Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 2 July 2019

Is Brexit a culture war or a class war?

The dynamic of today’s service based economy means that social liberalism is in part generated by class.

Imagine someone with a piece of thin card. They draw a circle with a compass and cut out the circle. Two people arrive and pick up the card. One says look, someone has cut out a circle. The other says there is no circle, its just a thin bit of card. The debate over Brexit within the Labour party is in danger of following a similar structure.

For most Labour voters and members its position should be absolutely clear. Labour should stand for openness and international cooperation. Brexit is the opposite of these things. However a minority says that many in Labour’s working class heartlands support Brexit and we should not abandon them. The first side sees a circle but is in danger of ignoring that it is made out of card, and the second side sees only a piece of card.

We need to think about politics in two dimensions rather than just one. The first dimension is the traditional left/right division that used to be the mainstay of politics. The second is the dimension of culture or identity. At one end of the cultural dimension you have social conservatives, who value local communities and the nation and are suspicious of outsiders, where being an outsider can involve sexual norms, race or religion. At the other end are social liberals, who value diversity and tolerance, and who dislike borders of most kinds.

People see in three dimensions, so the card circle is both a circle and a piece of card. Equally people care about issues in both the left/right dimension and the cultural dimension. For most people Brexit is an issue on the cultural dimension. The call for Labour to represent Remain is straight forward. Labour has for decades been on the liberal side of the cultural axis, and so they should support Remain. It is the main reason why the majority of Labour voters and members support Remain.

The response of a minority in the Labour movement is to talk about Labour’s traditions as a working class party. Examples are John Cruddas or Lisa Nandy. It is a powerful argument for Labour party members, who both respect the traditions that Labour represent and do want the party to represent the working class. It is particularly powerful because there is some guilt that the Labour party, like other parties of the left, has moved from a party of the working class to being a party of what Piketty calls the Brahmin left, and Paul Mason calls the new core of the Labour project. But this argument could be accused of seeing the card circle as a piece of card.

Of course Labour should represent the working class along the familiar left/right dimension, in terms of labour market policy, industrial policy, reducing inequality and so forth. Cultural politics in no way replaces class politics. But just because working class communities tend to be more socially conservative than professional classes does not mean we should abandon Labour’s liberal stance on issues like immigration and, of course, Brexit. Labour should represent the working classes in the economic dimension but not the social dimension.

To reinforce this point Danny Dorling points out that Leave was as much a middle class as a working class vote. Furthermore, as I noted here, once you take London out of the equation the North is now only slightly more pro-Brexit than the South, and there is as much a divide between the West and the East. Why should Labour be the party that supports middle class social conservatives?

Adding the dynamic of today’s big cities

This conceptualisation of Brexit as essentially a culture war and not a class war is powerful and contains a lot of truth. But it leaves some puzzles unresolved. The first is geographical. If Brexit is a guide to people’s position on the cultural axis, why is London along with other dynamic cities full of social liberals and the towns, depressed cities and countryside much more socially conservative? The second is about class. Again if Brexit is a measure of social conservatism, why is the working class more socially conservative than the professional class? If where we are on the culture axis reflects innate preferences, why don’t we find as many social liberals as conservatives in different regions and classes?

One possible answer may relate to the geographical and social dynamics of an advanced, service based economy, where towns and cities based around manufacturing plants are an exception rather than the rule. Suppose in countries of this kind, where the state does little to intervene (it is neoliberal), it is the cities that provide the dynamic that propels the economy forward, while cities based on old industries and rural areas are more stagnant. This does seem to be true for the UK and other advanced countries. In addition, people flow constantly between the dynamic and stagnant areas, in part because cities tend to be younger.

If this is the case, then this dynamic could play a geographic sorting role. Those who are more open, who like change and diversity will move to the city. Those who prefer continuity and community will stay, or may even move from the city to the town after a time. So over time you will find the more socially liberal tend to be in cities, and the more socially conservative tend to be in more rural areas.

In addition, those from middle class backgrounds will find it easier to gain the skills that the city needs, while those from working class backgrounds will find it harder through no fault of their own. The less the state intervenes to assist social mobility, the more this will be true. If you are middle class the more likely you are to be in environments (universities and then cities) that are diverse and therefore encourage social liberalism, while if you are working class you are more likely to get stuck in towns or stagnant post-industrial cities. This helps explain something else about Brexit: lack of education is one of the strongest predictors of support for Brexit.

I would like to add one additional dynamic here. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be familiar with multiple sources of information, and the more open you will be to different perspectives. You are more likely to value expertise because your position in the labour market depends on your own expertise. As a result, you will be less likely to be influenced by what you read in one newspaper, and more likely to seek out what experts are saying on issues like Brexit. In my view newspaper coverage, both of immigration and then of Brexit itself, were important factors behind Brexit, and may be part of the reason that Scotland voted for Remain.

This suggests two social processes. First, this economic dynamic based on growth in cities sorts those at different points of the cultural axis by geography. Second, and I think more importantly, where you are in this cultural axis may not just be the result of your genes, but may also be a result of this sorting process itself. Liberal attitudes may be encouraged by a university education and working in dynamic, diverse cities.

In a dynamic environment where there are plenty of opportunities, diversity seems like a natural consequence of that dynamism. Indeed it may even be seen to contribute to the dynamism, which in fact it does. And of course a university education often gives you a skill set that defines your class position. In contrast, if you live in areas that are economically stagnant you are more likely to see things in terms of a zero-sum, us and them mindset. If immigrants arrive, or you fear they might arrive, you naturally think that they must take away something you already have. These are all tendencies of course. There are plenty in the cities who see little benefit from their dynamism, and plenty in the countryside who are much wealthier. There are Leave voters in dynamic cities and Remain voters in the countryside.

Power and Populism

There is one additional point about this segregation between dynamic cities and more stagnant towns. Political power generally resides in dynamic cities, and this leads to a perception at least that the political elite acts only in the interest of the cities. As a new and fascinating paper by Will Wilkinson argues for the US, this economic divide that both sorts for and encourages certain social attitudes among those in cities can cause resentment and alienation in the rest of the country to a degree that can create the conditions for populism to flourish.

Trump’s support, like support for Brexit, comes from rural America or areas of industrial decline, while most in dynamic cities view this type of populism with incredulity. Population sorting, where power and growing wealth lie in cities where the governing elite rule, leads to self-reinforcing resentment against the elite from those who live elsewhere. That resentment can manifest as simply protest, as happened with the gilet jaunes in France, or it can be captured by politicians or policies that pretend to attack the elite.

Where does that leave our original two dimensional conception where most of the Brexit action takes place on the socially conservative to liberal axis? We can now add two key caveats. First, while a position on this axis is often portrayed as reflecting innate characteristics, it may also be in part a consequence of economic forces and class. Second, support for Brexit may in part reflect some basic economic forces to do with the geography of economic dynamism in predominantly service economies.

Does this mean those arguing that Labour should support Brexit because the working classes are more likely to support it are right? Of course not. Brexit, like Trump, will do nothing to help the working class, and Labour should never become a socially conservative party. Indeed Brexit will do precious little to help any of those that voted for it: it is an utterly stupid policy. But equally seeing this as a culture war that the progressive side have to win is much too simplistic. The roots of our current populism are based on an economic dynamic where growth occurs in large cities, and an economic system that does not spread enough dynamism, knowledge, wealth or power to the rest of the country.


  1. I stand for openness and comment approval. Pluralist democracy is being DAMAGED by this failure.

  2. If this is just about ppl in suburban and rural areas feeling left out because cities are dynamic, then why do they not notice that explicitly and say they want their areas to have more power? Why would it take the form of anti-immigration views? Are they stupid? I really think this is a poor explanation.

    As for the comments section, c'mon. I suggest you are avoiding approving them because reading them gives you a headache. But few of them can actually be rude or spam and take long to weed out.

  3. Thank you. Balanced. Additional geography lessons here:

    I think loyalty is left out of discussion. I'm struck how rural life & the country-not-town consciousness makes fellow travellers out of people with very different incomes.

    Loyalty might not measurable but I'm sure it's real. It could be parlayed here as an aspect of social cohesion wh everyone has an interest in.

    Anyway, these are good topics for discussion. It's excellent the political consequences of what's been squeamishly called "regional imbalances" are getting a proper airing.

    I think the Gilet Jaune thing is perhaps more complicated than "simply protest". They've a plausible critique of the political class's infatuation with tech which sounds reasonable to me

  4. For decades, children from this small, Leave voting West Country Market town have divided,on leaving school, between those who go onto further or higher education, and then to jobs in Bristol, London or further afield, and those who remain, driving tractors, working intermitantly in shops or tourism.

    Conversations about brexit and other matters would support your thesis

  5. If Europe was the social democratic paradise the Libdems and other Neo-Liberals on the right of politics pretend it is, then there might be a plausible argument ignoring the referendum, which in itself is undemocratic.

    But for those willing do the research know, Europe is Neo-Liberal corporate state and the majority of people in this country see no relevance in it, 63% of the electorate didn't even bother to vote in it.

    There are those that blindly follow the argument that irrespective of that fact, we should stay in it to reform it, forgetting that Janis Varoufakis, whom I have a great deal of respect for has already tried that and failed.

    Neo-Liberals persist in chasing rainbows and want the rest of us to follow, unfortunately for them some of us weren't born yesterday.

  6. Hi Simon,

    Can you do a post on why you do not support banning all bank lending except capital development and offer 0% overdrafts for capital development lending. To counter depressing effect of bank regulation introduce Job Guarantee auto stabiliser as stimulus and use automatic stabilisers to replace interest rates. Why can't we abolish the MPC as interest paid is corporate welfare.

  7. “Those who prefer continuity and community will stay, or may even move from the city to the town after a time. So over time you will find the more socially liberal tend to be in cities, and the more socially conservative tend to be in more rural areas.”

    Or it could be that people leave the city because they can’t afford the cost of housing and that tends to make them socially conservative, particularly if they see immigrant populations taking over the neighbourhood where they spent their childhood.

  8. “Brexit, like Trump, will do nothing to help the working class.”

    In both the UK and the US, workers with the lowest incomes have been seeing the highest percentage gains in earnings.

    1. Please provide credible evidence with this claim.

    2. I would have loved to have given the appropriate links in my post, unfortunately our host has difficulties with embedded links and has banned them. I am surprised you haven’t been able to look up the information for yourself.

      The Office of National Statistics reports that “Earnings growth was highest in 2018 in the lowest paid occupations”. If you type this phrase in your search engine you should get an appropriate link.

      For the US data, you could search for an article in the New York Times entitled “Why Wages Are Finally Rising, 10 Years After the Recession”. It says for example, “The recent gains are going to those who need it most. Over the past year, low-wage workers have experienced the fastest pay increases, a shift from earlier in the recovery, when wage growth was concentrated at the top.”


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