Thursday, January 04, 2018

Facts and figures

Commentary on the EU referendum in the press is coalescing around one narrative, let's call it the deprivation thesis. Brexit was delivered by the economically deprived and socially marginalised. It's a convenient explanation for the following reasons.

1. For leavers, it bolsters the narrative that Brexit was a revolt of the people against the elite.

2. For the Labour Party leadership, it provides cover for their Brexit policy of non-committal triangulation.

3. It excuses and obscures the racism inherent in sections of the vote.

4. It bolsters the strange argument that although Brexit is a disaster it must be carried through because of the anger and alienation overturning it would generate. For variations on this theme see here (£) and here.

There is one problem with the deprivation thesis. It isn't true. Or at least, even if there was a broad tendency towards voting leave in some deprived areas and plenty of anecdotal examples, there are so many anomalies it would be hard to see it as a sole, valid explanation.

This Twitter thread has a go at presenting the data in a way that shows the weakness of the correlation. It isn't authoritative and the author is tentative about his findings, yet it asks a good question. If the deprivation thesis is true, why did some of the most deprived constituencies of the UK vote remain and some of the more affluent ones vote leave?

The conclusion drawn is:
... it was not the North, the Left Behinds or anything like that which lost the referendum. It was the Home Counties and the prosperous agricultural districts. "Why did Aylesbury vote Leave?" should be asked a lot more than why did, say, Stoke. ... So can a journalist please travel the Home Counties looking for Leavers, please?
I agree. This refutes the first two arguments, and those who don't think that racism played a part should read this other thread too. It's the fourth that needs the most unpacking.

Leaving aside the inherent absurdity of insisting that we are compelled to hurt you because you asked us to even if you didn't think it would hurt at all, there are two elements that I find dubious. The first is that it mistakes the fact of a vote with the strength of feeling behind it. Until the referendum, the EU was a low salience issue. Outside a small band of believers, most were indifferent. Even though it's a much more salient issue now, I can't see that much change in passion. Remainers have managed to call out tens of thousands of people for mass demonstrations agains Brexit, but leavers have only been able to pull together a few dozen flag wavers at best. Where is that mass anger?

The second is pure class condescension. It is based on fear of the mob. When the referendum was held the majority of voters were rationally ignorant. There was no reason for them to learn about the complexities of an organisation that they took for granted. I was much the same. I refuse to believe that working class people are incapable of learning and understanding, especially when faced with stark alternatives.

But then again, as well as the bulk of leavers being affluent suburbanites, there is one set of statistics that is robust. There was no majority for leave amongst those under the age of forty-four. Somehow I can't see bands of elderly rioters flooding out of deepest Surrey to wreak havoc as they have been thwarted in their deep desire for blue passports and, in the latest mad campaign, the return of the crown stamp on pint beer glasses.

What matters is not fear of popular reaction, but the consequences of Brexit. Our consideration should be for the national interest in maintaining our international standing and economic strength, for the stability of a democratic Europe, and for the protection of citizens' rights and liberties that the wealthy, tax evading leaders of the Brexit campaign are itching to strip from us.

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