Whenever the media seek to ‘explain’ the vote to leave the European Union last year, they invariably go to a Northern town which voted for Brexit and which, we are suitably informed, is ‘left behind’. Sometimes we are shown these towns through the gloomiest possible camera lens, just to drive home how ‘left behind’ they are.
It is a popular explanation among ex-Remainers. Take, for instance, Open Britain, the successors to Stronger In. Their website currently features a video, part of an effort to unite the country, where we are given an example of a ‘Leave’ voter and a ‘Remain’ voter. The Brexiteer says they voted ‘Leave’ because they ‘felt left behind’, while the Remainer announces that they voted ‘Remain’ because they ‘cherished the benefits Europe brought to the UK’.
The narrative is clear. Brexit supporters, we are supposed to believe, largely voted ‘Leave’ as a crude, irrational attempt to lash out against the Establishment, which presumably ‘left them behind’. Remainers, on the other hand, are supposed to have been entirely clear-eyed rational actors, whose vote is not to be questioned.
It is a convenient narrative for a political class which was so embarrassed – and upset – by the EU Referendum result. It is especially convenient for those who want to cast the EU as a poor, innocent victim, brought down by an outburst of frustration.
But it is also incredibly patronising. Vast swathes of the country, including these towns themselves, are reduced to a caricature of ‘it’s grim up North’. The motivations of 17.4 million voters are reduced to an animalistic, irrational defence mechanism, as if they’re on a level with spooked horses.
The very basis of this myth is false. Though relatively struggling Northern towns did contribute to the Brexit vote, ‘Leave’ voters were in fact a broad coalition of people from all parts of the country and all sectors of society – unsurprising, for such a large group of people.
It is true many Brexit-voting strongholds are struggling economically, relative to the rest of the country. Burnley, Hull, and Middlesbrough, all of which ranked in the top ten (out of 74) for ‘relative decline’ according to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report earlier this year, strongly voted to leave the EU.
However, many ‘Leave’ strongholds are not by any stretch of the imagination ‘left behind’. The same report put Northampton, Southend, Mansfield, Peterborough, and Crawley among the least relatively declining towns – but all voted for Brexit by margins of more than 15 percentage points.
Likewise, rural areas mostly voted to leave the EU. Four of the ten most pro-Brexit voting areas were in agriculture-heavy Lincolnshire; while Wychavon, a part of rural Worcestershire which was recently ranked Britain’s third-best place to live in a Halifax bank study, voted ‘Leave’ by a 16-percentage-point margin.
On the other side of the coin, it is worth noting there were many ‘Remain’-voting areas with high levels of relative decline, like Glasgow and Liverpool. And even London’s decisive ‘Remain’ vote cannot simply be attributed to its prosperity. Lambeth and Southwark – both areas with high rates of deprivation – returned some of the strongest ‘Remain’ votes in the country.
It is simplistic, and totally inadequate, to attribute the Referendum result to an irrational protest vote; a primal scream of the ‘left behind’. It was not really all about ‘austerity’, or ‘liberal cosmopolitanism’, or ‘nostalgia’, or ‘globalisation’. It was the product of a large and disparate group of people, united against our EU membership.
Certainly, different people had, and still have, different reasons to want this country out of the EU. Many want us to regain control over our own borders. Many want us to stop funnelling billions of pounds into the EU budget every year, much of it never to return to our shores. Many want us to be able to set our own trade policy, or to be able to save crisis-hit industries like steel.
But all of these points are fundamentally about the EU, not some other scapegoat. The same goes for the most popular reason given for voting ‘Leave’ – the simple belief that decisions about how this country is governed should be made in this country.
Most people are not prepared to compromise or sacrifice this country’s independence, at least not for anything less than a very good deal. The ‘Remain’ campaign, despite having had the Government’s firepower on its side, could not make a convincing argument that EU membership was such a great deal for us.
When seeking to ‘explain’ the Referendum result, therefore, the media should stop trying to make excuses for Brussels. Politicians should not think they can pacify the issue by trying to change something in domestic politics while trying to keep us in the EU. People across this country, in places ‘left behind’ or otherwise, voted to Get Britain Out of the EU because that’s exactly what they wanted this country to do. So let’s stop trying to pathologise ‘Leave’ voters, and press ahead with Brexit.