1. The UK's Vote for Brexit: An Alternative Geography?
R.J. Johnston, D. Manley and K. Jones
Much has been written about the geography of the result of the UK's 23 June 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Many commentators have noted that only three regions had majorities who voted for Remain – Greater London, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Others have analysed census data and found that the greatest support for Leave came from areas with large proportions of old people and those with few educational qualifications – findings entirely consistent with the mass of polling data from before the vote was taken and the few studies undertaken since.
What has been less remarked upon, however, is that the pattern of voting Remain-or-Leave reflected several features of the country's urban system – especially in England and Wales. Some of those features are explored here.
Britain's largest cities are, in general, the places where the relatively young and highly qualified are concentrated, reflecting the pattern of job opportunities and also the location there of many of the country's largest universities. Outside London, the centres of the six large conurbations – Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Sheffield – are all major service centres with large universities, but most of the outer areas of those conurbations are characterised by industrial decline. The contrast on 23 June 2016 between the six centres and the remainder of their conurbations is stark: mean support for Remain in the six centres was 53 per cent; in the surrounding metropolitan boroughs it was twelve points lower at 41 per cent.
Those differences between the metropolitan cores and the outer boroughs are shown in the following diagram. In each case, the difference between the two is substantial – smallest in West Yorkshire (8 points) and largest in South Yorkshire (18 points). Very few of the outer boroughs provided a majority for Remain: the exceptions were the relatively affluent (at least in part) suburban boroughs in Greater Manchester (Stockport and Tameside) and Merseyside (Sefton and Wirral). Some of the centres had a majority for Leave – Birmingham and Sheffield – and in Leeds the vote for remain was only 50.3 per cent.
A similar pattern also occurred in Greater London – as shown in the map. All but five of the 33 boroughs provided a majority for Remain, with over 70 per cent support in nine, all of them in the more cosmopolitan inner London. All five where Leave gained majority support were on the capital's outer fringe, three of them in the east – Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, and Havering – which had the three lowest percentages of adults with degree-level qualifications according to the 2010 census; the other two with a Leave majority – Hillingdon and Sutton – had the fourth and seventh lowest percentages with degrees.
What of the other main urban areas? Of the six largest (defined as those with three or more Parliamentary constituencies), three – Bristol, Cardiff and Leicester – produced a majority for Remain, and Nottingham only marginally voted for Leave. All are major university centres. The other two that had majorities for Leave also have universities but are also declining urban centres (Kingston-upon-Hull and Stoke-on-Trent). And of the seventeen other large towns/cities (those with two Parliamentary constituencies), only three – Norwich, Reading and York – produced majorities for Remain.
Most of urban England and Wales outwith the largest cities favoured the UK leaving the European Union, therefore, but two further features regarding urban Britain stand out. First, many urban places provided substantially greater support for Remain than was the average for local authorities in their region: many of the towns differed substantially from their hinterlands. In Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Cardiff, Leicester, Norwich and Reading the percentage voting for Remain was at least 10 points greater than for their surrounding regions, for example. Furthermore, whereas Remain gained 48 per cent support in the Southeast Region in Oxford the share was 70 per cent; and Cambridge residents were 74 per cent in favour of Remain compared to only 43 per cent across the East of England region.
The second feature is that, as was the case with London, there were major differences within the towns and cities. Some local authorities counted and published the votes by ward; in Plymouth, for example, which gave 40 per cent support to Remain, overall support ranged from 29 to 56 per cent across the city's twenty wards. That variation, as shown in the following graph, was closely linked to the residents' educational qualifications: the greater the percentage with degrees (or their equivalent) the greater the support for Remain. (The outlier with a very high Remain vote is Drake, a city centre ward in which the university is located.)
There was a clear urban geography to voting for Remain in England and Wales, therefore, with greatest support in the largest and most cosmopolitan centres (including those with large universities). This reflects the countries' contemporary socio-economic geography – in general, the most prosperous and growing places are those with substantial employment opportunities for the well-qualified young, and these were the individuals most likely to support the UK staying as a member of the European Union. Outside those places support for Remain was much weaker. The towns and cities whose industries have suffered from the impacts of globalisation and which house large numbers of those ‘left behind' as inequalities have widened (especially the old and the poorly-qualified) provided strong support for the Leave campaign – both declining northern industrial centres such as Doncaster, Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent and Cannock Chase (all of which voted 69 per cent for Leave) and a range of smaller places – many of them containing once-popular seaside resorts – on England's east coast (places such as Boston, Castle Point, Great Yarmouth, Tendring, and Thurrock).
Scotland has been excluded from the discussion so far because of its particular current status in the United Kingdom and its overall strong support for Remain (62 per cent) – albeit on a considerably lower turnout than the UK overall figure (67 per cent compared with 72); with higher turnout there might Remain have prevailed? But there, too, the urban pattern was important: the Cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow voted 74 and 67 per cent respectively for Remain, with other high levels of support in the Glasgow suburban areas of East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire, as well as Stirling.
Finally, what of Northern Ireland, where the counting was undertaken across the eighteen Parliamentary constituencies? Here the main determinant was the division into Unionist and Nationalist supporters. Where parties allied to the latter cause were strong so was support for Remain; Leave performed best in areas of Unionist strength – such as Antrim. As such, the main city was divided too: Remain was the choice of 69 and 74 per cent of the voters respectively in South and West Belfast; in East and North Belfast it gained only 49 and 50 per cent.
2. Metropolitan resistance to political change in the EU referendum: British cities beyond London
The modern use of term metropolitan refers to an urban process that is particularly associated with larger and more important cities. It indicates a cultural dimension: certain city dwellers are presumed to enjoy a ‘metropolitan life' that is in some sense more sophisticated than that experienced by those outside the ‘metropolis'. I have problematized the last term because I will treat metropolitan as a process rather than a place. This means that it is just one particular collection of practices within the cacophony of processes that constitute modern cities. It follows that these cities can be compared in terms of their different degrees of metropolitan process. Thus we understand London to be more metropolitan than Manchester without declaring Manchester to be lacking this particular urban process. In this short paper I provide a simple indication of varying degrees of metropolitan process across Britain's main cities outside London and what its broader political geography meaning might be.
I use the EU referendum voting returns as an indirect means of showing the metropolitan process within cities. There will be many analyses that try and explain the intricacies of this voting exercise but I am turning this research practice around: instead of the voting being the subject I will employ it as an indicator. From this perspective the EU referendum results are a raw material, a massive source of information on a specific behaviour of over 30 million people. Different from a general election because political parties were not explicitly on the ballot papers, voters were able to express themselves in a simple dichotomous manner, Remain or Leave. The Remain side ran a campaign based upon an array of experts – political, economic, social, cultural, international elites – that was very, very impressive (from President Obama to David Beckham) and proved very, very ineffectual (starting as strong favourites and finishing as clear losers). The key-point from my perspective it that these elites, and modern elites in general, are archetypal metropolitan citizens. They live a metropolitan lifestyle par excellence, separate from the multitude and subject to both awe and anger. The referendum gave voters the opportunity to cast judgment on their evident superiority complex.
The geography of the voting was initially viewed in a familiar English ‘north v.s south' frame (an early tweet of a Remainer simply asked ‘Where is Sunderland?') but this soon gave way to more nuanced regional interpretation once it became clear that all English regions except London had voted to Leave with the two English midland regions actually recording the strongest out vote. This regional geography approach to viewing the voting reflected the way in which the Electoral Commission announced the results by local authority area within standard English regions and within Scotland and Wales. (Voting in Northern Ireland was simply reported for the whole province and is not considered further here.) This region/nation frame is clearly significant and I keep it for my urban analysis. Taking my cue from London as Britain's core metropolitan city – both global city and Remain majority - I explore the idea of using the Remain % vote as an indicator of the metropolitan process across other British cities.
Metropolitan indicates difference between a ‘sophisticated' urban centre enveloped by the ‘unsophisticated', both other urban and rural. Therefore to discern this process cities should be described within the context of their region/nation. In the table below the Remain% vote for 40 British cities is listed alongside each city's region/nation Remain% vote. The difference between these two votes is computed and the city listing ordered accordingly. It is suggested here that the gap between city and its region/nation provides an indication of how metropolitan a city is. Put crudely, it shows where voters were more amenable to the warning lessons from ‘experts', and could identify with various regional, national and global elites, compared to their region/nation compatriots.
The results produce a mixture of idiosyncratic features and clear tendencies. The top three ranked cities are in a class of their own in their very high absolute difference results and, in their diverse ways, can be considered outliers of London's metropolitan process. The clearest tendency in the results is to be found with the ten core cities (originally eight from English regions latterly joined by Cardiff and Glasgow) that all show high degrees of metropolitan-ization; they fill ten of the next 15 rankings. This contrasts with the South East region (enveloping London, the region has no ‘core cities'), whose cities, after Oxford and Brighton, are arrayed evenly across the whole list (ranks 11, 22, 28, 32 and 36). More generally, looking within region/nation there are also distinctive differences: for example, within the two nations both Edinburgh and Glasgow rank above Aberdeen and Dundee, as does Cardiff above Swansea. Across England there are many pairs of cities that show a similar pattern of metropolitan difference. Some obvious English contrasts are between Newcastle and Sunderland, Leeds and Bradford, Sheffield and Hull, Nottingham and Derby, Norwich and Ipswich, Bristol and Swindon, Southampton and Portsmouth, and Exeter and Plymouth. In all these cases the first city is more central to its region than the second city, a key feature of metropolitanization. Such contrasts are particularly clear for Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool compared to other cities in their respective regions.
n conclusion, this city-centric way of looking at the EU referendum voting reveals an interesting glimpse at a difficult process to pin down. The results provide a credible listing of the metropolitan-ization of British cities. Interpreting this metropolitan process as operating in opposition to the actual British majority ‘revolt against elites', we find erstwhile radical cities (for instance, ‘Red Glasgow', ‘Militant Liverpool', Sheffield's ‘Socialist Republic') in a quite different political position from what we might expect. This metropolitan effect - a resistance to political change - reflects a broader geography of globalization that has been very city-centric with a strong bias towards larger cities, both nationally and globally. The result is a new voting geography with a critical metropolitan dimension. With several decades of corporate globalization generating increasing inequality, a new worldwide reaction – global ‘peasant's revolt' – is likely to evolve as a metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide in countries as diverse as USA, Turkey, South Africa and India. The British EU referendum suggests an emerging political geography world of metropolitan oases where global elites and their urban fellow travellers will be constantly dismayed by ‘irrational' decisions made by their fellow citizens voting the ‘wrong way'. Democracy will have to be rebranded as dangerous ‘popularism' (i.e. a reversal to the nineteenth century situation before the invention of liberal democracy when democracy and liberalism were political foes).
1. Cities in the South East region are italicized
* R.J. Johnston, David Manley and Kelvyn Jones, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol
** Peter J. Taylor, Northumbria University