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2 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:32pm

Is Brexit a culture war or a class war?

By Simon Wren-Lewis

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. 

In the view of most Labour voters and members, the party’s 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 that they should not be abandoned. 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 straightforward. Labour has for decades been on the liberal side of the cultural axis, and so it 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 include MPs Jon Cruddas and Lisa Nandy. It is a powerful argument for Labour Party members, who both respect the traditions that Labour represents 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 being a party of the working class to being a party of what Thomas 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, this 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 of a divide between the west and the east. Why should Labour be the party that supports middle class social conservatives?

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, with towns, depressed cities and the 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 such as 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. By contrast, if you live in areas that are economically stagnant you are more likely to view society 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 in the case of the US, this economic divide, which 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 in which 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.

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