It’s rare to spot a eurosceptic around Clapham Junction station. The area is brimming with young people who, while not enamoured with the EU, think that it is working OK. And their lives are comfortable enough that the perceived risks of leaving hold no appeal. Clapham, the clichéd destination of choice for well-heeled graduates, is among the most pro-EU places in the entire UK.
In all these ways Battersea, the parliamentary seat that Clapham Junction is in, is the antithesis of Clacton. This deprived seaside town on the Essex coast was infamously described by Matthew Parris as “a friendly resort trying not to die, inhabited by friendly people trying not to die”. While Battersea is ranked 626th in England, Scotland and Wales in terms of euroscepticism, according to a study by the academics Chris Hanretty, Nick Vivyan and Ben Lauderdale, Clacton is the most Eurosceptic of the lot, and is the only constituency with a Ukip MP. “Many residents feel that the country they know and love is fast disappearing,” says Jeff Bray, a Ukip councillor in the area. Looking out from Clacton pier, many see a future they do not like.
This contrast is between one of the youngest and most ethnically diverse seats in Britain, and one of the oldest and palest. In Battersea, the majority of voters are under 35; in Clacton, 52 per cent are over 55. The electorate here is crustier and a lot less diverse: 95 per cent in Clacton are white British, compared to only 55 per cent in Battersea. Prospects of self-improvement are far bleaker: while the Sutton Trust ranks Battersea the 26th best constituency in England for social mobility, Clacton is ranked 454th, out of 533. Little wonder there is such a sense of alienation here. “Clearly the immigration issue is important, but it is so much more than that,” Bray says. “Most struggle to understand why we are told to be tolerant of other cultures, yet we are expected to all but relinquish our own.”
In essence, the conflict between Battersea and Clacton is between those who have benefited from globalisation and free movement and those who believe they have not. “It reflects, and is one aspect of, the growing divides over identity, diversity, immigration and social change which are becoming an ever more important part of politics,” says Rob Ford, an expert on euroscepticism.
On the pro-European side are those in urban areas, with high proportion of graduates, middle-class professionals and ethnic minorities – just like Battersea. In the Brexit camp are rural and coastal areas, like Clacton, filled by mostly white voters who are older and have fewer qualifications: an extension of the “left behind” group identified as being Ukip’s core support.
Among ethnic minorities, younger and better-educated voters there are resounding majorities for staying in the EU. Ethnic minorities back staying in by a 32 per cent margin, compared to white Brits who favour in by 10 per cent, according to research from the British Election Study. All voters under 25 favour staying in by 36 per cent while those over 65 support leaving by 26 per cent, YouGov has found. Remaining in has a 39 per cent lead among university graduates, but leaving is favoured by the same margin among those whose highest qualification is at GCSE level.
Similar divisions – which Jeremy Cliffe has termed the cosmopolitan-communitarian divide – are detectable elsewhere: 64 per cent of those in the ten least ethnically diverse wards think immigration should be reduced, but just 44 per cent of those in the ten most ethnically diverse wards think it should be, Ipsos Mori found in 2013.
These are huge schisms, and in the long-term eurosceptics are on the wrong side of them. Britain is becoming better educated and the proportion of the non-white population is increasing. And although the country is ageing, the surge in graduates mean it is subtly becoming more pro-European. Over the next 40 years the proportion of graduates will increase to 40 per cent, from around 20 per cent today; James Tilley from Oxford University estimates that, other factors being equal, this will result in support for leaving the EU decreasing by four per cent.
So another referendum on Britain’s EU membership in a generation’s time would be much harder for Brexiters to win than next Thursday’s vote. Whatever happens in the referendum, Britain is slowly becoming less like Clacton and more like Clapham.