Monday, 31 October 2016

An American view of Brexit

There is an interesting sidelight on the Brexit vote in the “New York Times Review of Books”. The Brexit triumph is seen as a howl of rage on the part of the poor white working class in the old declining industrial areas, who were given the opportunity of venting their frustrations on a single target: Europe. Parallels are drawn with Donald Trump’s success in appealing to the same socio-economic groups in the so-called “rust belt” and the backwoods rural districts of America. Trump himself is aware of the parallels, and encourages his supporters by pointing out how Brexit was able to triumph, against all predictions and against the advice of almost all political and business leaders.

   None of this can be explained by traditional class-based theories. Contrast an area I know well: Stoke-on-Trent: rock-solid Labour; the home of traditional heavy industries (ceramics, coal and iron: all in decline for many years), with its own proud local traditions, and strongly Brexit; with another area I know: Richmond-on-Thames: rock-solid Tory, with some of the highest house prices in the country, and over 70% for Remain. To add to the confusion, the Stoke M.P.s backed Remain, but the Richmond M.P.backed Brexit!

The clearest divisions are in education. In America the majority of college graduates traditionally voted Republican, whereas blue-collar workers voted Democrat. This could well change: probably not many graduates are likely to support Trump, but on the other hand he could do well in a state like Pennsylvania, which is full of rust belt industrial towns (Does anyone remember Billy Joel's classic song "Allentown", about the decline of the steel industry there?). In our referendum, an overwhelming majority of people with university degrees voted for Remain, as did the inhabitants of London and the academic centres, Oxford and Cambridge.

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