The Brexit divide: region and identity

The Brexit divide: region and identity

The Brexit divide: region and identity

Political scientist Matthew Goodwin, co-author, along with Roger Eatwell, of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, has called Brexit a “purple” vote, i.e. neither left or right but a melding of the two spectra, though often with differing or completely opposing agendas. A long-form piece by the BBC provides perspective on Goodwin’s assertion. The main point of interest in journalist Allan Little’s exploration of regions across the UK which voted Leave is that for all of them, Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was the watershed in terms of how communities view Brexit.

Starting in the port city of Southampton, in the prosperous south of England, Little met with and interviewed people for whom Thatcher was a hero. Almost everyone was a small or medium-sized business owner, and they had started their enterprises around the time she took office. These people credited her with creating a favorable business environment, particularly in regard to deregulation and lower taxation.

Additionally, the people of the south had taken advantage of a key part of Thatcher’s policies, which she explained in 2006 for Reason’s Annual Privatization Report:

[W]e had to put the balances of the industries we wanted to sell in good order. Where redundancies had to be made because of overmanning we were determined to ensure that those who lost their jobs would receive a capital sum related to the length of their service. For the first time in their lives this put capital into their hands and each industry helped them to find other jobs or to set up businesses of their own. Thus we made clear our concern to look after those who were losing their livelihoods as well as those who were staying on.

Little explained that almost everyone he spoke to had taken the “capital sum” received and used it as business seed money. Their decision to vote Leave hinged upon their very specific dissatisfaction with EU regulations, which they saw as hurdles to business expansion and growth.

They drew pride from the fact that their region, the south in general and Southampton in particular, had transitioned from heavy manufacturing and shipping to financial services and luxury industries smoothly and without complaint. For them, their identity as capitalists and entrepreneurs was paramount, and, as Little remarked, they possessed a supreme confidence in their ability to thrive and prosper in almost any environment - though they naturally wanted to improve the one they had. Bluntly summarized, the voters of Southampton wanted more capitalism, more Thatcher-like policies, and even freer markets, and they saw the EU as an impediment to that.  

Conversely, as Little progressed northward, into the former industrial heartland of Britain, he found a drastic shift in attitudes and rationales. Starting with Stoke-on-Trent, the home of the original Wedgeworth pottery works, Little encountered people who saw Thatcher as an unmitigated disaster. When she took office, the majority of industries were government subsidized. As she wryly noted:

[S]ome industries were so thoroughly outdated that they would have cost too much money to modernize. Others such as shipbuilding had lost their markets as business had moved to the Asia Pacific. The subsidies required by our shipyards each year were equal to their entire wage bill, and we were told that we could not stop them because people would lose their jobs. Clearly we could not go on that way. Some shipyards had to be closed, others were offered for “sale.”    

It is a historical irony that Southampton, a fortress of the maritime industry which she singled out in this comment, handled the transition while regions of industries she did not target, such as pottery, coal mining, and steel, did not.

For the people of the northern regions, Thatcher’s policies represented an abandonment, even though they received the exact same deal - severance pay in an amount sufficient to form entrepreneurial capital with government policies that supported business - as the people of the southern regions. It is worth noting that this place is the land of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier with all its support for socialist, welfarist policies, and as Allan Little noted, it is a region which consistently voted socialist long before the advent of Margaret Thatcher. Where for those of the southern region the London bureaucracy was an entity to be kept small and out of the way (limited government), it was a type of father figure, one who had walked out, for those in the northern regions. Brexit for these people was an attempt to recall the capital, or the centralized government, to paternal duties via an increased welfare state. As Goodwin and Roger Eatwell demonstrated in their book, the people of the latter persuasion cast their identity in terms of them-versus-us. Who “them” is and was is somewhat unclear; Goodwin and Eatwell showed it to be determined along ethnic lines, but Little indicated that what he found was split along socio-cultural class divides.

Unlike the Leave voters of Southampton with their highly specific, and rather personal (“x regulation directly affects my business”) complaints regarding the EU, those of the industrial regions cast their decision in terms of nostalgia:

It is a theme that runs through much of the pro-Leave sentiment I [Little] heard expressed in the six towns that constitute this city at the heart of The Potteries: the belief that Britain should recapture some hard-to-define quality that it once had - but has lost.     

To paraphrase one of the interviewees, the concerns of these regions are “low wages,” Universal Credit, and dependency on food banks, fueling a rosy view of the socialist days of the 1970s, pre-Thatcher. In comparison, the southern regions made out like proverbial bandits with the ascent of Thatcher.

The fact that the difference in complaints between the two groups can be mapped according to geography only serves to emphasize the divide. It can be argued that the regional difference in prosperity and associated reasoning/identity existed long before Brexit, e.g. George Orwell openly alluded to the divide in recounting an episode where he and a London cockney salesman commiserated as fellow southerners over the general unsatisfactory mentalities and behaviors of people in the north, an anecdote that might be key to understanding the difference in response to Thatcher and her policies.

The difficulty of the “purple” of Brexit is that of the two colors, blue and red, having such different goals and solutions means only one can ultimately be satisfied. The group represented by Southampton is the embodiment of the “Singapore-on-Thames” faction, which is viewed not only with suspicion but with outright hatred and hostility by the other Leave voters. Essentially, the politicians’ dilemma is that the latter group has the numbers, but the complaints of the former are tangible, and therefore addressable. Either way, one of the two is going to feel stomped upon and disregarded. Perhaps the best lens through which to see Brexit is not as a crisis of identity and regions but as a long historical conflict between social, cultural, and economic differences, and with a geographic element, playing out under a spotlight.       

Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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