Brexit, class, ethnic diversity and fear of the ‘other’

By Savi Hensman
June 24, 2016

The UK has voted to leave the European Union. Brexit campaigners won 52 per cent of the votes in a referendum, against 48 per cent for Remain. Some are pleased, others – including many migrants and immigrants – are anxious about the future.

Some will portray this as a victory for ordinary citizens over an elite. Yet some of the most deprived areas strongly backed staying in the EU, while some of the most prosperous backed an exit.

And a section of the UK ruling class will stay in charge after David Cameron steps down as Prime Minister. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, also educated at Eton College, is tipped by many to succeed him. What is more, businesses are likely to have even fewer constraints on how they treat staff and customers.

Ethnic diversity and integration perhaps had more impact, along with regional factors. In some cities where high numbers of people are from overseas, or have close relatives or friends who are, three-fifths of voters wanted to stay in the EU.

Overall, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London wanted to Remain. But a sizeable majority in most English regions (especially the West and East Midlands) voted Leave while in Wales the result was similar to the overall average.

In the 2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) for England, Manchester was ranked as the most deprived local authority on the ‘extent’ summary measure of deprivation. It was followed by Liverpool, Tower Hamlets, Knowsley and Middlesbrough. These all were also among the seven districts with the highest proportion of residents in income-deprived households.

In Manchester, 60 per cent of voters backed Remain, with 58 per cent in Liverpool, 67.5 per cent in Tower Hamlets, but 48 per cent in Knowsley and 34.5 per cent in Middlesbrough.

With regard to the least deprived districts, those ranked 302 by this measure, and also 300 or above by rank of average score (another measure), include Rushcliffe, Rutland, South Northamptonshire, South Cambridgeshire, St Albans, Uttlesford, Hart, South Bucks, West Oxfordshire and Wokingham.

Sixty-three per cent in St Albans and 58 per cent in Rushcliffe voted Remain, compared to 46 per cent in South Northamptonshire.

The results cut across obvious socio-economic class divisions.

This is not to say that all who voted Leave did so for reasons of (often unconscious) xenophobia or racism, by any means. There is indeed a democratic deficit in the EU and some Brexit supporters believe the UK should favour other international ties.

And many who backed Brexit almost certainly did so mainy out of wider disaffection with the economy and government.

But sections of the Leave campaign did tap into anti-‘foreign’ sentiment. This included a notorious UK Independence Party poster reported to police for allegedly inciting racial hatred.

In the course of an often heated campaign, an alleged right-wing extremist was charged with killing a pro-EU and strongly internationalist MP. After Jo Cox, who represented Batley and Spens, was stabbed and shot to death, many were shocked into questioning the change of political climate. Yet in the end, support for Brexit rose again.

After years of stagnant or falling pay for many, while by and large the rich got richer, the economic crisis of 2008 left many deeply insecure. The rise of ‘austerity’, with reduction in security and protection for workers and cuts in public services, deepened the widespread sense of uncertainty and relative powerlessness.

Against this background, the arrival of newcomers – and ongoing presence of longstanding ethnic minorities – could be portrayed as a strain on scarce resources. Earlier, people claiming benefits has been scapegoated as, somehow, a drain on hardworking ‘strivers’ and elements of this continue.

In some ways it is easier to focus one’s fears and frustrations on those who can be identified as ‘other’, noticeably different, rather than social and economic forces. Sections of the media have done much to stir up fear and hostility.

Yet negativity towards outsiders can also have a strong emotional appeal. In some areas this was more than counterbalanced by close personal and work-related contact or notions of solidarity across communities, as well as self-interest.

Making sense of, and responding to, the referendum results may include support for those immediately affected – EU citizens in the UK; UK citizens elsewhere in the EU; families living across borders, especially in Ireland; black and minority people facing hostility and those at risk of losing jobs or access to public services largely staffed by EU personnel.

However there are also wider issues to address for those seeking a more just and inclusive UK, including understanding the complexities of the result.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016):

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.