There are two types of people: professional social scientists and amateur social scientists. To put that another way, a central problem of social science is that, unlike natural science, your objects of study have their own account of who they are and what they’re doing. The professional demographer may classify someone according to a set of categories widely recognised among experts, but unrecognisable or even offensive to the person being classified. An economist may insist that someone is maximising their welfare on the basis of a set of exogenous preferences, while that person may believe they are simply out shopping.
The social sciences have found various ways of responding to this basic challenge. Behaviourists do what they can to render people’s self-understanding irrelevant: people are enlisted in studies ‘naively’ – that is, without being made aware of an experiment’s purpose – or take part in randomised control trials, in which they aren’t told whether or not they’ve been subject to an intervention. At the other end of the methodological spectrum, ethnography involves efforts to see the world through other people’s eyes, via fieldwork and cultural interpretation, and frequently by inhabiting a community over a number of years.
Marx was no stranger to this dilemma. Co-opting Hegel’s language, he drew a distinction between people being a class ‘in themselves’, when they are seen to act in their objective material interests, and becoming a class ‘for themselves’, when they self-consciously recognise themselves as belonging to a collective. It is no good, politically speaking, for people to appear as a unified group in the eyes of the theorist, historian or expert, if they continue to view themselves as a ragbag of separate groupings and identities. When Marx and Engels wrote that ‘working men have no country,’ they were referring primarily to the proletariat ‘in itself’. The Communist Manifesto appeared in 1848, at a moment when mass political movements, including revolutionary ones, were adopting an increasingly national and nationalist self-consciousness. Regardless of how things were ‘in themselves’, many working men felt that they certainly did have a country – feelings that were deepened by the conflicts of the 20th century.
The term ‘identity politics’ has come to refer – often pejoratively – to a specific set of radical movements and demands, originating in the 1960s, which foreground ethnicity, gender and sexuality as driving injustice. When something is blamed on ‘identity politics’, by those on the right or on the left, the implication is usually that divisions are being sown or dredged up which undermine the integrity of some larger or more important class, electoral bloc or nation. But identity politics is also recognisable as a more general phenomenon, whereby people demand the right to define themselves on their own terms and refuse to be defined according to official or expert classifications. In that sense, identity politics is a feature of all genuinely democratic activity. Nobody participates in a street protest or votes for a political party purely because they possess certain objective socioeconomic traits; they do so, at least in part, because they see themselves as a person who acts in these ways and identifies with the groups concerned.
Nationalism may therefore be viewed as the original form of identity politics, preceding the radical social movements of the 1960s by more than a hundred years, and often becoming entangled with them in the context of decolonisation. Just as the identity politics of the late 20th century seized the right to define oneself (and, crucially, to decide on nomenclature) from officialdom, including the staid bureaucracies of organised labour and the welfare state, so nationalism has long offered individuals something to identify with, to feel internally, as a means of rebelling against the empty proceduralism and technocracy of the liberal state. The state can know whether or not I am legally a ‘UK citizen’, but only I can know if I feel British.
Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitland is a sweeping and rigorous demographic and attitudinal study of recent British history, which uses the 2016 EU referendum as a way of exploring the shifting sands of political identity since the Second World War. The political significance of the referendum isn’t simply a matter of its constitutional and regulatory consequences, immense though those are. It’s also that the referendum marked the eruption of a set of divisions in British society that had remained largely dormant for half a century without ever having been transposed into official or party political formations. To the bewilderment of mainstream political parties – especially Labour – and many social scientists, ‘the dividing lines of class, income and economic ideology which still structured choices between the Conservatives and Labour in 2015 played virtually no role in the referendum a year later.’ The identities ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’, which have ripped through British politics over the past five years, may not capture very much ‘in themselves’, but they matter hugely ‘for themselves’. Such is identity politics.
Sobolewska and Ford acknowledge the absence of economics from their story, but really this is a feature not a bug of the approach they take. Brexitland holds up a mirror to the nation, asking who its people consider themselves to be, and not what they produce, own or need. At the core of their analysis is a typology of three different identities, each defined by their orientation to nation and ethnicity. The first is ‘conviction liberals’, a group which sees ethnic diversity as a good in its own right, to be assertively defended. Conviction liberals are typically university-educated, and as a result their numbers have swelled steadily since the 1960s, and especially since the early 1990s. The number of school-leavers going on to university jumped suddenly from 15 per cent in 1988 to 33 per cent in 1994, and continued to rise thereafter. By the time of Theresa May’s electoral humiliation in 2017, a quarter of voters were university-educated.
The second type is ‘necessity liberals’ – that is, the members of ethnic minorities themselves. Britain’s ethnic make-up has changed significantly since the 1940s, thanks initially to some highly liberal pieces of legislation. In particular, the 1948 British Nationality Act defined British citizenship for the first time, taking in the populations of all current and formerly colonised territories. This led to a transformation of the UK’s demography: ethnic minorities accounted for close to zero per cent of the population in 1945, but more than 12 per cent by the time of the 2011 census, of which nearly half were born in Britain. In the decades following the 1948 act, which was opposed by the vast majority of Britain’s native population, there were repeated calls for the restriction of immigration, most notoriously from Enoch Powell. The Conservative Party proved more willing to meet these demands than Labour, and consequently became distrusted by ethnic minorities, for whom racism was an everyday experience. In Sobolewska and Ford’s analysis, the liberalism of ethnic minorities was born more out of self-interest and self-defence than out of education or ideology. At least on the issue of anti-racism, they became allies of ‘conviction liberals’ and tended to support Labour.
The third identity type, which has lost its position of dominance as the other two have increased in number, is ‘identity conservatives’, largely made up of white school-leavers without a university education. In 1986 nearly two thirds of under-forties in Britain fell into this category; in 2016 just a third did. As the population has become more educated and diverse since the 1970s, the average ‘identity conservative’ has grown older. While the expression of unambiguously racist views has become largely taboo since the 1980s, this group retains what Sobolewska and Ford refer to as ‘ethnocentric’ attitudes, in which British ancestry and respect for British customs and traditions are essential features of ‘really’ being British.
Sobolewska and Ford’s typology leads them to make some interesting arguments. In their account, the clash between ‘conviction liberals’ and ‘identity conservatives’ (which would play such an important role in the 2016 referendum) isn’t over the appropriate level of immigration or diversity as such, but over the definition of ‘racism’. Where ‘identity conservatives’ are largely ethnocentric and suspicious of demographic change, ‘conviction liberals’ oppose racial prejudice, and seek constantly to expand the reach of anti-racist norms. ‘Identity conservatives’ don’t view themselves as racist, and fiercely resent the implication that they are, but find the definition of ‘racism’ constantly encroaching on their way of life, thanks to the relentless agenda of ‘conviction liberals’.
This depiction of ‘conviction liberals’ surprised me. Sobolewska and Ford show persuasively that anti-racist norms have spread steadily since the 1940s and diversity has become more accepted – as measured, for instance, in acceptance of the idea of an ethnic minority in-law. It’s clear that the growing ranks of graduates have been at the forefront of this shift. But to suggest that anti-racism is at the core of these graduates’ political identities seems, on the face of it, beholden to the newspapers’ paranoia about ‘woke’ universities. It’s one thing to wince at Jim Davidson jokes from the 1970s and to be unmoved by Vera Lynn; it’s another to be possessed by the conviction to fight racism. Did those marching for a ‘People’s Vote’ identify themselves as opponents of racism? No doubt they did, if asked. But they were scarcely activists against racism – indeed, that activist agendas were largely absent was what made those huge marches so peculiar.
Drawing on the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey, Sobolewska and Ford dig a little deeper into the division between white graduates and white school-leavers. The question on which their attitudes diverged the most was whether British culture has been enriched by migration: 64 per cent of white graduates said ‘yes’, compared to just 16 per cent of white school-leavers. But there was also a striking divergence on a related question: whether or not the respondents had multiple friends born outside Britain (72 per cent to 35 per cent). Many graduates are liberal not so much by conviction as by a mixture of experience and self-interest. Perhaps they aren’t so much anti-racist as post-racist, dwelling comfortably in a world of EasyJet flights to Barcelona and obscure Ottolenghi recipe ingredients, but rarely giving much thought to racism or nationalism. It was, after all, the absence of conviction and an overemphasis on economics that would prove so fatal for the Remain campaign.
Sobolewska and Ford’s historical narrative confirms this problem. They highlight two distinct waves of anti-immigration public sentiment since the passing of the British Nationality Act. The first wave, a negative response to the influx of migration from Commonwealth countries, was met with a series of policies between 1962 and 1981 designed to restrict immigration. This was a time when ‘identity conservatives’ were in an overwhelming majority, and their views carried electoral clout. The second wave was a reaction to the increased immigration that followed the enlargement of the EU in 2004. By this time, ‘identity conservatives’ were in the minority. Free movement within the EU was neither challenged by the New Labour government nor defended especially vigorously by liberals. Liberals didn’t need to show much conviction, at least until it was too late. As Tony Blair put it in his 2005 conference speech: ‘I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.’
The forces that coalesced around the 2016 referendum had been gathering strength since 2010. David Cameron went into that year’s general election with an undeliverable pledge to reduce net immigration to less than a hundred thousand a year, a target he never came remotely close to hitting. With each quarterly announcement of the figures, the Conservatives’ reputation for immigration control fell further, plummeting dramatically over the first two years of the coalition government, especially among white school-leavers. As this period began, Ukip was, as it always had been, a niche party for committed Eurosceptics, but over the course of the coalition years it became a new home for those appalled by the failure to reduce immigration. In common with other right-wing populist groups across Europe at the time, Ukip successfully avoided the charge that it was an outright nationalist or racist party (like, say, the BNP) by bundling its anti-immigration policies with a broader agenda, in its case antipathy towards Brussels. Branding of this sort was crucial in attracting the votes of those who were undoubtedly ‘ethnocentric’ (in Sobolewska and Ford’s terms) but adamantly refused to identify as racist.
It wasn’t just the Conservatives who were losing out to Ukip. Sobolewska and Ford note that ‘by 2014, Labour was winning over nearly one in five of 2010 Conservative voters who thought austerity spending cuts had gone “much too far”, but Ukip were winning nearly half.’ The implication was that for many people – the ‘identity conservatives’ – there were more important problems than spending cuts. Labour was growing ever more dependent on Sobolewska and Ford’s other two types, the ‘conviction liberals’ and the ‘necessity liberals’, attracting even more of the former in the 2015 general election thanks to the devastation of the Liberal Democrats, while being wiped out in Scotland by the rise of the SNP. In a telling indication of the steady ascendency of identity over class, this was the first election in Labour’s history when graduates and ethnic minorities made up a larger share of its vote than white school-leavers.
Nevertheless, a basic pattern of class politics was still just about discernible in the distribution of the Labour and Conservative vote in 2015. Higher income, middle-class people were still on average more likely to vote Conservative, while lower income, working-class people were still on average more likely to vote Labour. In retrospect, though, this appears like a mixture of habit and low expectations. It was a last gasp for the economistic vision of democracy that had too often been taken for granted by pundits, social scientists and the political parties themselves. Just over a year later, all hell broke loose.
What intrigues Sobolewska and Ford about the 2016 referendum is that it crystallised and publicised ‘new Brexit partisan identities’ to the extent that they now overshadow those of Conservative and Labour, ‘right’ and ‘left’:
Voters on both sides of the Brexit debate now had a sense of themselves as distinct social groups with their own values and priorities, and views about who their opponents were and what they stood for. These new Brexit partisan identities were more strongly held and more widely shared than fading attachments to the traditional political parties, and became a driver of larger and more lasting changes in attitudes and behaviour, as voters began to see parties and policies through the lens of their new-found Brexit tribes.
As Sobolewska and Ford show in their studies of both the 2017 and the 2019 elections, these identities continued to drive everything else, causing unprecedented numbers of people to switch their vote from one of the main parties to the other. The Labour vote became further dominated by graduates and ethnic minorities living predominantly in cities, who could now view themselves as Remainers (Sobolewska and Ford’s analysis is troubling for any Corbynites who believed that 2017 marked a revival of traditional, class-based socialism, and upsets the revisionist history in which Corbynism was destroyed by Remainers). Conversely, the Conservative vote tipped rapidly towards ‘identity conservatives’, which – just three and a half years after the referendum – led to the crumbling of Labour’s Red Wall of ex-industrial regions and towns. This is the configuration of contemporary Brexitland.
The speed with which the Conservative Party refashioned itself as the party of Leave under Boris Johnson made for a remarkable electoral renaissance. In 2010, the Tories couldn’t achieve a majority even against an exhausted three-term Labour government, which had overseen the worst economic crisis in living memory. Less than ten years later, they won an eighty-seat majority. By associating himself so strongly with Brexit, Johnson was able to tap into the disaffection of Leave voters more easily than May had in 2017, luring more of them to the polls to vote Tory for the first time. But Brexitland’s long-term prognosis is bad news for the Tories: they have nailed themselves to a group of ‘identity conservatives’ whose share of the electorate is on a long-term downward trajectory.
Like detectives working their way backwards from a crime scene, Sobolewska and Ford track the various forces which built, over seventy years, to the detonation of the traditional categories of class and party allegiance exemplified in June 2016. The factors they find most salient in Britain’s postwar political and cultural history are the ones that proved most decisive in the EU referendum: education levels and attitudes to diversity. Treating June 2016 as a pivotal moment casts an original light on recent history, but there is a risk of overstating both the inevitability of the rupture and its lasting effects. Varieties of identity politics have evidently now broken free of the socioeconomic and electoral classifications of the 20th century – most confidently in the form of Scottish nationalism – though they remain erratic and unpredictable. One of the more surprising and welcome developments since the referendum, as Sobolewska and Ford note, has been a sharp decline in concern with immigration across the board, plus a more favourable view of immigrants among Remainers and Leavers alike. That said, it is a feature of ‘ethnocentrism’ that it can re-emerge suddenly and unpredictably.
There is also a risk that analyses such as this one contribute to the problems they seek to diagnose. ‘Identity conservative’, ‘conviction liberal’ and ‘necessity liberal’ are categories grounded in careful study of existing data, but much of that data is provided by pollsters and attitudinal surveys, whose entire purpose is to slot people into categories. Inviting someone to either ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with a given statement strips their experiences – and indeed their identities – of nuance. Various social histories are inevitably obscured by such categorisation, not least that of working class anti-racism, which has owed nothing to attending university, or of the many differing experiences of the ‘necessity liberals’. What Sobolewska and Ford set out very persuasively are the correlations between Remain/Leave and other binary divisions as they emerged over the course of previous decades, divisions that had never before translated into an electoral map. What’s less clear is why these particular correlations are so significant. Why have people’s political identities become so deeply determined by whether they went to university and how they define ‘racism’? Why these markers and not others? This may be a question for political psychologists or, better, anthropologists, but the answer is unlikely to be revealed by adding more quantitative data on demography and attitudes.
One could put the question another way: why, in an age when inequality has been rising, have work and wealth ceased to provide the grounds of political identity? The left was especially exasperated by this problem in the years following the financial crisis, when wage stagnation, public spending cuts and spiralling asset prices never seemed to do much to harm the Conservative-led administrations that oversaw them, notwithstanding the appeal of Corbynism to financially precarious millennials. The influential figure of the white working-class Tory dates back much further than 2010, further even than Thatcher. But Sobolewska and Ford’s analysis suggests that the old leftist project of getting classes ‘in themselves’ to become classes ‘for themselves’ has grown progressively more challenging, especially since 2016. With the probably permanent loss of Scotland, Labour’s near-term electoral difficulties are far greater than the Tories’, forcing them to appeal to English ‘identity conservatives’ – which explains virtually every public utterance of Keir Starmer at the moment.
Some of this is explicable in terms of changes in the structure of the economy itself. The more flexible, service-based form of capitalism that has emerged since the 1960s provides a shakier basis for clear collective interests. The relationship between class and voting behaviour grows progressively weaker as society becomes economically, culturally and morally more individualistic. Maybe people have grown to derive their political identities from their education and from their attitude towards ethnicity partly because they haven’t felt adequately recognised in other areas, by their employers or by professionalised political parties that took their votes for granted. Brexitland can be read as a story of ascending identities, but also of declining political and economic structures.
But there are other factors too, which lie beyond the scope of quantitative political science. The campaign to leave the EU was a deceitful one, waged for years in newspapers and – in the months leading up to the vote – on digital platforms. Britain has an influential media industry that amplifies every threat to nationhood and national tradition, and repeatedly fails to represent how successful multiculturalism has been. As recent arguments over empire and race have demonstrated, there are still sections of the British elite which insist on a paradoxical picture of history, in which Britain was dominant on the world stage yet somehow separate from the various territories and peoples it dominated. If young people and graduates are less beholden than their parents and grandparents to these lies and myths, that represents progress, for which some of the credit should go to educators and universities. No nation led by Boris Johnson can possibly claim to be experiencing a moment of truth, but there has been a stripping of illusions in Brexitland. ‘Conviction liberals’ retain a large amount of administrative power and will benefit from long-term demographic trends, but they have been democratically defeated in a way that many never imagined possible. Sobolewska and Ford’s book provokes us to ask where their conviction might be directed, now that cosmopolitanism has been revealed not as an incontrovertible fact but as one political identity among others.