Why Brexit won: It’s not (just) what you think

Much has been written on why 52% of UK votes were cast for Leave, with different writers lining up behind different theories, of varying degrees of accuracy. Perhaps this is just the consumer psychologist in me, but I like to break it out into layers. Here’s the map of how I see it:

  1. What it wasn’t
    • Careful policy analysis
  2. The marketing that set the stage
    1. Badly run Remain campaign
    2. Years of poor branding for the EU
  3. Voter coping with despair (in negative and positive ways)
    1. Anger at Elites
    2. Xenophobia
    3. Need for control

Let’s break these down.

  1. Careful policy analysis

The simplest explanation is also the kindest: People considered all the available information and outcomes, and made a calculated decision that Brexit was the best means to an end. It’s a nice idea, but here’s a simple test: if you stop passing strangers on a UK street, it would probably take a good while before you found one who could explain very basic policy questions about the EU, such as: “What is it allowed to do to member nations, and what is it not allowed to do?” For the vast majority of Britons, Brexit was not a technocratic solution to policy problems.

Independent experts nearly universally thought Brexit was a weak idea at best, and while it may not live up to the worst depictions of the leave campaign, it has already cause a completely foreseeable crash and placed the UK into a much worse spot going forward.

While there are plenty of things wrong with the UK, and plenty of things wrong with the EU, those are two largely separate lists. The EU didn’t force the UK to follow its most destructive policy choices. We did those all on our own.


  1. The Marketing that set the stage

Part 1: Badly run Remain campaign

The Remain campaign’s only strategy was what tech marketers call “FUD” – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  The problem is not that their warnings were especially wrong, just that they weren’t overly effective. The word “uncertainty” does not terrify the public in nearly the same way it does business executives and economists. To business people, uncertainty is about whether you can invest millions in a project that might be profitable or turn a big loss depending on whether things like interest rates or consumer confidence change in a year or two. To normal people, uncertainty is not being sure whether the shop will be open for a Friday evening milk run. It means you give things a shot, and muddle through as best you can. It’s not so very scary.

Direct warnings about job and financial losses got more traction, but at the end of the day they are just statistics, and normal people just don’t think about the world such distant and abstract terms – they often aren’t very comfortable with statistics, and don’t have a lot of confidence that they will be enlightening, rather than misleading.

Early in the campaign, the Leave side’s response was to counter by shouting its own numbers right back (“No this bad stuff won’t happen, and £350 million a week!”). While the Remain campaign generally had the better of this argument, it wasn’t by much, and many Britons concluded that there just weren’t any particularly solid facts to go on, so who could really know? I’ve heard this from many of the very people I talked to, even highly educated ones.

You almost never see commercial marketing basing its appeals on statistics and macro trends, because there are only a handful of situations in which they are convincing, and marketers get fired if their products don’t sell. When the leave campaign pivoted to more emotional issues (immigration and taking control), their poll numbers shifted slightly from a narrow loss to a narrow win. The Remain campaign had no emotional counter (well, their advertising people did – good ones – but the campaign leadership was so muddled that it refused to run them).


A rejected ad for Remain

Part 2: Years of poor branding for the EU

The strategy that does very much work is to drip feed people a steady diet of plausible sounding and emotionally resonant messages for years on end. This is an awful lot of what marketing practitioners do for a living: Find a framing for your brand that a suitable target audience is willing to believe, and that positions it well against competitors, and then find little ways to dramatize that into messages that you can push out into communication channels (TV, social media, store environments, etc), so that over time they are slowly internalized by your audience as being just the way the world is. And what works for pet food also works for politics.

This might all sound a bit lame and bloodless, but there is a reason that companies collectively spend billions of pounds on marketing, and it isn’t because they like giving free money away to their friends who make TV shows. This stuff matters. And when it comes to Europe, British people have been fed a steady diet of largely inaccurate stories about the ludicrous things that Brussels bureaucrats were supposedly trying to enforce. Boris Johnson pioneered the form, but many went on to imitate it, because… well, they are fun audience-pleasing stories that sell newspapers. News editors may or may not get in trouble for running wildly inaccurate stories, but the fastest way to get canned is to have circulation numbers that fall too fast. The gatekeepers for informing the British population thus fed the population a steady diet of propaganda trashing the EU – whether this was their direct intent or not (and it certainly was for some of them). It doesn’t particularly matter if the population remembered, or even really believed any of the individual stories, any more than it matters if they remember any specific McDonald’s advertisement. What matters is the cumulative effect they had to define the EU in people’s minds.

By the time of the vote, people’s immediate image of the EU wasn’t “keeping warring neighbours together in peace, and building opportunity and influence for us and our way of life.” It did mean that to a lot of people once, but this is a countervailing narrative that the EU did not actively push to the public. It didn’t see that as its job. It probably didn’t see that kind of thing as a seemly activity, or a good use of money. We don’t for question for a second when we see this kind of goodwill-generating messaging coming from petrochemical companies or purveyors of snack foods – when they do the exact same thing we regard it as suitable self-interest, but for cultural (rather than rational) reasons, the EU imagined that it was different for them.

So, by the time of the referendum, the EU campaign was running with the wind at its back. It didn’t need to come up with convincing stories about how the EU had messed things up. All it needed to do was knowingly reference “Brussels bureaucrats”, and instantly voters would dredge to mind years of associations with bizarre rules and perverse enforcement. If the Brexit campaign had been the first time these ideas were introduced, they would have been seen as controversial claims that Boris was trying to sell, and so might have been regarded with skepticism. But by the time it started they were already so well established in people’s minds that they emerged there as largely indisputable truisms about the shape of the world – everyone knows that Brussels is full of meddling petty bureaucrats, we’ve always known that. As I say, this is why commercial organisations spend so much time, money, energy, and effort on nurturing their brand images.

  1. Voters coping with despair

All of the above set the context for the vote. It created the conditions for a tight race. But what fueled much of the Leave vote was more profound than just works of political spin. This story alone doesn’t explain nearly enough of what happened.

Take a look at these two maps, side by side.



It’s not a perfect correspondence, but it’s striking that the darkest blue bits line up fairly well across both of them. The most deprived areas of England also tended to be the most pro-Brexit. This is something that some reporters have noticed on a more personal level. One reporter who traveled around talking to poor people found they were angry:

“What defines these furies is often clear enough: a terrible shortage of homes, an impossibly precarious job market, a too-often overlooked sense that men (and men are particularly relevant here) who would once have been certain in their identity as miners, or steelworkers, now feel demeaned and ignored. The attempts of mainstream politics to still the anger have probably only made it worse: oily tributes to “hardworking families”, or the the fingers-down-a-blackboard trope of “social mobility”, with its suggestion that the only thing Westminster can offer working-class people is a specious chance of not being working class anymore.

As good as globalisation, and the pro-market ideology might be at creating wealth, they are famously poor at distributing it evenly enough. We’re all familiar with the statistics about rich-poor disparities having got back to where they were in the gilded age, and about lower and middle class incomes stagnating, while all the gains in wealth have gone to the top tenth of a percent of the population.

It has been building for a couple of decades now. As one sharp analysis observes, the English version of it started in the 80’s: “Thatcherism gutted [the North East] with pit-closures and monetarism, but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.” It goes on to note that well-intentioned attempts to ameliorate this haven’t necessarily helped.

Labour’s solution was to spread wealth in their direction using fiscal policy: public sector back-office jobs were strategically relocated to South Wales and the North East to alleviate deindustrialisation, while tax credits made low productivity service work more socially viable. This effectively created a shadow welfare state that was never publicly spoken of, and co-existed with a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency… In Nancy Fraser’s terms, New Labour offered ‘redistribution’ but no ‘recognition’.

it has since emerged that regions with the closest economic ties to the EU in general (and not just of the subsidised variety) were most likely to vote Leave.

While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it. This isn’t to discredit what the EU does in terms of redistribution, but pointing to handouts is a psychologically and politically naïve basis on which to justify remaining in the EU.

(It’s an excellent piece. As they say, read the whole thing).

When people are feeling bad about themselves, it can come out in different forms, depending how people frame their suffering. You see this in the Brexit results.

Anger at Elites

One famous theory says that you get different types of positive and negative emotions based on how you understand the situation you are in. For example, you feel shame if you feel like a bad thing was caused by your own self, and that you could have avoided it. You feel despair when you see yourself as responsible for bad outcomes that you can’t control or avoid. Fear can crop up when you can’t avoid the bad thing they someone else might do to you. And if a really bad thing is done to you by someone else, and they could have avoided it, and you feel that you can do something in return – well, in that case you feel anger. Anger is an active emotion that is directed at someone who (you believe) did you wrong, by choice or by negligence. When you are fearful you want to escape. When you are angry you want to make them pay, even if it is very costly to do so. Angry people will sometimes go to self-defeating lengths for vengeance.

The UK’s depressed communities will have worked through most of the negative emotions at one time or another. And when they were handed a referendum ballot that let them vote on something that the elites in all the main parties really wanted… well, they were finally handed a little slice of agency. Something they could do to get back. It might not have been in their own self interest, but that really wasn’t the point. The point was to hit back by breaking some sh*t.

You don’t read much about this in the media, but then these are people that reporters have never been very comfortable hanging out with. They don’t get interviewed much, nobody puts them as talking heads behind studio desks. Reporters don’t hanging around the dodgier parts of Newcastle talking to them. Not until after the vote, anyway. Here’s a 62 year old called Martin Parker who went from steady jobs as an engineer, to increasingly unsteady jobs, to getting repeatedly cut off from the government support on which he relied, over a dozen tiny hassles.

Many of his possessions are gone, sold to get by. Two years into his three-year benefit sanction, he survives by “begging for small favours”: cleaning someone’s garage in return for food, say. Friends give him meals or bits of cash.

“It’s funny,” he laughs, quietly. “They’re all foreign. Polish. Italians. No one English has helped me.”

The government, he says, wouldn’t mind if he starved.

So you would think he would be in favour of keeping immigrants around?

Parker wouldn’t normally have bothered to vote – “I couldn’t really care less about the EU” – but last week he walked through a rainstorm to put his cross next to leave. His vote was not only a sign that he, like many, had no prosperous future to risk but a message to the elites that he feels have let him down.

“People are sick and tired of being ignored,” he says. “I don’t suppose I’m the only one to use this opportunity. It was a chance to kick the whole establishment where it hurt, for us to send pain the other way. And we took it.

That is an angry man. He wasn’t the only one.


When really bad stuff happens, one of the immediate human impulses is to find ways that it isn’t your fault. “I didn’t trip, I’m not clumsy! I was pushed. The floor was wet.” And traditionally in politics, immigrants have been high up the list of people to blame. They aren’t like you, nobody can accuse you of being one, they have very little power to push back against you, and you probably don’t know many of them personally so it isn’t socially awkward (and if I do know one or two, well I didn’t mean you, you are one of the good ones. I obviously meant the OTHER immigrants).

It’s hard to deny that this was a strong motivation for at least some Brexit support. The Leave campaign talked about immigration quite a lot, it famously put out a poster called “breaking point” showing a long line of Syrian immigrants (not even in the UK – that wasn’t the point), it fretted in public that Turkey might be allowed into the EU, causing millions of Turks to descend on the UK’s shores.

Britain’s racist minority appears to feel vindicated by the out vote, and there has been a spike in overtly racist actions, with, among other things, random immigrants on the street being told by strangers to go home. These people apparently believe that the Brexit vote represented the majority of the UK finally saying out loud what they have been prevented from saying before – that it’s all the fault of outsiders, and now we have collectively decided to be rid of them.

You don’t have to be flat out racist to be pulled into this, though. Resenting Europeans is baked into part of England’s cultural DNA (as John Oliver amusingly illustrates). Even if you don’t actually hate anybody, it’s still easy to let biases towards them shape your thinking.

Need for control

Anger and resentment aren’t the whole story though. There is one local vicar from near where I live, who I personally know to be an exceptionally kind and thoughtful person, deeply sensitive to the world’s social injustices, and she, after much deliberation, voted Leave.

There is a huge amount of psychological research showing that humans have needs for control and for meaning. When we experience these things we thrive and feel happy, and when these things are denied to us, we suffer.

Control is something that is heavily denied to poor people. And when the rich become super rich, and the poor become poorer, it makes it impossible to ignore that others are living well whereas they have few choices in life, and have to struggle hard to overcome even small obstacles like a broken car they can’t afford to fix, or being able to pay for both food and rent.

And the Leave campaign worked out how to play to this yearning. One of the articles I shared above continues on to talk about this too:

“… the slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. 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. Farrage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.

To people who didn’t get to control much in life, who feel kicked around a lot, here was a powerful offer: Tick this one little box on a ballot paper, and we will have agency again. We will be in control. We will be able to do the hard things we have been blocked from. If people are here taking our jobs, or driving down our wages, well, we NEED that money. Not want, we need it to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we can look after ourselves and our families. If they are overcrowding the health and other services we need, then vote Leave, and we can look after this to. If you feel like rules are just dictated to us from Brussels, then vote leave, and we can be able to look after ourselves again. No more getting pushed around and told what to do.
You don’t have to be poor to feel this way. Obama’s slogan in 2008 was “yes we can”. That was intoxicating to American liberals who felt helpless at George Bush had run their country, as they saw it, into the ground for 8 years straight. Obama was offering, as the Leave campaign did, to meet a basic psychological need to people starved of it. That was like offering water in a desert.

This motive isn’t a negative one. It’s not about trying to be cruel or exclusionary. It’s about trying to get what you need as a human being to thrive. You can fault people’s logic for believing that Brexit would in any way deliver these outcomes, but the desire for them, on its own – that was a deeply human thing.


It’s curious that that reasons for voting Brexit seems very little discussed. It’s not hard to find people talking about racism, or anger at elites, but I’ve only seen a few small mentions of the positive need for control popping up here and there. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it needs more psychology background to follow, or perhaps it just isn’t as fun a story as “horrible racists hurt country”. That is one thing I don’t know.


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