What lies beneath Brexit vote?

Published on 28 June 2016

Image of Shandana Khan Mohmand
Shandana Khan Mohmand

Cluster leader and Research Fellow

So UK voted itself out of the EU. But it was a very close vote. Almost as many people wanted to stay in as wanted to leave the EU. This is the classic example of a polarised electorate. But what is it that polarises the country so completely in two almost equal halves?

What lies behind the polarisation in the UK?

Some analysts have pointed to a split between the rich and the poor — those that are doing well and have benefitted over the last many decades, and those that are not doing well and have lost enough over the same period to think that they have nothing more to lose. Others have said the split is mainly regional, separating Northern Ireland, Scotland and London along with a few other bits from the rest of England and Wales. While some say it is generational with the old voting to leave, and the young to remain in the EU.

But there is another political theory that is gaining traction because of recent political changes, and that might explain what is happening. This is the theory of the ‘authoritarian voter’. The theory suggests that authoritarianism does not simply flow from leaders and political parties, but is a tendency within society, a response to social change, that sees voters prioritise a desire for more order in society, greater homogeneity and stronger, more aggressive leaders.

Authoritarian voters – an oxymoron surely?

Authoritarianism by definition takes power and decision making away from voters. How then can we talk about authoritarian voters? But a number of recent studies and polls are doing exactly that to explain the rise of Trump in the US, the desire to leave Europe in the UK, the election of Modi in India, the popularity of Orban in Hungary, and Hofer losing the Austrian election by a bare whisker. The New York Times neatly summed up the rise of populist far right parties across Europe and it is this reality that is drawing attention away from more traditional explanations for what splits voters towards explanations that tell us to look beyond just class, income and generational differences. Of course those still matter, but Trump draws his support from different economic classes and all age groups and almost all regions across the US. Similarly, rich white voters in the South East of England are equally capable of having supported the Leave campaign as the disenfranchised working class voter in the North East.  And in London, a region that voted overwhelmingly to remain, there have been a number of xenophobic incidents reported since last Thursday’s referendum.

What this theory is suggesting is that we look beyond the aggregate numbers at individual voters. The theory of the ‘authoritarian voter’ looks at individual ideological positions as being a function of a certain personal disposition. Put simply, people who believe in certain things vote a certain way. Nothing surprising there. But these aren’t necessarily political beliefs. For example, the studies have related who a person is likely to support politically to their personal parenting style. And found that those that support leaders like Trump are more likely to prefer discipline, order, control and homogeneity even in personal decisions. They also have a different set of fears – the foreigner is more frightening than the likelihood of a car accident or the proliferation of guns in society.

Amanda Taub traces the genealogy of this stream of research and uses it to explain the rise of Trump in the United States. They found that the more authoritarian a voter is — described as “a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders” — the more likely they are to support Trump, and the less authoritarian they are on a list of non-political questions, the more they are likely to support the Democratic party.

The same ideas are being applied to the UK and the EU referendum. For example, this article  from April tells us that polls suggest that half of the UK is authoritarian in public opinions — a number that is almost exactly the same as the result of last week’s referendum, and a number that suggests that the “progressive consensus” in the UK may be a myth. Eric Kaufmann (Birkbeck College) has a similar argument: “Culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters”. If you believe in the death penalty, you also believe in Brexit! “Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain”.

Are voters inherently authoritarian or non-authoritarian?

Looking at voters in this way seems rather static. Age changes and social mobility can move voters between classes, but do personal values change easily, or will voters always be inherently authoritarian or non-authoritarian? The theory suggests that authoritarianism can be latent until it is ‘triggered’ by rapid change that induces greater insecurity. This suggests that authoritarian voters can be found in any country dealing with social change — where people from other countries are increasingly settling; where minority or marginalised groups are the focus of affirmative action; and where inequality is on the rise. This includes much of Europe (it would be interesting to correlate the differences in the rise of the right in the NYT article above to different types and levels of social change), and many countries in the Middle East and South Asia, where the involvement of a “foreign hand” – the scary outsider – can explain away almost anything unpleasant.

There are voters everywhere that believe their jobs, lifestyles, community, region, country or religion are under threat, and they seem to be redefining political parties to take on more and more extreme policy positions. Positions that we may not have expected to see a few decades ago. So walls can be built along borders and within countries, communities can be singled out for stricter immigration control and be put on watch lists, refugees can be sat in the cold and rain in open fields along borders, and leaders can both speak of and support genocides and still become presidential candidates and Prime Ministers.

How the checks and balances of democracy are responding to authoritarian values

Pippa Norris (KSG-Harvard) suggests that political leaders and parties that respond to authoritarian values in society are limited in their efforts by the checks and balances of western democracy. This includes constitutional guarantees of inclusion and justice, as well as the generally centrist, moderate tendencies of actual governance. In other words, there is a difference in how politicians campaign and how they must rule. This is heartening, but nevertheless, now more than ever there is a need for greater interrogation of the data and new evidence to ensure that we understand this theory and its implications for societies and their political landscapes in a rapidly changing world.


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