Mark Blyth writes
“Strip away all the electoral politics at the moment in the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Spain and elsewhere, and that's the underlying political economy. It's a creditor/debtor stand-off where the creditors have the whip hand. And yet, the more they crack the whip, the more the backlash against austerity, in all its forms, gains strength.”
Or in other words, it is all about austerity. That is a big claim, particularly when applied to the current US elections, but I want to examine it in the specific case of the EU referendum. In short, did austerity cause Brexit? Given how opposition to austerity has been such an important part of this blog, in some ways it is an attractive line for me to take, but I do try and base what I say on evidence rather than on what is convenient.
In the past I’ve argued that there is a massive problem with this idea, and the related idea that Brexit was a more general protest vote against elites. The obvious time to protest against austerity was the 2015 General Election. Yet rather than protest against the party that introduced austerity and promised much more of it, the British people gave the Conservatives a surprise victory.
It is nevertheless possible to argue that austerity caused Brexit in more subtle ways. I’ve also argued in the past that some of the concern over immigration is actually the result over concern about reduced public services and low wages, and a belief that the issues are linked. To the extent that reduced access to public services and to some extent low wages is actually the result of austerity, and if much of the public believe that austerity is nevertheless necessary, then what should be a protest over austerity could get displaced as a protest about immigration.
If your response to this idea is to say that concern over immigration is also a result of racism and xenophobia, I would agree, but argue that this is beside the point. When talking about the Brexit vote, we should be concerned about what you might call the swing voters, a point that Chris Dillow also makes. Remember that a large number of those voting Leave would not have been prepared to pay anything to reduce immigration: they do not sound like voters whose overriding concern is to see less foreigners on their streets. It is the Brexit voters who thought Brexit would make them better off that we should be concerned about.
So there is a possible mechanism by which austerity could have caused Brexit. That mechanism is part of a more general phenomenon: when things get tough, people become much more receptive to potential unfairness. It is what helps drive a belief that welfare goes to scroungers, a belief that some Conservative ministers seem happy to encourage.
Is there any evidence to support the idea that the mechanism I’ve outlined was important? Here is polling on the EU referendum over a long time period (source).
If there is a general recession effect here (i.e. applying to every UK recession) it is masked by other factors. However after the global financial crisis and austerity we did see a big shift against the EU, although that could also be explained by the Eurozone crisis. The drop in support for leaving before the 2015 election seems to go against the austerity caused Brexit hypothesis, but that was also a time the government and much of the media was claiming that the UK economy was recovering strongly. The true state of the NHS only became apparent to most people after the election, when support for Leaving revived. So I do not think this historical evidence is conclusive either way.
There is some econometric evidence for a link between the extent of public service cutbacks and the proportion of people voting Leave (for a summary, see this VoxEU article). But as the article itself notes, the measure of austerity used could simply be acting as a proxy for more long term deprivation, which is a widely acknowledged influence on Brexit.
In my view more compelling evidence for an impact of austerity on the Leave vote comes from the little polling evidence we have on why people think high levels of EU immigration is a problem. Here is the result of a poll on this that I have reproduced before, which speaks for itself.
As I have argued here, the current squeeze on the NHS is unprecedented. The share of NHS spending in GDP has a natural tendency to rise over time, for reasons that are well understood. Yet not only did few in the media contest the ‘common sense’ idea that austerity was necessary, but also voters hear time and again that NHS spending is being protected. As they see services deteriorate, it is not surprising that they conclude that there is just too much demand. I doubt very much that it is coincidence that the Leave campaign’s bus had the £350 million a week going to the NHS.
So there is evidence that links austerity to the Brexit vote, particularly if we remember we are not talking about a core vote that would have voted Leave anyway (because of xenophobia, for example), but the swing voters who at other times and circumstances might have voted the other way. But what about arguments that the Leave vote reflected a reaction to deprivation caused by globalisation, or that it was the result of the malign influence of the tabloid press? (I’ve made both arguments in the past.)
There is some complementarity here. As I noted at the beginning, the media is important in transforming concern about austerity from the politicians that impose it into concern about immigration. More importantly, there is no need to find the cause of Brexit. It seems quite possible to believe that the vote would have gone the other way if we had not had austerity, or if we had a tabloid press that was not just a cheerleader for Leave and a broadcast media indifferent to expertise, or if the impact of globalisation had been offset in various ways. With the vote so close, it is legitimate to argue that all three on their own might have been responsible for Brexit, or equivalently that the Brexit result was a consequence of a perfect storm of bad policies and institutions.