Cutting The Safety Net Pushed Britain Towards Brexit


The decision of poorer Brits to vote Leave was likely the result of a massive economic shift initiated decades earlier, writes David Tuckwell.

Perhaps the only solid fact in a campaign so characterised by lies and bullshit, is that Brexit was a “working class revolt”.

As is by now well-known, there was a strong correlation between poverty and wanting to leave. It was the poor, above all, who filed Brexit’s ranks. The rich, the middle classes and big business, by contrast, flocked to Remain.

Why this should be so, given that every study showed that workers would bear Brexit’s costs the most, poses an interesting puzzle. But while Brexit has generated a freshet of comment, few have bothered to ask the question: why did poor Britons want to leave the EU?

Comment, and there has been much of it, has tended instead to focus instead on identity issues, particularly race, region, and generation. It has argued that “Not all Outers are racist, but all racists are for Out”. That “As the only age group to overwhelmingly support Brexit, over-65s seem to have been trying to deny anyone else the investment conditions they enjoyed after 1975.” And, “little England defeated Great Britain.”

While there may be some truth to these claims, they fail to explain the class divide. (They’re also somewhat out of kilter with the survey evidence, which paints the major concern of Brexiters as sovereignty – not immigration.) But here some explanations do suggest themselves.

That the poor, unlike the rich, should be angry with Britain’s policy trajectory and its relationship with the EU very probably has something to do with the fact that rising inequality is eroding their living standards. That the poor, unlike the rich, should be so distrustful of elites is susceptible to the same explanation.

Two facts should serve to demonstrate this. First, in 1975 there was a referendum on Britain’s role in the EU, much as there was last month. Back then, however, an overwhelming majority of Britons voted to remain, including poor and working class regions of the UK (such as Cornwall, Middleborough, Blackpool). Scepticism of the EU has long been part of Britain’s political fabric. But that the working classes and poor should vote so differently in each referenda suggests something new is afoot.

The second fact concerns the way Britain has changed since 1975. This can more or less be captured in one word: neoliberalism. Once upon a time, Britain was a pioneer in social democracy. Its social contract — which promised free education, healthcare, affordable housing and jobs for life — was the envy of the world. American bosses would whinge about hiring British workers who, they believed, had a peculiar tendency to unionise. As unbelievable as it may seem today, the Scandinavian welfare model was in fact modelled on the UK’s.

Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

This all started changing, however, in the 1980s, when the free market ideology of the Thatcher-Reagan revolution began to spread its embers. In a very short space of time, Britain devolved from a world leader in weaving social safety nets to a leader in ripping them down.

Rolling back welfare was dovetailed by a fundamental reorientation of the economy.

Where the British economy was once centred on industry, and produced world-leading industrial companies like General Electric Company and Imperial Chemical Industries, it came instead to be based on finance and real estate. This meant that instead of producing cars, chemicals and corduroys, Britain produced property bubbles (a development which culminated in the 2008 financial collapse).

It also meant a geographic reorientation, as jobs and wealth shifted from working class manufacturing towns like Coventry and Sheffield down to London.

That frustration with mushrooming inequality should manifest itself in a rejection of the EU might seem bizarre and illogical. And that these two currents — neoliberalism and contempt for the EU — coincide does not prove that they are causally linked. But it doesn’t take much knowledge of history to know that angry people, in large enough numbers, will find a way to express their anger. We may be in for worse yet.