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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Chen

What Brexit Says about British Society

As stated by the Electoral Commission, 51.89% of the voting public decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union in the ‘Brexit’ referendum. The period leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum also saw the emergence of the UKIP party into the political mainstream, a group whose sole reason for existence was to initiate Brexit; this should tell us that Brexit was a significant issue for a great deal of the population. Furthermore, this essay argues that the Brexit vote reflects the unease that the British people, especially the white working-class, feel towards immigrants. This line of argument will be justified by examining the demographic which voted to leave as well as the possible reasons behind their decision. Such reasons include current events such as the Refugee crisis of 2011, social factors such as employment patterns and a biological explanation of their thought process.

One reason why the working class would feel so threatened by immigrants, especially low-skilled immigrants is globalisation. Globalisation has made certain industries in the UK obsolete: for example, the manufacturing industry in the UK used to make up 32% of GDP in 1970 but now it makes up only 12% of the UK’s GDP, due to other countries such as China being able to manufacture goods at a cheaper cost. As a result, whole areas of the UK which used to rely on the manufacturing industry for economic growth no longer have a source of income, causing the high unemployment and deprivation rates you see today in places such as Rotherham. If the free movement of people between the EU and the UK stopped due to Brexit, the working-class would no longer have to compete with immigrants, specifically low-skilled immigrants from poorer countries outside of the EU. Indeed, a study done by Gorodzeisky (2011) showed the working class and unemployed tend to support the restriction of immigration from poorer countries because these types of immigrants are more likely to be low-skilled workers and thus more likely to compete with working-class and unemployed native workers.

Unemployment leads to poverty and poverty can cause lower educational attainment. Sirin (2005) has linked parental socioeconomic status with student academic achievement throughout childhood and adolescence, whilst research from Hoxby and Avery (2013) suggests that even ‘equally-qualified students from lower-income families are less likely to even apply to selective colleges than are children from more privileged families.’ Meanwhile, it has also been proven that poor academic performance leads to poor socioeconomic status in the future: according to Hersch (2014) college graduates earn about twice as much as high school graduates whilst a substantial earnings premium exists for people earning a bachelor’s degree from a selective college or university. Thus, one could conclude that is it very difficult for people from working class families to find highly-paid and highly skilled jobs. The only employment available to them is low-paid and low-skilled work. Therefore, the less educated working-class people would vote for Brexit as Brexit promises them less immigration and thus less competition of those low-skilled jobs. The link between education and voting leave can also be proven by the fact that the largest educational level which voted to leave was the ‘GSCE or lower’ group, according to YouGov’s Survey Results.

On the other hand, a sizable proportion of older people voted to leave, suggesting that there is a stronger correlation between age and the propensity to vote leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Looking at YouGov’s Survey Results, the largest age group which voted to leave was the ‘65+’ age range. Outside of UKIP, Conservative supporters voted leave by an overwhelming 65% compared to remain voters. The decision to vote for Brexit is distinctly right-wing: right-wing politics distrusts big government such as the European Union and focuses on the individual over wider society. It has also been proven that ‘ageing as a psychological process entails a gradual gravitation towards parties that defend the status quo’ (Tilley et al, 2014), parties such as the Conservative Party and UKIP. With the aging population of the UK, the result of the 2016 Brexit vote could simply reflect an aging demographic rather than any hostility towards immigrants.

However, some left-wingers oppose the UK’s membership with the EU. For example, Jeremy Corbyn opposes the EU because he feels that it does not support workers enough. Moreover, the status quo Tilley refers is not UK’s membership in Brexit but the racial homogeneity of the UK. This can be justified by the fact that people considered elderly today are aged 65 and above so they must have grown up before the 1950s. Until the 1940s, Britain still had the Empire and used racism to justify their domination of places such as India and Nigeria. Since the elderly grew up in a culture which believed other races were inferior to the whites, some of the elderly of today may not feel comfortable with immigrants entering the country, especially those who are not white. As Brexit would mean foreigners are denied access to the UK, the majority of the elderly would be more inclined to vote for Brexit.

Indeed, there is a racial element to Britain’s decision to vote Brexit in 2016. Kaufmann (2017) argues that ‘dominant ethnic group members’ i.e., white people ‘assert a proprietary claim to national membership’ which makes them feel entitled to decide who should or should not enter their country. The fact that white people in Britain favour their own ethnicity can be empirically proven by Hopkins and Hainmueller (2015) who find that ‘white respondents reduce their opposition to immigrants when immigrant profiles are European rather than non-European’. This change in opposition was around 10%, which is a significant amount.

The argument that the Brexit vote was racially driven can be proven by concepts from evolutionary biology. According to Neuberg (2011), people tend to build up trust within their own groups by treating each other reciprocally and fairly in order to increase their own chances of survival. The groups our ancestors formed in the past happened to be genetically related to each other, which means that the people our ancestors trusted most happened to share similar physical attributes. People outside of their group were ‘outsiders’. Foreigners, with their different physical appearances, languages and cultures are the modern equivalent of those outsiders. Neuberg states that, ‘we tend to believe that people who are foreign to us are more likely to pose certain kinds of threats’ since they do not have ‘that same built-up investment in us or our group’. Therefore, the white British people felt negative emotions such as disgust or anger towards the racially different immigrants, which motivated them to vote Leave. Another piece of evidence which proves that the Brexit vote was driven by racism and not economic reasons is that other countries with different economic situations to the UK have seen a rise in popularity of anti-EU and anti-immigration parties. For example, unlike the UK, France does not have an underclass of manually skilled workers; however, since the Refugee crisis, the nationalist party Rassemblement National has rapidly gained popularity.

The fact that the rise of anti-immigration and anti-EU parties in Europe occurred during the Refugee Crisis demonstrates that immigration plays an important factor in the British people’s decision to vote Leave. The Refugee Crisis is influx of refugees from the Arab Spring of 2011, in which countries in the Middle East such as Syria experienced civil wars that left millions of their citizens dispossessed. The Refugee Crisis is linked to Brexit because the open borders policy of the EU allows refugees who have gained citizenship in other European countries to move to the UK and work. Therefore, the Brexit vote reflects people’s innate dislike of immigrants, a feeling that has been exacerbated by the Refugee crisis.

In my opinion, the Brexit result is a wake-up call to the government since it highlights how widespread the hostility towards immigration is in our society. This widespread hostility can cause conflict between groups, reducing the welfare of both immigrants and the native British. I believe that the remedy to British people’s hostility towards immigrants is two-fold. Firstly, the British government should protect its workers’ jobs from the effects of globalisation. It could do so by creating more jobs for low-skilled people so that the unemployed and underemployed no longer have a reason to be fearful of competition from immigrants. The effects of long-time unemployment are psychological in nature. It has been empirically proven that unemployment increases ‘anxiety and depression, leads to lower self-esteem, and produces adverse physical health consequences’, particularly when ‘efforts to locate work are met with failure over a long period of time’ (Stein et al ,1985). Thus, if the government is successful in protecting British people’s jobs, the population at large would be happier, resulting in less conflict between immigrants and the native British.

Secondly, the British government could encourage assimilation rather than multiculturalism. Kaufmann (2017) has proven that ‘drawing attention to the idea that assimilation leaves the ethnic majority unchanged significantly reduces hostility to immigration and support for Hard Brexit in the UK’. Assimilation is whereby the immigrants adopt the culture and language of the dominant group. The UK has historically championed the ‘salad bowl’ theory of immigration in which different cultures should exist and tolerate each other, which is the opposite of assimilation. Policies encouraging assimilation include making geographical locations more diverse so that immigrant communities are not concentrated in just one area. Another policy the government could make is funding extra lessons for immigrants to learn the native language.

To conclude, the 2016 Brexit vote to leave is the culmination of the anti-immigration sentiment the British people have felt since the Refugee Crisis. For some, their anti-immigration sentiment was exacerbated by their working-class socioeconomic status and the subsequent lack of opportunities to become upwardly mobile. Nevertheless, the main reason why the British feel those anti-immigration sentiments is due to their innate distrust of outsiders. In order to reduce this negative feeling towards immigrants, the government should try to assimilate the immigrants into British society through various means such as teaching them English.



  • Avery, C and Hoxby, C. (2013) ‘The Missing "One-Offs": The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students’. Spring 2013 Conference on the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, The Brookings Institution, March 8-9

  • EU referendum results, (2016) The Electoral Commission [online]. [Viewed 18 October 2018]. Available from:

  • Evans,G. and Tilley,J. (2014) ‘Ageing and generational effects on vote choice: Combining cross-sectional and panel data to estimate APC effects’ Electoral Studies, Volume 33, p19-27, doi: 10.1016/j.electstud.2013.06.007

  • Gorodzeisky,A. (2011) ‘Who are the Europeans that Europeans prefer? Economic conditions and exclusionary views toward European immigrants’ International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Volume 52, issue 1-2, p100-113, DOI: 10.1177/0020715210377158

  • Hainmueller,J. and Hopkins,D. (2014) ‘The Hidden American Immigration Consensus: A Conjoint Analysis of Attitudes toward Immigrants’ American Journal of Political Science, Volume 59, Issue 3, p 529-548, DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12138

  • Hersch,J. (2014) ‘Catching Up Is Hard to Do: Undergraduate Prestige, Elite Graduate Programs, and the Earnings Premium’ Vanderbilt Law and Economics Research Paper, Issue 14-23, DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2473238

  • Kaufmann,E. (2017) ‘Can narratives of white identity reduce opposition to immigration and support for Hard Brexit?: a survey experiment’ ‘Political Studies’ DOI: 10.1177/0032321717740489

  • Linn.M, Sandifer R. Stein,S. (1985) ‘Effects of unemployment on mental and physical health’, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 75, Issue 5, p502-506

  • Neuberg,S. (2011) ‘What Causes Prejudice against Immigrants, and How Can It Be Tamed?’, ‘Scientific American’, July 29 2011

  • Sirin,S. (2005) ‘Socioeconomic Status and Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Review of Research’ Review of Educational Research, Volume 75, Issue 3, p 417-453, DOI: 10.3102/00346543075003417

  • How Britain Voted, (2016) YouGov [online]. [Viewed 18 October 2018]. Available from:

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