EU Referendum Divides Britain Along Blue-Red Lines

Europe’s culture war will manifest itself in Britain’s EU referendum campaign.

London England
Aerial view of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey in London, England (Unsplash/Ricardo Frantz)

Britain’s EU referendum, which Prime Minister David Cameron said on Saturday will be held in June, is likely to divide the country along the lines of what Andrew Sullivan, a blogger, has called Europe’s “blue-red culture war over modernity.”

“Blue Europe,” according to Sullivan, is “internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural.” Blue Europeans tend to be better-educated and traveled.

“Red Europe,” by contrast, “is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society.” It is less mobile and struggling to maintain its high living standards in an era of rapid economic and social change.

“Mass immigration or migration across Europe,” according Sullivan, has “only made things worse, leading to resentment and racism when it has occurred in already beleaguered working-class Europe. The emergence of an unassimilated Muslim population didn’t help things either.”

This culture war is most pronounced when it comes to immigration.

But the model can be applied to British attitudes about the European Union as well.

Different worlds

The Economist provides a good example. It reports that two cities on opposite ends of Cambridgeshire hold opposing views on EU membership. Only 27 percent of the residents of Cambridge are projected to support a British exit. In similarly-sized Peterborough, by contrast, as many as 62 percent could.

Cambridge and Peterborough are in the same part of the country. Both are about an hour by train from cosmopolitan London, are growing fast, have younger-than-average populations and mostly white-collar workforces. Both benefit from EU funds. And according to the census in 2011 they have a near-identical share of residents born in other EU countries — around one in ten. Yet one is a bastion of Europhilia, the other of Euroskepticism.

The difference is education.

“Cambridge bears the hallmarks of an economy in which one in two has gone to university,” The Economist writes, whereas “Peterborough is visibly a city of school-leavers.”

According to polls by YouGov, those educated only to the age of sixteen oppose EU membership by 57 to 43 percent. Among graduates, it is 38 to 62 percent.


The Economist gives two reasons to account for the divergence.

First, like Sullivan, it argues that global economic integration, “of which the EU is both cause and symptom,” disproportionately benefits the well-educated. Unskilled workers are left behind.

Second, there is a difference in experience with foreigners.

Whereas many in Cambridge see incomers as highly educated Germans and Swedes bringing their expertise to research projects, startups and product-development meetings, in Peterborough they are Lithuanian potato-pickers who, if not competing with locals for unskilled work, are at least nipping at their heels.

The Economist is optimistic about the future, pointing out that the share of university-educated Britons is rising. But it also recognizes that views are likely to silo in the short term, dividing voters into the two camps Sullivan described.