Brexit: An Illusion of Grandeur and the Influence of Social Exclusion

By: Cameron McKie, BA Sociology student

Brexit. Arguably the most important and divisive decision most of the UK will have faced in their lives regarding British foreign policy. The issues surrounding the Brexit vote are as diverse as they are nuanced, issues ranging from the UK’s economy, sovereignty and immigration all contributed to a multi-faceted problem that saw the UK divided as it never has been before. 

Much of the media commentary focuses on the role the working class had in the result of the referendum, but how much of the rhetoric that those who face social exclusion and decreased economic gain contributed heavily to the Leave side of the debate, and how does British nationalism play into why the result of the vote is how it is? In short, the leave/remain vote is not as simple as just the disadvantaged vs the privileged, current research would suggest that Brexit transcends much of our current social status quo and that Euro-scepticism is prevalent in all levels of British society. Using sociological evidence of social exclusion, I have the somewhat daunting task of rationalising what can be argued as the biggest vote against globalism in British history.

For me, the result of the referendum was a clear indicator that British exceptionalism was on the rise, the fervent campaigning from the Vote Leave side was focused on taking back control of our immigration laws and reinstating British sovereignty. Social commentary regarding the Leave vote currently follows two main narratives: first that the Leave vote tended to be higher in economically deprived areas, and second that cultural issues such as national identity had a large part to play in voter’s minds. This second view appears to contradict in part the view that economic status was a key indicator in the Leave demographic, as national identity is an issue that speaks to more than just the economically disadvantaged (Chan et al, 2020).

Regarding British or, more accurately English nationalism and identity, think for a moment about how you identify: do you see yourself as British? European? Both or something else? The referendum showed a clear divide among the nations that make up the United Kingdom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its position as the largest of the four nations, England contributed heavily to the final result of the referendum. It showed an overwhelming majority of English constituencies voting leave (BBC News). So, what can this tell us about national identity? Kaufmann argues that “Brexit voters … are motivated by identity, not economics.’ (2016, quoted in Chan et al, 2020). This result can be argued as showing a clear divide in how British people identify and the differences between nations in how they see themselves. Kumar posits that the Welsh and Scottish have ‘privileged their Scottish and Welsh identities over their British ones’ (Kumar, 2010, p.475) and that generally English people tend to use “English” and “British” interchangeably, despite the very different connotations these two terms have: One of being insular, regressive and conservative, with the other offering a more inclusive and accepting identity (No prizes for guessing which is which).

The seemingly more commonly held belief is that social capital had more of a sway in how voters came to their decisions in 2016. Interestingly, Gidron and Hall (2017) present the view that it is white, middle-aged men despite their inherent advantages in today’s society have been experiencing more and more social exclusion over recent years, their theory is that those who experience higher levels of status anxiety are more likely to lean towards right-wing populism and that in the case of Britain and 8 other European countries, white middle aged men are experiencing higher levels of social exclusion and lower status in their respective societies.

Despite the research referenced focusing on social status rather than class, Mckenzie notes how class struggle has been embedded into British society and that it is ‘difficult if not impossible to prise class inequality in the UK away from and out of national, local and personal politics.’ (Savage et al. 2015, quoted in Mckenzie, 2017a, p.1). So how much is true regarding the social status vs social class debate regarding the Brexit vote? While Chan et al. (2020) argue it is clear that status plays more of a role in the make-up of the Leave vote, whereas Mckenzie focuses on the more widely accepted view that the class divide is to blame. In this work, she examines why underprivileged voters who seemed to have voted for an outcome that harms their own interests. She examines the feelings of working-class Leave voters and their feelings of social exclusion: feeling ‘Left out’ reinforcing the idea of working class voters ‘not existing’ in a political narrative. (Mckenzie, 2017b)

To understand this debate, the difference between the two terms needs to be clear: Social class in this context is analysed rather succinctly by Runciman, ‘What is it that most fundamentally separates the Remainers from the Brexiteers? Class is one way to cash it out: the relatively affluent voted to remain, the relatively disadvantaged voted to leave.’(Runciman, 2016, p. 5). Regarding Social status we can refer to Gidron and Hall again who refer to Weber’s notion of social status. They argue that social status reflects ‘the level of social respect or esteem people believe is accorded them within the social order’ (Gidron and Hall, 2017). Using a Weberian approach to the class-status distinction we can condense the differences that are undoubtedly relevant when analysing the social stratification of the Brexit vote. 

Brexit is an issue that is still struggling to be understood even 5 years later, so finding an answer is unlikely. But perhaps the Brexit vote is the result of years and years of class divisions, economic neglect of vulnerable members of society and a dilemma of national identity that has re-emerged from a time that started well before Britain became part of the European Union, and came to fruition in the form of a single, generation-deciding vote on the future of Britain’s place in the world. 

Reference list:

  • BBC News (2016) EU Referendum Results. Available at: 5 January, 2021)
  • Chan et al. (2020) ‘Understanding the social and cultural bases of Brexit’, The British Journal of Sociology, 71(5), pp.830-851. DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12790
  • Gidron, N., & Hall, P. A. (2017). The politics of social status: Economic and cultural roots of populist right. British Journal of Sociology, 68, pp.57– 84.
  • Kumar, K. (2010). Negotiating English identity: Englishness, Britishness and the future of the United Kingdom. Nations and Nationalism, 16(3), pp.469– 487.
  • McKenzie, L. (2017a) ‘The class politics of prejudice: Brexit and the land of no-hope and glory’, The British Journal of Sociology, 68 (1), pp.265-280.
  • McKenzie, L. (2017b) ‘‘It’s not ideal’: reconsidering ‘anger’ and ‘apathy’ in the Brexit vote among an invisible working class’, Competition and Change, 21 (3). pp. 199-210. DOI: 10.1177/1024529417704134
  • Runciman, D. (2016). A win for “proper people”? Brexit as a rejection of the networked world. Juncture, 23(1), pp.4– 7.

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