Brexit and the Power of Perception

As the post-Brexit days turn to weeks, and amidst the political upheaval, wonkish attention has turned to attempting to understand exactly who, and what forces, were behind Britain’s surprising decision to leave the European Union. The newly published 33rd annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey from NatCen provides some useful context to our ‘divided Britain’.

It is striking in its revelations of both an entrenched sense of class divide and a plummeting belief in social mobility as a pathway to personal prosperity. What is particularly significant is that these attitudes seem to have increased substantially over the past 10 years, as the UK has weathered the global financial crisis, the MPs’ expenses scandal and a period of ‘austerity Government’.

These surveys are important because they drill down beneath the figures politicians draw upon to demonstrate improvements – employment levels, GDP, wages – to paint a picture of how Britons see themselves and their standards of living. As we know, in politics, and in life, perception is everything.

One example of this discord is the fact that 47 per cent of people in professional and managerial occupations identify themselves as ‘working class’. This phenomenon may reflect two distinct phenomena at play – firstly, the endurance of British working class identity as a source of pride and authenticity, in contrast to the notion of an expansive, educated and increasingly metropolitan middle class. At the same time, the downward nature of self-perception suggests there is also a sense of ‘relative deprivation’ simmering across the country – both at a socio-economic level, and also in terms of people’s feelings of alienation from the establishment, who are seen to exist outside of the dignified confines of the working classes.

This helps us to understand how the Vote Leave campaign – which largely focused its attentions on galvinising support amongst the working classes, and its message on highlighting an entrenched divide between citizens and their governing elites – was also able to capture the hearts and minds of a broader, more prosperous constituency.


Source: British Social Attitudes Survey, NatCen 2016

This ‘occupationally middle class but cognitively working class’ group also align more strongly with the ‘socio-economically working class’ on their attitudes to immigration and other social issues. The working class generally oppose immigration (69 per cent, compared to 46 per cent in professional classes) and tend to describe themselves as authoritarian (60 per cent vs 41 per cent) rather than libertarian.

Interestingly, one of the strong drivers of people’s perceived class position is their father’s occupation – 61 per cent of those in professional and managerial occupations consider themselves working class if their father worked a manual or routine job. This indicates that the achievements of social mobility can take more than a generation to align with the realities of socio-economic security – or, indeed, as the statistic above suggests, they may remain discordant with perceived realities.

The BSA is always a treasure trove of information, and our researchers at Demos will be doing more work on understanding its myriad revelations over the coming months. For example, curiously given the Conservative Government’s re-election last year with an unforeseen mandate, austerity appears to have transformed opinions on Government spending – we can see in the survey an upswing of support towards investment in public services and higher levels of taxation. Almost 40 per cent of respondents even called for the Government to spend more on welfare benefits for the poor – higher than at any time since 2003.

With a new Prime Minister and Cabinet, there’s scope for a fresh approach to respond to these trends – but it is also true that the scale of the Brexit negotiations, and its ramifications, will likely necessitate the lion’s share of the Government’s attentions being directed outside rather than in over the coming years. One hopes that the unexpected nature of the vote has rattled the political classes sufficiently, however, to ensure that focusing on managing economic stability, geopolitics and terror won’t come entirely at the expense of social policy investment.

As David Cameron’s premiership comes to an end, there is something poignant and rather sad about the BSA’s revelations of a growing mistrust in social mobility – a thematic issue that had been intended to underpin his now-unfulfilled ‘life chances’ legacy project. It is perhaps this of all the survey’s insights that best helps us to understand the level of widespread and enduring societal contempt that exists in modern Britain for the seemingly unscaleable walls of its class structure – a feeling that, whether based or not in socio-economic realities, has – through this vote –set the nation down an entirely new path.