Liberalism after Brexit
The politics of anger
Liberalism after Brexit
The triumph of the Brexit campaign is a warning to the liberal international order
MANY Brexiteers built their campaign on optimism. Outside the European Union, Britain would be free to open up to the world. But what secured their victory was anger.
"Across Western democracies, from the America of Donald Trump to the France of Marine Le Pen, large numbers of people are enraged"
Anger stirred up a winning turnout in the depressed, down-at-heel cities of England. Anger at immigration, globalisation, social liberalism and even feminism, polling shows, translated into a vote to reject the EU. As if victory were a licence to spread hatred, anger has since lashed Britain’s streets with an outburst of racist abuse.
Across Western democracies, from the America of Donald Trump to the France of Marine Le Pen, large numbers of people are enraged. If they cannot find a voice within the mainstream, they will make themselves heard from without. Unless they believe that the global order works to their benefit, Brexit risks becoming just the start of an unravelling of globalisation and the prosperity it has created.
The rest of history
Today’s crisis in liberalism—in the free-market, British sense—was born in 1989, out of the ashes of the Soviet Union. At the time the thinker Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, the moment when no ideology was left to challenge democracy, markets and global co-operation as a way of organising society. It was liberalism’s greatest triumph, but it also engendered a narrow, technocratic politics obsessed by process. In the ensuing quarter-century the majority has prospered, but plenty of voters feel as if they have been left behind.
Even when globalisation has been hugely beneficial, policymakers have not done enough to help the losers
Their anger is justified. Proponents of globalisation, including this newspaper, must acknowledge that technocrats have made mistakes and ordinary people paid the price. The move to a flawed European currency, a technocratic scheme par excellence, led to stagnation and unemployment and is driving Europe apart. Elaborate financial instruments bamboozled regulators, crashed the world economy and ended up with taxpayer-funded bail-outs of banks, and later on, budget cuts.
Even when globalisation has been hugely beneficial, policymakers have not done enough to help the losers. Trade with China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and brought immense gains for Western consumers. But many factory workers who have lost their jobs have been unable to find a decently paid replacement.
Rather than spread the benefits of globalisation, politicians have focused elsewhere. The left moved on to arguments about culture—race, greenery, human rights and sexual politics. The right preached meritocratic self-advancement, but failed to win everyone the chance to partake in it. Proud industrial communities that look to family and nation suffered alienation and decay. Mendacious campaigning mirrored by partisan media amplified the sense of betrayal.
"Brexit shows that when people feel they do not control their lives or share in the fruits of globalisation, they strike out"
Less obviously, the intellectual underpinnings of liberalism have been neglected. When Mr Trump called for protectionism this week, urging Americans to “take back control”, he was both parroting the Brexiteers and exploiting how almost no politician has been willing to make the full-throated case for trade liberalisation as a boost to prosperity rather than a cost or a concession. Liberalism depends on a belief in progress but, for many voters, progress is what happens to other people. While American GDP per person grew by 14% in 2001-15, median wages grew by only 2%. Liberals believe in the benefits of pooling sovereignty for the common good. But, as Brexit shows, when people feel they do not control their lives or share in the fruits of globalisation, they strike out. The distant, baffling, overbearing EU makes an irresistible target.
Back to the future
Now that history has stormed back with a vengeance, liberalism needs to fight its ground all over again. Part of the task is to find the language to make a principled, enlightened case and to take on people like Ms Le Pen and Mr Trump. The flow of goods, ideas, capital and people is essential for prosperity. The power of a hectoring, bullying, discriminatory state is a threat to human happiness. The virtues of tolerance and compromise are conditions for people to realise their full potential.
Liberals need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates into rising wages
Just as important is the need for policies to ensure the diffusion of prosperity. The argument for helping those mired in deprivation is strong. But a culture of compensation turns angry people into resentful objects of state charity. Hence, liberals also need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates into rising wages. That means a relentless focus on dismantling privilege by battling special interests, exposing incumbent companies to competition and breaking down restrictive practices. Most of all, the West needs an education system that works for everyone, of whatever social background and whatever age.
The fight for liberalism is at its most fraught with immigration. Given that most governments manage who comes to work and live in their country, the EU’s total freedom of movement is an anomaly. Just as global trade rules allow countries to counter surges of goods, so there is a case for rules to cope with surges in people. But it would be illiberal and self-defeating to give in to the idea that immigration is merely something to tolerate. Sooner than curb numbers, governments should first invest in schools, hospitals and housing. In Britain new migrants from the EU contribute more to the exchequer than they take out. Without them, industries such as care homes and the building trade would be short of labour. Without their ideas and their energy, Britain would be much the poorer.
"Never take history for granted. Never let up. For liberals today, that must be the rallying cry"
Liberalism has been challenged before. At the end of the 19th century, liberals embraced a broader role for the state, realising that political and economic freedoms are diminished if basic human needs are unmet. In the 1970s liberals concluded that the embrace of the state had become smothering and oppressive. That rekindled an interest in markets.
When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, amid the triumph of Soviet collapse, an aide slipped Mr Fukuyama’s essay on history into her papers. The next morning she declared herself unimpressed. Never take history for granted, she said. Never let up. For liberals today that must be the rallying cry.
Britain after the referendum
Has the vote changed Britain?
Britain after the referendum
A more tolerant, open Britain has emerged in the past 40 years. Will it survive Brexit?
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GROWING up a British, and specifically an English person, is bound to have some effect on one’s personality. Just supporting the national sports team induces a sense of perpetual disappointment, as the recent loss to Iceland has illustrated. There is a trait of self-deprecation, which Americans sometimes struggle to understand, and which masks a (probably unjustified) pride in our national sense of humour.
"The use of English and the country's geographical position haws made Britain a natural base for international business and finance"
History also plays its part. Britons have benefited from a global version of the QWERTY syndrome; our ancestors defeated the French in the battle for European control of North America. Not only did this establish English as the global language, but the natural alliance with America helped Britain win two world wars. The use of English and the country’s geographical position has made Britain a natural base for international business and finance. By being on the “right side” of those wars, English people grow up with a fairly benign view of their role in history and are shocked to find that the Irish (let alone the Scots) and citizens of the countries we invaded have a much more jaundiced impression. In a sense, then, modern Britons were “born on third base and think they hit a triple.”
Just 40 years ago, Britain was a mess
It was not always thus. Just 40 years ago, Britain was a mess. As a teenager I recall doing homework by candlelight in the power cuts of 1972, the three-day week, endless strikes and a widespread sense that Britain was ungovernable. It was a shabby, dirty country; when my mum hung out the washing in Peterborough, the soot from the brick chimneys made it dirty again. There was widespread racism; “Paki-bashing” was a favourite sport of teenage boys. In the late 1970s, more people were leaving Britain than immigrating;London’s population fell by a quarter between 1939 and the early 1990s.
Slowly but surely, Britain changed. Was it the EU? Was it Margaret Thatcher’s reforms? Was it North Sea oil (another lucky break)? Whatever the reason, Britain became more confident, more vibrant, more multicultural. To return to the trivial subject of sport, in the 1972 Olympics Britain won just four gold medals, three of which came in the “posh” disciplines of sailing and horse riding. In 2012, we won 29, with the magnificent Mo Farah, a Somali immigrant as a child, taking two to the adoration of a packed London stadium. In football, a black England player was once a news item; now they make up half the team on a regular basis.
"Britain has had rather more success, post-2008, in driving down its unemployment rate"
The British economy was no longer the “sick man of Europe”, especially in the run-up to 2008. Yes, there was too much debt and too big a bet on financial services; but these were not the only areas where Britain was doing well. The car industry has been revived under foreign ownership; aerospace remains important, as does pharmaceuticals; and Hollywoodcalls on Britain’s creative and technical expertise. The sense of national decline had gone; people flocked to live and work in London as one of the world’s great cities.
Not everybody, of course, welcomed these changes. And I understand that it is easier for a middle-class Briton to feel more secure about it than for someone on the minimum wage. Workers in the developed world felt that the benefits of globalisation were passing them by. Still, Britain has had rather more success, post-2008, in driving down its unemployment rate than France, Spain or Italy.
It also felt like there was a cultural change towards greater tolerance; British football supporters are nowadays horrified by the racism they hear expressed towards their players in eastern Europe. The British National Party imploded in the face of a lack of voter support.
"The referendum campaign seems to have awakened some "rough beast" within the British public"
Now in the space of a week, there is a sense that all that has changed. The referendum campaign seems to have awakened some “rough beast” within the British public; never mind a halt to immigration, some people think existing immigrants are about to be forced out. There are widespread reports of racist incidents and attacks.
Yes, of course, the 17m people who voted Leave did so for a wide variety of reasons, from sovereignty through to the hope that more money would be spent on the NHS. The Leave campaign was always an odd coalition between slightly eccentric back-bench Tories (who were also climate-change sceptics) and UKIP’s nativist instincts. Part of the reason for the post-referendum chaos is that there was no coherent plan for what a post-Brexit Britain would look like. But it is not clear that there is an electoral majority for the "Singapore of Europe" model that Michael Gove seems to support; Boris Johnson has quickly retreated from his assertion that the result was not about immigration.
To this lifelong resident, the country looks more like the Britain I remember from the 1970s and less the kind of country that I can feel proud about. And that matters because my children may soon lose the right to live and work in the rest of the EU, an insurance policy against nastiness at home. And if I feel that way, how many more talented, more mobile people, who came to Britain because it seemed like an open tolerant place, might decide to leave?
A tragic split
How to minimise the damage of a senseless, self-inflicted blow
A tragic split
How to minimise the damage of Britain’s senseless, self-inflicted blow
HOW quickly the unthinkable became the irreversible. A year ago few people imagined that the legions of Britons who love to whinge about the European Union—silly regulations, bloated budgets and pompous bureaucrats—would actually vote to leave the club of countries that buy nearly half of Britain’s exports. Yet, by the early hours of June 24th, it was clear that voters had ignored the warnings of economists, allies and their own government and, after more than four decades in the EU, were about to step boldly into the unknown.
The tumbling of the pound to a 30-year low is a taste of what is to come
The tumbling of the pound to 30-year lows offered a taste of what is to come. As confidence plunges, Britain may well dip into recession. A permanently less vibrant economy means fewer jobs, lower tax receipts and, eventually, extra austerity. The result will also shake a fragile world economy. Scots, most of whom voted to Remain, may now be keener to break free of the United Kingdom, as they nearly did in 2014. Across the Channel, Eurosceptics such as the French National Front will see Britain’s flounce-out as encouragement. The EU, an institution that has helped keep the peace in Europe for half a century, has suffered a grievous blow.
Managing the aftermath, which saw the country split by age, class and geography, will need political dexterity in the short run; in the long run it may require a redrawing of traditional political battle-lines and even subnational boundaries. There will be a long period of harmful uncertainty. Nobody knows when Britain will leave the EU or on what terms. But amid Brexiteers’ jubilation and Remain’s recriminations, two questions stand out: what does the vote mean for Britain and Europe? And what comes next?
Brexit: the small print
The vote to Leave amounts to an outpouring of fury against the “establishment”. Everyone from Barack Obama to the heads of NATO and the IMF urged Britons to embrace the EU. Their entreaties were spurned by voters who rejected not just their arguments but the value of “experts” in general. Large chunks of the British electorate that have borne the brunt of public-spending cuts and have failed to share in Britain’s prosperity are now in thrall to an angry populism.
"Immigration has risen up the list of voters' concerns"
Britons offered many reasons for rejecting the EU, from the democratic deficit in Brussels to the weakness of the euro-zone economies. But the deal-breaking feature of EU membership for Britain seemed to be the free movement of people. As the number of new arrivals has grown, immigration has risen up the list of voters’ concerns.
Accordingly, the Leave side promised supporters both a thriving economy and control over immigration. But Britons cannot have that outcome just by voting for it. If they want access to the EU’s single market and to enjoy the wealth it brings, they will have to accept free movement of people. If Britain rejects free movement, it will have to pay the price of being excluded from the single market. The country must pick between curbing migration and maximising wealth.
David Cameron is not the man to make that choice. Having recklessly called the referendum and led a failed campaign, he has shown catastrophic misjudgment and cannot credibly negotiate Britain’s departure. That should now fall to a new prime minister.
We believe that he or she should opt for a Norwegian-style deal that gives full access to the world’s biggest single market, but maintains the principle of the free movement of people. The reason is that this would maximise prosperity. And the supposed cost—migration—is actually beneficial, as Leave campaigners themselves have said. European migrants are net contributors to public finances, so they more than pay their way for their use of health and education services. Without migrants from the EU, schools, hospitals and industries such as farming and the building trade would be short of labour.
The hard task will be telling Britons who voted to Leave that the free having and eating of cake is not an option. The new prime minister will face accusations of selling out—for the simple reason that he or she will indeed have to break a promise, whether over migration or the economy. That is why voters must confirm any deal, preferably in a general election rather than another referendum. This may be easier to win than seems possible today. While a deal is being done, the economy will suffer and immigration will fall of its own accord.
The high-priesthood in Brussels has lost touch with ordinary citizens
Brexit is also a grave blow for the EU. The high-priesthood in Brussels has lost touch with ordinary citizens—and not just in Britain. A recent survey for Pew Research found that in France, a founder member and long a strong supporter, only 38% of people still hold a favourable view of the EU, six points lower than in Britain. In none of the countries the survey looked at was there much support for transferring powers to Brussels.
Each country feels resentment in its own way. In Italy and Greece, where the economies are weak, they fume over German-imposed austerity. In France the EU is accused of being “ultra-liberal” (even as Britons condemn it for tying them up in red tape). In eastern Europe traditional nationalists blame the EU for imposing cosmopolitan values like gay marriage.
Although the EU needs to deal with popular anger, the remedy lies in boosting growth. Completing the single market in, say, digital services and capital markets would create jobs and prosperity. The euro zone needs stronger underpinnings, starting with a proper banking union. Acting on age-old talk of returning powers, including labour-market regulation, to national governments would show that the EU is not bent on acquiring power no matter what.
"It would be bad for everyone if Great Britain shrivelled into Little England"
This newspaper sees much to lament in this vote—and a danger that Britain will become more closed, more isolated and less dynamic. It would be bad for everyone if Great Britain shrivelled into Little England and be worse still if this led to Little Europe. The leaders of Leave counter with the promise to unleash a vibrant, outward-looking 21st-century economy. We doubt that Brexit will achieve this, but nothing would make us happier than to be proved wrong.
Back of the queue
America's Brexit headache
Barack Obama is right
Britain could lead Europe if it wanted to. From economist.com, April 22nd
BY INSTINCT Americans cheer declarations of independence, especially when those going it alone claim to be throwing off the shackles of foreign tyranny. A certain note of piquant irony may intrude when the revolutionaries hail from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But no matter: liberty is liberty, and conservative Americans in particular have reacted warmly to the news of the Brexit vote, praising what they hail as an act of understandable pluck, inspired by a familiar concern for national sovereignty.
"One Scot on Twitter referred to the presumptive presidential nominee as a 'clueless numpty'"
Figures from several different wings of the American Right have claimed to recognise their specific brand of politics in the vote to leave the European Union. Donald Trump, a man always quick to detect his decisive influence on events, clattered from the skies in a helicopter to visit a Scottish golf course that he has been tarting up on June 24th, and informed the people of Scotland, Britain, America and the world that the referendum result of the night before echoed and vindicated his philosophy of rejecting “rule by the global elite”. “The British people had voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy,” he said in a statement, adding: “I hope America is watching.” Scots being a hard-to-please bunch, Mr Trump was greeted with a certain amount of online churlishness, as citizens of Scotland pointed out on social media that they had mostly voted to Remain (one Scot on Twitter referred to the presumptive presidential nominee as a “clueless numpty“).
Paul Ryan, who as Speaker of the House of Representatives is the most senior elected Republican in America, listened to the cries of “freedom” from 17m Britons and heard an echo of his brand of conservative politics, saying that Americans “clearly understand the thinking” that values sovereignty, self-determination and limited government (Mr Ryan’s list of valued thinking also praised “governing by consensus”, which arguably better describes the Union out of which Britain is now stomping).
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a strict constitutional conservative who came second in his party’s 2016 presidential primary with a platform heavy on law-and-order and demands to secure America’s borders, heard in Brexit a “wake-up call for internationalist bureaucrats from Brussels to Washington, DC” and urged America to learn from the referendum and “attend to the issues of security, immigration and economic autonomy that drove this historic vote.”
There was a coded warning as the statement moved smartly on to the importance of America's relationship with the EU
The welcome was detectably more tepid on the Democratic side, with President Barack Obama saying in a statement that America respected the British decision, that the special relationship was “enduring” and British membership of NATO remains a “vital cornerstone” of American foreign, security and economic policy. But for readers of tea leaves, there was a coded warning as the statement moved smartly on to the importance of America’s relationship with the European Union, before finally calling the EU and Britain both “indispensable” partners.
Congressional Democrats were cooler still. Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Minority Whip, essentially scolded Brexit voters, saying: “This act of self-inflicted instability was fueled, in no small part, by the anti-immigrant, isolationist populism we’re seeing on the rise throughout the world and even here at home.”
American reactions always matter to the British. But transatlantic views of Brexit are especially important for Thatcherite Conservative members of the Leave camp, who made a series of bold promises about how the British would be welcomed into the embrace of an Anglo-Saxon alliance of countries that speak English, take their democratic cues from the Magna Carta, their views of free trade from Adam Smith and would generally rush to offer an attractive free trade agreement to the post-EU Britain in the twinkling of an eye.
"Mr Obama noted that Brexiteers had been busy writing cheques on America's bank account"
These romantic nation-state liberals—figures such as Boris Johnson, the tousle-headed, American-born former mayor of London, his Tory colleague Michael Gove and numerous pundits and columnists—were duly incensed when Mr Obama visited Britain in April and noted, to paraphrase the president, that Brexiteers had been busy writing cheques on America’s bank account, and that British voters might like to ask how exactly those promises were to be cashed.
While it is fair to say that at some point down the line there might be a British-American trade agreement, Mr Obama said, his country was focused for the moment on passing deals with large blocks, notably the EU, so that Britain would be “at the back of the queue”.
The Brexiteers’ response was noisy scorn, as they hastened to assure voters that they knew better than Mr Obama about America’s self-interest, or that he was simply lying at the suggestion of his friend David Cameron. There was a special mini-conspiracy theory about the president’s use of the British word “queue”, rather than the American “back of the line”. Press commentators and politicians thundered, to the accompaniment of Lilliputian toots of self-regard, that the American leader was clearly reading from a London-drafted script.
Boris Johnson wrote a column for the Sun tabloid, accusing Mr Obama of breathtaking hypocrisy for suggesting that British voters should accept a pooling of their national sovereignty in the EU of a sort that Americans would never tolerate. He noted that a bust of Winston Churchill had been moved from the Oval Office by Mr Obama when he took office, adding—with Trumpian deflection—that “some said” (though not Mr Johnson, obviously) that this was a snub by a “part-Kenyan” president with an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
Dominic Raab, a Tory justice minister campaigning for Leave, declared his belief that Britons would not be “blackmailed by anyone, let alone a lame duck US president on his way out.” Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, asserted that Mr Obama did not understand the difference between the EU and NATO, that he would be out of office soon after a Brexit vote and that “trade deals are of course in both countries’ interest.”
So will those Brexiteers’ cheques now be swiftly and easily cashed? The question is somewhat similar to the larger question of Britain’s future trade relations with the EU. The great claim by Brexiteers is that because Britain buys more from Europe than vice versa, economic rationality means that a future British government will easily secure a deal that avoids almost all barriers to trade while at the same time allowing British firms to avoid costly and onerous EU regulations and permits British labour markets to be sealed to EU workers at will. If some Europeans have the bad manners to cut up rough, Brexiteers assert, then big boys such as the German car-makers will soon step in and impose order, as they wish to carry on selling BMWs and Volkswagens to British motorists.
This claim suffers from a couple of problems, starting with relative scale. To simplify and exaggerate, your blogger buys more from Safeways than Safeways buys from him, and yet does not set terms and prices in that trading relationship. Britain is a hefty country by European standards, to be sure, but some 45% of its exports go to the rest of Europe, while about 7% of other EU countries’ total exports are bought by Britain.
Brexiteers are never happier than when thundering about their country's own proud sovereignty
The larger problem is politics. Brexiteers are never happier than when thundering about their own country’s proud sovereignty, their desire to see British interests put first, and the noble willingness of a democratic people to resist bullying by experts and big businessmen and other bullies when their dignity and democratic rights are at stake.
But here is the hitch. Those same Brexiteers are startlingly incurious about what foreigners think and feel, and disdainfully sure that they either love Britain enough to do as requested (cf the cheques written on America’s account) or will submit to bullying by big boys (cf those predictions that BMW will tell Europeans what to do).
The double-standards are striking. Brexiteers take their own political sensitivities exceedingly seriously, but fail to remember that America and other EU nations are democracies, too, with governments that have to answer to their own angry, populist electorates.
To focus on America, it is possible to think that removing all remaining trade barriers with Britain is a splendid idea, and to believe—as Mr Obama suggested—that asking for a new bilateral trade deal now shows quite shockingly bad timing. If Brexiteers think that this is just a problem of having a Democrat in the White House, let them answer these questions. Do they think that a newly-elected President Trump would be willing to put a hold on building a wall with Mexico and slapping tariffs on China to spend political capital and energy on a new pact promoting free trade with Britain? If Mr Ryan is still Speaker in January or Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is still Republican leader in the Senate, do they imagine that their hearts would soar at being asked, as a first order of business, to get a free trade pact through the next Congress? And if Democrats are in charge in Congress, do Brexiteers think it would be any different?
In their navel-gazing parochialism, Brexiteers seem not to have considered that the same populist forces sweeping them to victory in their EU referendum are also sweeping every other Western democracy. It is possible to be a tea-drinking, Downton Abbey-watching senator and not have any desire to offend voters back home by doing Britain a favour on trade. All politics is domestic. Brexiteers are supposed to know that.
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Britain's European divide
Britain’s great European divide is really about education and class
A tale of two cities
Britain’s great European divide is really about education and class
BEING a Eurosceptic in a university city is a lonely business. In the drizzle outside the Cambridge Union a student in a roll-neck is trying to hand anti-EU leaflets to the cliques hurrying past. Most ignore him. One, having taken a folded piece of card, glances at it and sighs “nah”, shoving it back into the campaigner’s hand. Inside, in the neo-Gothic chamber, pro-EU luminaries ply their arguments to cheers. When Richard Tice, an anti-EU campaigner, delivers his speech students bob up and down, machine-gunning him rebarbative questions. Did regulation not exist before Britain joined the union? Why do so many firms support membership? If Britain doesn’t control its borders why do foreign students struggle to get visas?
"A recent debate among residents produced an even more overwhelming pro-EU vote: about 300 to six"
When Mr Tice quotes “the highly respected economist, Tim Congdon” (a notorious Eurosceptic) the chamber resounds to laughter and sarcastic applause.
This attitude is not limited to Cambridge’s student population. A recent debate among residents produced an even more overwhelming pro-EU vote: about 300 to six, reports Julian Huppert, a former local MP. The city’s exceptionalism is borne out by a ranking, produced by Chris Hanretty and other political scientists using polling and demographic data, of parliamentary seats in England, Scotland and Wales by their level of Euroscepticism. Cambridge came 619th of 632 with an estimated Out vote of merely 27%. Compare that with Peterborough, a similarly sized city at the other end of Cambridgeshire. At a public debate there locals voted decisively in favour of Brexit. “I asked rhetorically what the audience would put at risk to leave the EU,” recalls Mr Huppert. “They shouted back: ‘Everything’.” Sure enough, it came 49th on the ranking, with a projected 62% voting Out
"I asked rhetorically what the audience would put at risk to leave the EU...They shouted back: 'Everything'"
Which is curious and especially relevant today (as The Economist went to press David Cameron was in Brussels, hoping to finalise his EU renegotiation ahead of an in-out referendum). Cambridge and Peterborough are in the same part of the country. Both are about an hour by train from cosmopolitan London, are growing fast, have younger-than-average populations and mostly white-collar workforces. Both benefit from EU funds. And according to the census in 2011 they have a near-identical share of residents born in other EU countries—around one in ten. Yet one is a bastion of Europhilia, the other of Euroscepticism.
The walk outwards from both cities’ centres adumbrates the difference. In Cambridge the route cuts through Victorian terraces housing academics, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves glimpsed through bay windows. It skirts the city’s airport, where a near-daily flight from Gothenburg ferries in AstraZeneca executives. And it ends in a belt of commercial labs and high-tech business parks. In Peterborough, the stroll takes in new middle-class suburbs serving the city’s booming retail and logistics industries, streets where betting shops, pubs and hair salons mingle with Polish delis and supermarkets and finally vegetable fields (often worked by eastern European migrants) stretching out into the flat, big-skied fenland. Thus just as Cambridge bears the hallmarks of an economy in which one in two has gone to university, Peterborough is visibly a city of school-leavers.
When it comes to the EU, this difference is everything. Education levels are “an extremely strong predictor” of an individual’s views on the subject, stresses Robert Ford, an expert on public opinion: the more qualifications someone has, the more pro-European he or she is likely to be. According to polls by YouGov, those educated only to 16 oppose EU membership by 57% to 43%, but among graduates it is 38% to 62%. When education is controlled for, other factors affecting an individual’s views on Europe—like income, choice of newspaper and even age—diminish.
"The more qualifications someone has, the more pro-European he or she is likely to be"
What is it about those five years of study between 16 and 21? The answer has two parts. First, the self-interested one. “Having a degree is increasingly a prerequisite of getting on in life,” observes Mr Ford, adding: “Both sides are aware that there is a drawbridge called university and that those who don’t get across it are disadvantaged.” In other words, the mighty churn of global economic integration, of which the EU is both cause and symptom, disproportionately benefits the well educated and can leave those in unskilled jobs feeling left behind.
Anyone who expresses "intense concern" about immigration is 15 times more likely to back Brexit
The second, cultural driver mostly concerns immigration. Whereas many in Cambridge see incomers as highly educated Germans and Swedes bringing their expertise to research projects, startups and product-development meetings, in Peterborough they are Lithuanian potato-pickers who, if not competing with locals for unskilled work, are at least nipping at their heels. Anyone who expresses “intense concern” about immigration is 15 times more likely to back Brexit, notes Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist. This spills into questions of identity. People without higher education are more likely to call themselves English than British; the former label—much stronger in Peterborough than Cambridge—functions as a badge of perceived exclusion.
In the long term, this bodes well for pro-Europeans. University attendance has exploded, which suggests that Britain will become more internationalist and comfortable with EU co-operation. Yet in the meantime it seems the country will be increasingly polarised: liberal, Cambridge-like places on the one side; nationalist, Peterborough-like ones on the other and an ever-shrinking middle ground between the two, as the population bifurcates into those whose skills make them globally competitive and those who must compete with robots and the mass workforces of the emerging economies. Democracy—especially in a system as centralised and majoritarian as that of Britain—assumes some common premises and experiences, a foundation that thanks to the great educational-cultural divide is now at risk. Eventually Britain will look more like Cambridge than it does today. But until then decades of division and mutual alienation await.
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