David WilkinsonView More
Britain's "Brown" Brexit Vote
Academics and campaigners have recently started to talk about the support for Brexit with voters from a South Asian, Indian background - the so-called "Brown" vote.
Britain would have been a very unhappy place if the Brexit Referendum had been lost - and the British voters had known that it was due to the votes of ethnic minorities that we could not leave the EU.
Since we won, we have not thought too much about how different groups voted. We have had the Scottish figures drawn to our attention but have not thought much about how, generally speaking, other specific groups in Britain voted. No one has thought to be grateful.
The opinions expressed in this article are based on observations made while serving in the Ealing national campaign headquarters of The Bruges Group. (This also served as the local centre for Vote Leave, UKIP, GO! and nationally for CAEF. Other groups used the facility too. All were welcome.) The area included Southall. Indeed Ealing sits between Southall and areas like Chiswick which are whiter and posher.
It was obvious within days of opening that support was coming mainly, even predomoinantly from Indians and a very large proportion of the white volunters were Polish. The local area was populated by the typical millenial fashionable remain voter, very shallow in their understanding and committment but definitely in vogue.
Not being a frequent visitor to London, I could not help but notice that the people I thought were like me - that is to say white with names I can prounounce - were voting anti-patriotic while people I thought were different - brown with names I could not say without patient help - were voting patriotically. They were not just voting the same way as me but for totally different reasons, no, they were voting the same way and for reasons that I would categorise as predominantly patriotic: democratic and pragmatic. Incidentally, they knew the referendum was about the EU and not the NHS.
Why was this? It was a mystery I felt compelled to resolve. I asked. I asked lots of people: is it something to do with the Hindu or Sikh religions? While there were one or two individual muslims, as is the local population profile, there were not many so I could not include Muslims in my observations. However, figures from Luton would suggest a significant muslim Brexit vote unless almost every British person voted Brexit and most muslims voted Remain.
People found it amusing that I should keep asking as no one could offer any explanation along those lines. But still, the question had been asked and others started to wonder why the Brexit was full of brown volunteers like them and so few that looked like me.
After the referendum, the votes cast showed that our counting area (Ealing) had gone sharply against the trend for London, against expectations with some wards actually claimed for Brexit. The local Indian areas had voted roughly the same as the kind of town where people like me are generally found. at last someone described the reason my search for explanations of the Brown Brexit vote had been so difficult: I was asking a rather stupid question, "why was Southall voting normally?".
The reason I had looked for an answer to this question, without realising that was I had been asking all these months, seemed to be not much more than my own belief in the BBC narrative that only elderly ignorant racist thugs like me were voting for Brexit.
During the campaign those Indian people were like me and it was those posh white people to the east of our area who were not like me.
As we know, people in London are not like people in the rest of Britain. And voting in the referendum showed this.
Before were return to the brown vote and attempt to observe its normality let us look at the middle-class British people who voted purposefully in an anti-patriotic way and what makes them peculiar.
I admit that these are commonly held opinions, prejuduice you might say, and that it would be good to have some social scientific back-up and further analysis of what is different about these people? They live a much more individualistic and isolated life. They are least likely to go to Church, least likely to be involved in any charitable or community volunteering. Actually, in the areas where they live, there may not be so much of these opportunities. They are most likely to be divorced because of adultery. The freinds they do have are likely to be business related associates living some distance away or friends remaining from their earlier lives, maybe student days, also living some distance away. We have this image of such London dwellers, which is often true, that they do not even know the names of their next-door neighbours.
It may be that I have described them harshly but this is important as other people do not respect them and do not want to be like them. They are not, as they imagine, an elite and people who do not want to be like that, like them, are not "left behind". Others do not aspire to be like them but distinctly reject their way of life and ways of thinking. This may have been an important factor, observed also in a recent election in the USA and I will come back to it.
Southall has a much more stable population. Such areas are very stable by London standards with a much slower turnover of population. People know their neighbours, they are involved in organised religion, charities and all of those very ordinary networks of social obligation. More homogeneous. If the battery is flat on the car they ask the next door neighbour for a jump start rather than ring the Mercedes main dealer. They know where to go to borrow a cup of sugar.
By observing the reasons expressed for voting by Remain and Leave voters, we notice a distinct difference. The Brown vote was, generally, for the common good, what is good for Britain, which is morally best, best for democracy, etc. The Chiswick vote was more typically expressed more in terms of perceived self-interest, that their particular business might be marginally less profitable without some conditions created by the EU or, in the most alturistic, that their little Chloe will want to go on an Erasmus year studying in a French university (it is never Slovakia, is it?). The BBC fills the airwaves with the sneering cynicism of the latter group towards the former.
In this common good type of motivation, the brown vote was entirely similar to the white working class Brexit vote. It was normal.
The interesting question for social scientists is why are those white people in London not voting "normally". Ask "why is anti-patriotism cool with AB white people?" not "why is it not cool with brown people?". Incidentally, why are middle class white kids the least rebellious and most politically conformist and obedient to the state generation in modern times?
Why are we, and social scientists, surprised that the brown vote was patriotic in this referendum?
My own ignorance is quite understandable: I am a middle-aged white man who lives most of the time in eastern Europe where there are no people like those in Southall. I do not know anyone like that. Most of what I know about that part of Britain I know from the BBC. I had mistakenly believed that what essentialy describes British society is racism and that there are fundamental divides, that patriotism is racism and that Brexit is hatred. It turns out the BBC knows no more about regular people in Southall than I did until I went there.
When it goes dark I can hear BBC Radio 4 on long wave. They tell me that there has been an explosion of racist violence in Britain since the Brexit vote. It always makes me chuckle because anyone who was actually involved in the campaign knows that, when it mattered, the brown vote was with us and not against us. If we were inclined to violence it would be me, some Punjabis and some Polish libertarians duffing up some poncey white snowflake remoaners. But all the threats and intimidation, especially at work, came from Remain, did it not.
In conclusion, maybe my own surprise and the interest of academics comes from a totally mistaken assumption. That assumption is that voting against the EU is some form of mental desease, an aberration that must be studied and explained. Like the Trump vote, some mad populism, when it is normal. We should understand that the Brexit vote was, ultimately, a vote by normal people for a return to a normal way of doing things. It was a vote by normal for normal.