The Remainers’ caricature of Leave voters is wrong and shows they still fail to understand why people backed Brexit

The Remainers’ caricature of Leave voters is wrong and shows they still fail to understand why people backed Brexit

The appeal of Brexit is routinely misunderstood. Ever since the referendum in 2016, many Remainers who were used to feeling like winners have felt like losers. As a result, while some have sought to discredit the referendum others have, either deliberately or through ignorance, misrepresented Leavers and their motives.

For the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, Brexit represents a backlash among old people who were ‘driven by nostalgia’ for a world where ‘faces were white’. For many in the media, as reflected in countless vox-pops from Clacton, Boston and Stoke, it is mainly if not exclusively a backlash among the white working-class. Closely linked to these perspectives is what I call ‘The Economist Argument’; that Brexit, like populism across the West, is chiefly a by-product of angry old white men who will soon be replaced by new generations of socially liberal (and pro-Remain) graduates. It is this view that even led one analyst to calculate that if you assume that birth and death rates remain constant then Remain will have a clear majority by 2022. In short, just wait for the old people to die.

Many on the Remain side like these arguments because they assume that the ‘arc of history’ must necessarily bend toward them. Furthermore, the idea that this is simply rooted in generational change and a ‘last howl’ among old whites means that they do not really need to deal with the underlying grievances that led to Brexit. It simply becomes a waiting game.

Of course, all of this is deeply misleading. As Roger Eatwell and I show in our new book, published this week, the Leave electorate was far more diverse than many people would have you believe. You do not hear it very often but Leave was endorsed by one in three of Britain’s black and minority ethnic voters, large numbers of affluent conservatives, nearly half of 25-49-year olds, one in two women, four in ten people in London, and one in four graduates. We’ve heard much from Boston but nothing from Birmingham. We’ve heard much from retirement homes and working men’s clubs but nothing from university campuses or the cricket grounds.

The relentless focus on generational change also misses a few key points. As we show, recent work finds that all of us become 0.38 points more conservative each year of our lives. It might not sound like much but it adds up and these ‘life cycle effects’ are important. Also, even today, after two years of relentless anti-Brexit campaigns, still only 56 per cent of 18-24-year olds feel that the vote to leave the EU was the ‘wrong decision’. They certainly lean strongly toward Remain but there is no anti-Brexit revolutionary spirit in the air. It is also worth noting that a similar argument was popular during the 1950s, namely that because of the expansion of the middle-class and graduates, the Labour Party was destined to dominate elections. In reality, the next ten elections produced only three Labour majorities. The point is that social and political change does not always work out the way that many expect.

The evidence also undermines the popular notion that Leavers did not know what they were voting for. On the contrary, and as almost every study since the referendum has shown, they knew exactly what they were voting for. The two dominant motives were to return powers from the EU to the nation state and to lower the overall level of immigration into Britain. One recent study found that ‘protesting against the establishment’ was actually a distant concern. Rather than Leavers engaging in some kind of irrational protest, a popular idea in some circles, they were instead driven by clear and coherent preferences of their own; to gain independence from supranational institutions and to have greater control over their community and borders.

And Brexit was never exclusively a populist revolt. While seven in ten Leavers had at one point or another voted for the UK Independence Party, or said they would consider doing so, the vote to Leave was anchored in a far deeper (mainstream) tradition of scepticism toward European integration that can be traced back over decades. Last week, I joined Sir David Butler to celebrate his 94th birthday and he reminded me of his observation at the first referendum in 1975, namely that support for joining the European Community might have been wide but it had never been deep – ‘There was no girding of the loins for the great European adventure’.

Those who oppose Leave have become utterly obsessed about what happened during a few short months in early 2016; what was written on the side of a bus; what has happening on Twitter; and who said what during the campaign. But what people often overlook, including in today’s talk about a possible second referendum, is that public support for either leaving the EU altogether or dramatically reducing its powers had almost consistently surpassed 50 per cent since 1996. The ‘fundamentals’ favoured Leave. In fact, I told Cameron’s people as much.

One of the major miscalculations by Remainers was that they focused overwhelmingly on the alleged domestic risks of Brexit while ignoring the fact that most of those leaning toward Leave were thinking far more about the external risks that came with EU membership. Remain talked a great deal about the domestic economy but little or nothing at all about what was really occupying the minds of leaning or committed Leavers; distant institutions in Brussels; a pan-European upsurge in populism; a refugee crisis; terrorism; a sluggish Eurozone economy; fierce divides between East and West about identity issues and between North and South about economic disparities; and no clear desire to offer anything other than continued or accelerated integration. Remainers sought to make the case against Brexit rather than for the EU, largely because it was increasingly difficult to make the latter.

Today, an observer might look around the EU and conclude that little has changed. Or, they might argue that some of the concerns among British voters – about populism in the EU, divides between member states, gaping disconnects between elites and voters, and EU elites who appear dismissive of public opinion – have actually only intensified. Brexit has so far not been managed well at all, but in order for people to change their minds the counter-offer will need to become more appealing. So far, at least, there is little evidence that this has happened.