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From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?
From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?

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4 From patterns to complexity

The maps on the previous page in Figure 2 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] do not explicitly identify particular places, but the swirling pattern that is apparent in the two cartograms confirms that, in England, a majority voted Remain in London and several other big (and some not so big) cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Cambridge, Oxford, York, Exeter and Brighton. They also confirm that even as most of the suburban Home Counties of South East England (Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex) voted Remain, other parts of that supposedly prosperous region (including much of Kent and Hampshire) voted Leave. Even in London, several of the boroughs on the outer east of the city (including Barking and Dagenham) voted Leave.

In other words, to return to the summary prepared by Anthony Barnett (2017) and discussed in Section 2, it looks as if neither London nor England-without-London were quite such unified categories as he seems to imply. But, however nuanced the picture, in broad terms the outcome in England was relatively clear-cut. In the older industrial – or increasingly post-industrial – regions there was a vote to leave, in the more cosmopolitan urban areas there was a vote to remain. In some of the prosperous suburban areas around and connected into those cities, Remain votes were also high; but the traditionally conservative (and Conservative) shires tended to vote Leave.

A similar pattern of division was apparent in Wales: Cardiff voted strongly for Remain and in the older industrial regions of South Wales there was a strong Leave vote. But the Remain vote was also higher in parts of the country (such as Gwynedd and Ceredigion) where the Welsh-speaking population was greater. In Northern Ireland, the differences seem to have owed more to continuing, and deeper, divisions within the electorate – although there was an overall vote for Remain in Northern Ireland, the maps, of the referendum vote, suggest this masked divisions as the largest unionist party (the Democratic Unionist Party) campaigned for Brexit (70% of DUP voters voted Leave), while Sinn Fein was strongly Remain (86% of Sinn Fein voters voted Remain). Only in Scotland was there a Remain vote across all of the electoral and local authority areas, although there was a similar pattern of higher support for Remain in the main urban centres (Edinburgh and Glasgow both recorded Remain votes higher than the national average). Only in Moray, where just over 50% voted Remain, was the outcome relatively close.

Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of analysis and debate around the outcome of the 2016 referendum, as commentators have sought to find an explanation for it. One way of approaching these issues is to look at the characteristics of voters in the different areas. Work by political scientists such as Harold Clarke and others (2017) has stressed the extent to which Leave voters can be characterised as the ‘left behind’, while Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker (2016) distinguish between (liberal) people who live in cosmopolitan areas and (illiberal) people who live in what they characterise as backwaters. Emphasis has been placed on the extent to which those with lower levels of education were more likely to vote Leave and on the gap between older and younger voters.

Stress has also been placed on the role of immigration as a factor in influencing how people voted – and certainly that was one of the issues emphasised by those campaigning for a Leave vote. Paradoxically, perhaps, those places experiencing relatively high levels of migration tended to vote Remain, while those which bordered on them were more likely to vote Leave (not the cosmopolitan cities but the neighbouring suburban and peripheral areas). While these distinctions have some explanatory force, it is hard to escape the rather dismissive implications of the terms being used – the ‘left behind’, even the ‘white working class’, ‘poorly educated’ and ‘old people living in backwaters’ being implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) contrasted with the more dynamic, highly educated young people living in cosmopolitan areas. They also fit uneasily with voting patterns outside England and Wales.

The question posed here is, however, a rather different one – namely whether the divisions revealed by the maps in Figure 2 have anything more to tell us about the UK as a social and economic space as well as a (contested) political territory. Instead of identifying a particular set of voters as populists (or ‘left behind’), you will look at what the vote tells us about the way in which uneven development has left its mark in economic and social as well as political divisions. In other words, the task is to explore whether and to what extent the voting patterns are an expression of deeper economic and social realities, and what processes help to shape them.

It is important to recognise that a snapshot like that captured by the maps in Figure 2 fixes a particular moment in place and time. It does not necessarily tell us much about the social relations that underpin it or that have come together to construct it and bring it into being. What is captured and apparently fixed in the flat geographical surfaces of a map is the product of more complex sets of social relations and it is with those that this course is concerned.