the economic ones. These are people who are in favour of and like the diversity and cultural variety of globalisation – perhaps because they are just those kinds of people or because they grew up with it and it’s just normal. But they don’t like the economic benefits. Maybe they have values (to do with equality, rights or the environment say) which conflict with the sharper ends of global competition. Possibly they are young and the current economy is kicking them in the teeth. They may be people who have been able to benefit from economic and social mobility but who come from and are still attached to places which have suffered from globalisation. Despite their economic anxieties – but perhaps reluctantly – most of these people voted for Remain.

Thirdly, there are people who like or benefit from the economic effects of globalisation but not the cultural effects. These may be people who benefited early on from the UK’s globalisation – in the Thatcher years – made some money on the stock market, ran a successful business, made the most of new opportunities for social mobility. But they are not at ease with the liberalisation of our social attitudes or the increased diversity of our culture. That may be because – again – they are just those kinds of people. Or it may be that they are older and have carried with them values and outlooks from when they were younger. But it may also – and importantly – be because these changes make it harder for them to operate economically: they developed skills in one economic era which aren’t so effective in a fully networked, online and international context. Perhaps they don’t like the way diversity puts burdens on their worklife in the form of regulations around disability access, harassment, health and safety. Most of these people voted Leave.

Fourthly, there are those people who don’t like and have not benefited from either the cultural or economic effects of globalisation. These are people whose livelihood was shrunk or destroyed by the initial destruction of older industries (coal and fishing for instance) and who did not benefit from the shift to the so-called creative or knowledge industries so beloved of Blairism. The cultural benefits of globalisation are few if you haven’t the money to spend on them. If you are attached to your local or regional culture then you might experience the global outlook of the metropolis as directly or indirectly evidence of its disinterest for or disdain of you, and of where and how you live (especially if the metropolis is trying in various ways to change how you eat and enjoy yourself). And if you are in the lowest paid kind of work then, unlike everyone else, you may well be in competition for wages with some migrant workers. Most of these people voted Leave.  

Age, geographical, location, skills level and attitude will all contribute to which of these groups someone is most likely to fall into. The referendum campaigns did what political campaigns do and sought to make people more conscious of which group they were in, to give shape to their feelings and to connect it with an attitude to the EU. The Remain campaign focused on those with things to lose economically (my groups one and three) but in a style and with cultural references more suited to groups one and two. As a result it didn’t do very well with group three but failed to motivate enough of those who might be hostile to the EU for economic reasons but open to Remain on the basis of values of solidarity, diversity and cooperation. In the end it built a coalition out of successful bankers living at the top of glass towers, middle-aged hippies and younger people, perhaps the first in their family to go to university. But it didn’t get enough of the last two to really commit and go out and vote.

The Leave campaign much more clearly understood that the campaign was not really about the EU. It focused on cultural experiences and attitudes – hostility to the rules and regulations of social liberalisation, national pride and racial prejudice and wrapped an appeal to economic experiences within it: Britain would be better off economically because Britain is great; freeing ourselves of fussy and politically correct regulation would release economic energy; stopping immigration would mean there’s more money to go around. That brought together a coalition of retired rich people who think that the internet has made the world worse, those whose workplaces were forcibly closed in the 1980’s, and also racists. Add in a few people from group one rich enough to be fine whatever happens and a few from group two whose cultural/ideological hostility to the EU exceeds a concern for the economy and you have – as we have seen – a winning coalition.  

Such coalitions seem unlikely to last. But it may be that the effort to keep some of them together becomes a key feature of post-referendum politics. Conservatives will want to win all of group 3; Labour will think it can win all of group 4.

But there’s one more thing.

I said that were five kinds of response to cultural and economic globalisation. And I’ve only mentioned four.

The fifth group is those who like and benefit from both cultural and economic globalisation – but not as much as they would like. They want more of both. Some of these are people who think that the closure of industries in the 1980’s was only a start and that the movement of money, goods and people should be made easier and increased. For these people the EU is a brake on progress: it is too slow and cumbersome, reliant as it is on face-to-face meetings, consultation and consensus, rules and procedures. They see the EU as intervening far too much in the economy (regulating standards, sustaining some employment rights) and far too concerned with shaping our culture and values (all that protecting of local products and brands, forcibly bringing peoples together). They may well be strongly motivated by ideological commitment to libertarianism (the political philosophy which prioritises individuals excitingly pursuing their self-interest) and faith in the powers of new transformative technologies as well as in the few genius individual entrepreneurs who will lead us into a new kind of post-bureaucratic and post-state society. They have no strong interest in the cultural effects of globalisation and may see the EU as hindering the free movement of peoples; they believe that movement should be freely determined by economic demand rather than the kinds of old-fashioned rights which enable EU citizens to go anywhere in the EU. They want to be able to choose people – perhaps on a ‘points-based system’ – who will most benefit the economy: superstars of the future – unhindered by ‘backwards’ cultural tradition and able to innovate and drive forward a new economy; cheap labour which – free from EU regulations – can be brought into work hard on construction projects and then sent packing afterwards.

People with these kinds of views voted Leave. Some of them ran the campaign. This is – in varying degrees – the political and economic theory of Dominic Cummings (who ran Vote Leave), Michael Gove and Steve Hilton (Cameron’s former advisor). There is an argument out there that Leave didn’t really want to win. Don’t believe it. These men wanted to win – but not because they want to spend 350million a week on the NHS or to stop all immigration. They want to weaken the forces that prevent them from shaping the future as they imagine it must be: the sentimental Left, the statist EU, the traditional Conservative party. As they look at the chaos in Labour (turning in on itself again) and prepare to put their puppet in Downing Street they must, surely, think this a victory beyond all measure.

About the author

Alan Finlayson is Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia. His research is particularly concerned with the theory and practice of democratic politics, the study of political ideologies and also with political rhetoric. As part of a project supported by The Leverhulme Trust he has developed the website www.britishpoliticalspeech.org and is working to promote the theory, analysis and improved practice of political speech, oratory and argument in the UK.

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