Skip to main content

A Sociology of Brexit: If Things Aren’t Going to Get Better, Then Burn Them to the Ground

Life may very well get worse for those who voted to leave the European Union, but maybe some of them just wanted to be heard.

By Lisa Wade


In this photo illustration, the European Union and the Union flag sit together on bunting on March 17, 2016, in Knutsford, United Kingdom. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Will Davies, a politics professor and economic sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, summarized his thoughts on Brexit for the Political Economy and Research Centre, arguing that the split wasn’t one of left and right, young and old, racist or not racist, but center and the periphery. You can read it in full there, or scroll down for my summary.

Many of the strongest advocates for “leave,” many have noted, were actually among the beneficiaries of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. Small towns and rural areas receive quite a bit of financial support. Those regions that voted for “leave” in the greatest numbers, then, will also suffer some of the worst consequences. What motivated them to vote for a change that will, in all likelihood, make their lives worse?

Davies argues that the economic support they received from their relationship with the E.U. was paired with a cultural invisibility or active denigration by those in the center. Those in the periphery lived in a “shadow welfare state” alongside “a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency.”

Davies uses philosopher Nancy Fraser’s complementary ideas of recognition and re-distribution: People need economic security (re-distribution), but they need dignity too (recognition). Malrecognition can be so psychically painful that even those who knew they would suffer economically may have been motivated to vote “leave.” “Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals,” Davies writes, “is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction.”

It was in this context that the political campaign for “leave” penned the slogan “Take back control.” In sociology we call this framing, a way of directing people to think about a situation not just as a problem, but a particular kind of problem. “Take back control” invokes the indignity of oppression. Davies explains:

It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect.


Consider the cover of the Daily Mail praising the decision and calling politicians “out-of-touch” and the E.U. “elite” and “contemptuous.”

From this point of view, Davies thinks that the reward wasn’t the “leave,” but the vote itself, a veritable middle finger to the U.K. center and the E.U. “eurocrats.” They know their lives won’t get better after a Brexit, but they don’t see their lives getting any better under any circumstances, so they’ll take the opportunity to pop a symbolic middle finger. That’s all they think they have.

And that’s where Davies thinks the victory of the “leave” vote parallels strongly with Donald Trump’s rise in the United States:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.

Some people believe that voting for Trump might, in fact, make things worse, but the pleasure of doing so — of popping a middle finger to the Republican Party and political elites more generally — would be satisfaction enough. In this sense, they may be quite a lot like the “leave” voters. For the disenfranchised, a vote against pragmatism and solidarity may be the only satisfaction that this election, or others, is likely to get them.



This story originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “A Sociology of Brexit: What Motivated the ‘Leave?’”