The cosmopolitan-communitarian divide explains Britain’s EU split

The cosmopolitan-communitarian divide explains Britain’s EU split


PUBLISHED by YouGov yesterday, the above map caught my eye. Using a 80,000-strong panel of voters, the pollsters have ranked 188 of the 206 local authority areas in England, Scotland and Wales by their propensity to vote for Brexit at the referendum on June 23rd. The result neatly illustrates the argument of my recent column on the demographics of the Europe vote. Once you have noticed the markedly pro-European leaning of Scotland and Wales (the product of left-leaning political traditions and a different national self-image to that of England), the next most striking thing is Britain’s class-educational split. The Europhiles are most concentrated in those prosperous cities and university towns (Bristol, Manchester, London, Oxford) with populations dominated by highly educated professionals. The most Eurosceptic areas are often “left behind” ones (the Thames Estuary, declining coal mining areas and seaside towns) where qualifications are poorer and work less skilled.

As such, the map caveats one of the Out campaigns’ doughtiest arguments: that voters are fed up with the union because of immigration. To be sure, the subject is extremely salient. As I report in the column, voters “intensely concerned” about it are 15 times more likely to vote for Brexit. But its effect on the nation’s political outlook is also complicated. Note that the most Europhile areas include places with lots of experience of immigration (Lambeth, Southampton) and fairly little (the Scottish Highlands, the Wirral). The most Eurosceptic places are similarly varied: from relatively monocultural Cumbria and Somerset to Lincolnshire and Peterborough with their many eastern European newcomers.

All of which belies the notion that Euroscepticism is merely a protest about the burden placed on public services and labour markets by European immigrants, who pay into and take out of the state (though do more of the former than the latter) in (pro-EU) Brent and Sheffield just as they do in (anti-EU) Lincoln and the Fens. What seems to matter more is the economic and cultural environment into which they move. In places used to heterogeneous populations (say, Leicester) and/or inhabited by liberal-minded university graduates (say, Newcastle) and/or prosperous enough that residents do not feel threatened by cheap, if often relatively unskilled, newcomers (say, York) the immigration-Euroscepticism transmission belt seems broken, or at least less effective than in places where locals feel threatened and overlooked. It is no coincidence that London, where all three of these conditions are in place, appears to be the capital of British Europhilia.

This matters not just to the current debate on Europe, but also what happens next. If Britain votes for Brexit, or (more likely) votes to stay with a perilously narrow margin, many will fault the governments that, it is and will be said, have let in more immigrants than the country is capable of absorbing. Such arguments will be inadequate. Concerns about strained services and undermined wages are not just about those services and wages. They also express the growing gap in perceptions and culture between what I have previously (here and elsewhere) called “cosmopolitan” parts of the country and “communitarian” ones. The gulf in attitudes towards immigration and the associated divide on the EU is just a symptom of this. And the enticingly simple but quack remedy of slamming the door on the continent and its citizens is no answer. The real one—which probably involves letting the generational churn towards liberal attitudes take its effect while improving adult education and retraining programmes and better connecting left-behind parts of the country with the booming cities—will prove altogether harder work.

The full, interactive map is available on YouGov’s website.

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