Thursday, 3 May 2018

Brexit: identity counts more than economics

Niall McCrae

A widely reported pattern in the referendum that decided that Britain would leave the EU was the yawning gap between young and old, with educational level and socio-economic status also important factors. Students are more likely to be pro-EU because a high proportion are young, relatively well-educated and middle-class.  Indeed, in a Brexit survey reported in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Advanced Nursing, 80.5% voted Remain. 

The survey was a joint undertaking: me, a Leave voter concerned with sovereignty, and Professor Jonathan Portes, a leading economist who is sceptical about the economic benefits of Brexit. As well as our different disciplines, our disparate perspectives enhanced the partnership and hopefully dispels any suspicion of bias either way. We wanted to explore attitudes and motives for students’ views on the EU, the referendum verdict and prospects for Britain. Our 19-item Attitudes for Brexit Questionnaire was tested on the current population of pre-registration nursing and midwifery students at King’s College London.

Analysing the data from 162 respondents, we were struck by the prominence of values in the forming of opinion. Part of the instrument asked respondents to give three words that symbolised the EU and Brexit to them. For the EU, economic benefits were a long way behind terms that expressed virtue, such as ’tolerance’ and ‘inclusiveness’ (the smaller number of negatives included ‘controlling’ and ‘undemocratic’).  Similarly, the economy was scarcely mentioned in words symbolising Brexit.  Against a minority offering positives such as ‘independence’, the majority chose terms that were highly critical of Leave voters: ‘xenophobia’, ‘divisive’, ‘backwardness’ and ‘stupidity’.

A serious schism has emerged in British society. Older, socially conservative people value nationhood and cannot understand the younger generations’ attraction to what they see as a foreign bureaucracy. Younger people think of themselves as global citizens, and find the idea of English or white British identity excluding. Such a divide was conceptualised in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. The ‘Anywheres’ (up to a quarter of population) dominate our culture and much of the political establishment, as well as universities, the public sector and most professions. They are doing well in life, tending to live in metropolitan, multicultural areas.  When I mentioned prime minister Theresa May’s disdain for ‘citizens of nowhere’ in a lecture, a student responded: ‘No, we’re citizens of everywhere’. The ‘Somewheres’ are more numerous (about half of the population) and are more rooted in provincial or cultural identity (which may include communities black or Asian ethnicity, who normally vote for Labour but are not necessarily Europhile). They may not be rich financially, but have strong community bonds, enjoying the simpler things in life such as the local pub. 

It is a remarkable phenomenon that identity politics is so prevalent in the student and graduate ranks, while one major aspect of identity is disparaged. Nationhood is potentially the most inclusive of all, yet it is seen by many of our respondents as problematic if not racist. For the rift in society to heal, Remainers must stop seeing Leavers as xenophobes, and Leavers must desist from calling Remainers ‘traitors’.  In our sample, derogatory comments were almost entirely from Remain voters; the minority of Brexit supporters did not express doubts about the morality or intelligence of those favouring EU membership. 

The four-to-one majority for Remain is not inherently a problem, although it differs markedly from the national referendum result. However, group-think on major topics can have the effect of quelling debate in university, leaving assumptions unchallenged. Brexit is quite evidently divisive, but many of our respondents associated all Leave voters with racism, rather than reserving such assertions for campaigners who overtly expressed hostility to uncontrolled immigration. This is itself a divisive stance against compatriots (including, perhaps unwittingly, a fifth of their peers). Somehow society should facilitate discussion on complexities such as Britishness, eschewing simplistic dichotomies of right and wrong thinking. Extremists, by definition, do not represent the many.

The referendum has signalled the danger of failing to nurture a positive national identity (arguably, our education system and cultural influences do the opposite). People don’t want a jingoistic imperialist revival, but an inclusive sense of belonging and opportunity. The EU is a well-intended enterprise, but the nation state has a long pedigree as the means to preserve liberty, rights and welfare. The National Health Service, for example – far from perfect, but a demonstration of what a democratic country can achieve with the will of the people.   Although my co-author would argue that this depends on economic security…

Niall McCrae
King's College London, UK

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