Britain’s current self-laceration over EU membership may seem bizarre to outsiders—that’s certainly how many U.S. media voices have presented it. The reality is that the pro-Leave movement has tapped into a huge reservoir of resentment that often has little at all to do with the European Union. The pro-Leave camp has drawn substantial support from mainly white, non-metropolitan voters who feel they have been sidelined or betrayed by politicians at a time when ordinary people’s living standards are slipping.
As this graphic from the Financial Times shows, pro-Leave Britons tend to be poorer, older, and more likely to live in Central or Northern England, away from the London power hub. By contrast, pro-Remain supporters are younger and more likely to have a higher education. They predominate in London, as well as in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where potential future border complications and fear of rising English nationalism help to swing opinion in the EU’s favor.
If the demographics of the pro-Leave camp sound vaguely familiar, they are in fact strikingly similar to those for supporters of the U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. And the similarities between the Leave and Trump campaigns do not end there. Both Trump and the Leave campaign have wooed voters with a barrage of misinformation, in Britain strongly backed up by the right-wing media. And both have presided over a growing wave of racist rhetoric that comes with an ugly edge of implied violence.
Still, it would be mistaken to disregard the fears and frustrations of everybody in the Leave camp. As this recent article outlines, some white working-class U.K. voters are so frustrated by an absence of decently paid employment and affordable housing that they say they plan to vote Leave because they feel any radical change whatsoever would be better than the status quo. They distrust politicians currently in power and want new, anti-establishment faces and a completely new deal.
The problem is that a Leave vote will likely not deliver one. Supporters have not fleshed out any clear path for the country post-Brexit. Instead, the campaign has implausibly insisted that while the EU supposedly dominates all current U.K. decision-making without flexibility, the remaining member states will obediently and instantly roll over to cut an advantageous trade deal with Britain if it leaves. It has also promised that money saved on EU tax contributions—which secure Britain access to the European Single Market—can be funneled into the National Health Service, without factoring the steep drop in tax revenues Britain will suffer as the economy contracts after Brexit.
Above all, the Leave campaign has fed a poisonous discourse around immigration, using images of the current European migration crisis to imply that Britain is facing an uncontrollable wave of refugees. In fact, as a non-signatory of the Schengen Agreement, Britain’s control of its borders is entirely autonomous from the rest of the EU.