Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for a while, you probably know that the U.K. is voting on Thursday on whether to leave or stay in the European Union. The final polls suggest that the result will be tight, although the bookmakers continue to believe that there’s no more than a 25% chance of “Brexit” happening. As with all tight votes, it will come down to which voters turn out and which decide to stay at home. Here’s a quick explainer of some of the key fault lines running through the British electorate as it prepares for the “vote of a generation.”
1. Young v. Old According to most polls, this is the line along which the population divides most clearly. Older voters who can remember a life before the E.U. (the U.K. joined in 1973) are less fazed by the prospect of leaving it. With their formative years during or immediately after the Second World War and (more relevantly) their memories of humiliation at the hands of France’s Charles de Gaulle when the U.K. first tried to join the club, they are more suspicious of Continental machinations than the young. That the Leave campaign appeals to their nostalgic instincts is easily mocked but has been devastatingly effective so far. An exhaustive poll last month by Populus showed those in the over-65 club more than 2:1 in favor of leaving. By contrast, BMG found 60% of the 18-24 age group in favor of staying. The age divide, which cuts across all party lines, has led to plenty of sour observations that those who are most likely to vote for Brexit are least likely to have to live with the consequences.
2. Rich v. Poor: The second big divide is along the lines of wealth or—since we’re talking about Britain—class. The referendum has morphed, up to a point, into a vote on satisfaction with the current state of affairs. Those who employ the cut-price, work-all-hours services of migrants from Poland and elsewhere are more inclined to vote Remain, while the native working class, with its long-stagnant wages, is more likely to support the Leave arguments that cheap immigrant labor is to blame for their precarious state. Populus estimates that members of the upper-middle, middle, and lower-middle classes are split 54%-46% in favor of Remain, while the (slightly smaller) group of lower class workers is 48%-52% in favor of Leave. Educational attainment is closely correlated, with 60% of those without a university degree wanting Out, while graduates, academics, and students are all clearly in favor of staying In.
3. English v. Celts: England (53 million people) is essentially in favor of leaving, while Wales (3 million) is split down the middle, and Scotland (5.3 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million) are firmly in favor of staying in. For the Irish, the fear of a hard border being reinstated with the Republic of Ireland to the south is a big concern, as is the consciousness that common membership of the E.U. was a big factor in the peace agreement that ended a 30-year low-level civil war in the 1990s. For the Scots (2:1 in favor of Remain, by most polls), it’s more a case of not wanting to be stuck on an island with the domineering English. There’s a lot of speculation that a vote to Leave would trigger another Scottish independence referendum, but that would be unlikely in the short term, given the massive hit to Scotland’s economy from the collapse in oil prices. The Nationalists’ projections for public spending were rejected as too fanciful even with oil at $110 a barrel.
4. London v. the Rest of England: London (8.2 million people), Oxford, Cambridge and a couple of other urban outposts are aligned against the leafy shires. Londoners have few problems with cosmopolitanism, especially when their jobs depend on selling financial services to the rest of the E.U.’s single market. The two old university towns, which are both booming thanks to the life sciences and other knowledge-intensive industries, are also bulwarks of Remain. The same goes for Bristol, a city directly west of London where one of the biggest employers makes the wings for Airbus, and Brighton, a hub for the English language-schools beloved of continental parents that’s due south of London. In the map below, blue areas are more likely to vote Leave, the red territories favor Remain.
Things look very different in the East of England, where resentment runs high against a large casual workforce of low-paid immigrant labor that toils on the farms and in the food packing factories, and along the coast, where the long decline of fishing communities—routinely blamed on the E.U.—looms large in local political culture.
5. Footloose v. Stay-at-Homes: You’re more likely to vote Remain if you have the personal freedom to take advantage of the E.U.’s rules of free movement. Those who had taken a foreign vacation in the last three years were split 55%-45% in favor of staying. Those who hadn’t (who may overlap largely with the poorer sections of society, obviously) were in favor of Leave by the same margin. Singles were nearly 2:1 in favor of Remain, whereas those who were married or in civil partnerships were 48%-52% in favor of Leave. Those free of children were split 55%-45% to Remain. The 2 million British expats currently living elsewhere in the E.U. are, for obvious reasons, overwhelmingly in favor of Remain. Not all of them will be eligible to vote, however, depending on how long they have been out of the U.K.
One area where there is no clear dividing line is gender. According to Populus, male voters were 53%-47% in favor of Leave, while females wanted to Remain by the same margin. BMG reported roughly the opposite (albeit with a much higher proportion of undecideds among female voters—20% of the total).