The U.K. Is Divided About Much More Than Europe

The "leave" campaign, like Donald Trump, plays on deeper fears.

No looking back.

Photographer: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

When he promised a referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron was surely not picturing the white-knuckle ride his “remain” campaign is experiencing right now. What was intended as a campaign promise to get his Conservatives elected must seem in retrospect like a reckless gamble. The consequences will be felt long after the ballots have been counted.

Will Britain Leave the EU?

With 10 days before the vote, the campaign to leave the EU has closed the gap and is even leading in some polls. Bookmakers have shortened their odds for a so-called Brexit. On Tuesday, the Bank of England starts a series of special monetary measures in the hopes of keeping markets calm before the vote.

The “remain” campaign started with a handicap -- the EU, with its acronyms, arcane processes and unaccountable bureaucrats, has never been lovable to the British. But then it ran an awful race, at turns vague, technocratic and patronizing. Cameron’s interventions have done little to move the needle on the 15 percent of the public that say they are undecided. The “leave” camp pressed that advantage with Trumpian media savvy. Its side peddles untruths, but like Donald Trump, never bores or confuses.

Still, the closeness of the race cannot simply be put down to the campaigns. As with American support for Trump, there is more going on here than just a weak field.

Nor is this just about a single issue, Europe, any more than American affection for Trump is only about immigration. Cameron’s mistake wasn’t underestimating British skepticism about Europe; it was failing to recognize the deeper division across British society, for which Europe has become a powerful proxy.

QuickTake Income Inequality

The polling agency YouGov did some delving into public attitudes on Europe, surveying more than 16,000 adults toward the end of February, a time when the “remain” campaign had a 5-point lead in major polls. Broadly speaking, those who preferred Britain to remain in Europe were concentrated in high-growth, high-employment urban areas, while voters in poorer parts of the country were more inclined to favor leaving. Age was a major fault line: Voters under 30 favored remaining in Europe by a margin of 73 to 27.

A Nation Divided, I

Support for each side by age, in percentages

Source: YouGov

Education levels were another. Seventy percent of university graduates were on the “remain” side, as were 62 percent of those with professional or managerial jobs.

A Nation Divided, II

Support for each side by education, in percentages

Source: YouGov

GCSE: exams taken at age 16 A-level: exams taken at age 18

Voters also divided for and against Brexit by social class, as defined by a British classification system that looks broadly at occupation and skill level. The higher the social class (AB being the highest, DE the lowest in the chart below) the more likely to want to remain.

A Nation Divided, III

Poll results by social class, in percentages

Source: YouGov

Footnote: AB is the highest social class; DE the lowest

Both those for and against staying in Europe told pollsters by 6-to-1 margins that the economy has fundamental problems, but as YouGov President Peter Kellner noted, the crucial difference is that they disagree about the causes. The “remain” voters blamed the problems on the banks, the Conservative government and growing inequality. The “leave” voters picked different scapegoats: EU regulations, low-wage immigrant workers and the previous Labour government.

The referendum is not really about Europe, or at least, it isn’t just about Europe. It’s about austerity and inequality, opportunity and insecurity. Europe is stuck in a battle for self-definition, one that is playing out across major democracies. This is the undertow that threatens Cameron and his “remain” camp.  

Maybe because I am an American who also has a vote in the U.K. referendum, I find the parallels with the U.S. election campaigns striking. Both Trump (#MakeAmericaGreatAgain) and the Vote Leave campaign (#takebackcontrol) speak to visceral fears of change and uncertainty and the experience of loss. Both finger external scapegoats and posit that controlling immigration will enhance well-being.

In Britain, as in the U.S., that case falls apart on inspection. A study out last week from the think tank Breugel notes that net immigration has added less than half of one percent to Britain’s population between 2008 and 2014. Most foreigners arriving in Britain are between 20 and 30 years old and 76 percent of them find work, with Britain’s unemployment rate at its lowest in four decades.

What makes the forecasted “leave” vote so dramatic is that nearly every official body, national and international, has lined up the other way. Britain’s political parties (with the exception of the anti-immigrant UKIP party) and the country’s trade unions (which opposed remaining in Europe in Britain’s 1975 referendum) have backed remaining in the EU. Large businesses, small businesses and the scientific and tech communities all broadly want to remain in Europe. Former NATO chiefs, the U.S. president and other world leaders have also pleaded with Brits to stick around.

The economic argument has gone so overwhelmingly with “remain” that the “leave” camp has resigned itself to changing the subject. The OECD, the IMF, the Treasury, the London School of Economics, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and other august bodies have all produced studies saying that leaving would produce an economic shock. The pound has wobbled on the possibility, real-estate agents report a drop in property sales, and businesses are said to be putting off investment decisions.

Considering that the most recent national election, last June, was won by Conservatives almost solely on the grounds that they were more capable stewards of the economy, this sort of testimony should prove decisive. Maybe it will on June 23 -- that is still what the bookmakers say will happen -- but the fact that the polls now show such ambivalence speaks to the deeper fracture lines that YouGov identified.

These are, on the surface, winner-take-all races. An inauguration of President Hillary Clinton may make the Trump run seem a bizarre detour into the burlesque before normal politics resume. Seen from the rear-view mirror on June 24, the nail-biting, the volatility in the pound and the internecine war among Conservative politicians in Britain may also look like much ado about nothing.

But let’s set aside the result for a moment. It matters that the polls are showing Britain so divided just as it matters for the U.S. that Trump’s appeal is wider than originally thought. Whoever wins, the fissures are real, and that is the hangover that must be confronted the morning after.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Therese Raphael at

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    Jonathan Landman at

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