Brexit Voters: NOT the Left Behind

Eric Kaufmann

The Leave campaign’s stunning upset has barely sunk in and already the pundits are flogging a familiar storyline. Those ‘left behind’ in the hard-luck provinces have punched privileged, corporate London in the nose.

The facts tell a different story: culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters. This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education and even party. A nice way to show this is to examine the relationship between so-called ‘authoritarianism’ questions such as whether children should obey or the death penalty is appropriate, and support for the EU. The British Election Study’s internet panel survey of 2015-16 asked a sample of over 24,000 individuals about their views on these matters and whether they would vote to leave the EU. The graph below, restricted to White British respondents, shows almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor. By contrast, the probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.

A similar pattern holds in the British Values Survey for the strongly worded question probing respondents’ desire to see those who commit sex crimes ‘publicly whipped, or worse.’ Political psychologists show a close relationship between feeling fearful of change, desiring certainty, and calling for harsh penalties for criminals and discipline for children. These are people who want a more stable, ordered world. By contrast, those who seek change and novelty are willing to embrace immigration and the EU.


Precisely the same relationship – based on values rather than class – characterises support for Donald Trump. “I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism,” wrote Matthew MacWilliams back in January.

This doesn’t mean age, education, class and gender don’t count. But they largely matter because they affect people’s level of authoritarianism. Genes, strict parenting and straitened circumstances contribute to people’s aversion to difference, which gets wired into their personality. For Karen Stenner, this makes authoritarians resistant to exhortations to embrace diversity. Younger, wealthier and better educated people, and women, are a bit less oriented toward order and intolerance. But education is not the reason. A recent study in Switzerland showed that liberal-minded kids select into university – their liberalism was apparent as early as age 13. University itself had no liberalising effect on attitudes.

As large-scale migration challenges the demographic sway of white majorities, the gap between whites who embrace change and those who resist it is emerging as the key political cleavage across the west. Compared to this cultural chasm, material differences between haves and have nots, managers and workers, are much less important. From Trump to Hofer, Le Pen to Farage, the authoritarian-libertarian axis is taking over politics.

Where does this leave Britain? The country has emerged from a bruising battle in which those fearing change lined up to Leave while folk comfortable with difference plumped for Remain. However, the two lines don’t perfectly overlap. Boris Johnson, Douglas Carswell and other Vote Leave leaders are libertarian or even globalist in instinct. As negotiations move forward, this freedom-oriented leadership will be inclined to cut deals with Europe on migration in order to secure Britain’s access to the European market. While this ‘soft Brexit’ pose will irritate the authoritarian majority among Leavers, Johnson’s credibility as the man who led Britain out gives him the latitude to make compromises. The history of right-wing populism from the southern US to Northern Ireland is one of populist leaders riding their base to power but rapidly moderating once in office. Expect a fuzzy divorce, not a clean break.


  1. Tony Harms

    One of the problems with this analysis, it seems to me, is that it is Brexit that implies change and remain is, well, remain.

  2. Derek Emery

    This seems to illustrate the inherent value differences between liberals with just two moral values and conservatives with five and the strife this causes

    The same tournament is being played in the EU which has an inner core of liberals perpetually in command and an EU population where at least half have the five moral values, leading to what the liberal elite dismiss as “populism”

    See TED Talk ‘The moral roots of liberals and conservatives’
    You are born with a liberal or conservative disposition and in the US there are around 20% liberal, 37% moderate and 40% conservative. My guess is it’s similar elsewhere. This means a strongly liberal government (or central control group as in the EU) has a large percentage of people it can easily upset from liberal policies.

  3. Philip Ewan

    The “authoritarianism” seen here is perhaps not motivated by risk-aversion or resistance to change as such, but to a positive wish to put the clock back; in other words, it is reactionary, rather than small-c conservative. If it is true that this mindset and its opposite are set at the age where – whatever the educational structures – the academic and vocational paths start to diverge, that also implies that anti-intellectualism is a factor needing to be acknowledged. The divide between the generations is consistent with older people having known different times and having memories – however selective or unrelated to present circumstances – of their individual lives as easier in the past. This helps to explain the dilemma that there must be many who voted to remain in 1975, but to leave in 2016. I was then 3 weeks too young to vote, but know that those who claim to remember the European project as then limited to free trade are simply wrong.

  4. Pete

    “The graph below, restricted to White British respondents, shows almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor.” Really? Are you serious? Here’s a statistically significant difference: i’f you look at Ashcroft’s poll 0f 13,000 or so, taken after people had voted, household incomes below £20K split 62/38 for Brexit; £20K to £40K split 53/47; £40K to 60K split 42/58; and those in £60K+ households voted Leave 35 and Remain 65.

    • Eric Kaufmann


      It is a statistically significant difference, but what if we were to control for education? Would income still matter? There are plenty of poor degree holders and wealthy non-degree holders. The wealthy non-degree holder would tend to be for Brexit and the poor degree holder for Remain. The point is that education matters more than income, so income may be simply acting as an indicator of education that loses significance when you add education to the model.

      We can then go further and ask about views on capital punishment, which are linked to education, but again, when added to the picture, prove a far stronger predictor of the vote.


  5. JimR

    Also, this article seems to suggest that those most pro-Leave, and possibly anti-immigration, might be fans of sharia law. Ironic?

  6. JimR

    “Almost no statistically significant difference” – very dubious.

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