Middle England Finds Itself Between Blue-Red Divide

Conservative-leaning middle England holds the balance in Britain’s European Union referendum.

Oakamoor, a small town in North Staffordshire, England, February 7, 2010
Oakamoor, a small town in North Staffordshire, England, February 7, 2010 (Paul Blakeman)

Britain’s European Union referendum is turning into the perfect demonstration of two of the theories I’ve been promoting here about European politics: one, that there is a “blue-red” culture war going on over modernity; and two, that it are reasonable, middle-class voters who hold the balance of power.

The Financial Times reports that opinions about whether to leave or stay in the EU are breaking down along the very lines I described here in February:

On one side are older voters, the more disadvantaged and the less-well educated. On the other, are better off younger people and inhabitants of metropolitan London.

This is the blue-red divide Andrew Sullivan, a British blogger, first described in 2014. “Blue Europe,” he wrote at the time, is internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural. These are Englanders who mostly live in London or another southern city. They are mobile and probably have a job in services. Whatever their views on economic policy, their social views are decidedly liberal.

“Red Europe,” by contrast, is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society. Red Europeans are less mobile and worry about maintaining their living standards in an era of rapid economic and social change.

Support for or opposition to the EU is a good indicator of where one comes down on this blue-red divide.

The Financial Times lists a number of other hints: If you read the left-wing Guardian newspaper or the establishment Times, you’re probably in favor of remaining in the EU; if you read a tabloid or the right-wing Telegraph, you are more likely to support an exit.

Similarly, if you voted for Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens in the last election, you’re more likely to want to stay in; if you voted for the Conservatives, you’re more likely to want out. If you voted for UKIP, you definitively want out.

Middle England

Not the whole of Britain can be broken down into two camps. There are Euroskeptics in Labour and the Conservative Party is split.

The deciding votes are likely to be cast in middle England: the small cities, towns and suburbs of South East England, parts of the South West and the West Midlands.

The Financial Times reports that most undecided or persuadable voters are located there and voted for David Cameron in the last election.

In a recent survey by Ipsos Mori, a third of Conservative voters said they may yet change their minds, compared with 18 percent of Labour supporters and only 7 percent of voters for the anti-EU UK Independence party.

Hence the remain side’s appeals to the economic costs of leaving and the out side’s promise to curtail immigration.

These are relatively well-off voters who are not fanatical about the EU, even if the Tory who represents them in Parliament may be. Nor are they necessarily anxious about immigration.

But they are no Europhiles either and can have something of a not-in-my-backyard mentality. They may not feel disadvantaged by immigration themselves; they don’t have much experience with immigrants either, unlike pro-EU, urban “blue” voters.

There’s a good chance the economic argument will prevail. It usually does. Which is why the proponents of continued membership will talk as much about the economy as they can and the advocates of leaving will try to make the whole debate about immigration instead.

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