The British Working Class Prefers a Culture War to a Class War

Provocative post title, but here’s my analysis of the UK election. Many members of working classes in the US and the UK are strongly anti-elite. Some of that is unwarranted, but some arguably is. British and American elites failed in the early 2000s, in both foreign policy and economic policy. And I think that has lead to higher distrust of experts and elites.

But there are two ways to thumb your nose at elites: reduce their economic power or reduce their cultural power.

You can see Corbyn and Johnson as representing those two strategies.

Corbyn effectively conveys that he wants to reduce the greater economic power of British elites with old school Labour democratic socialism.

Johnson effectively conveys that he wants to reduce the greater cultural power of British *and EU* elites, because many British elites are Remainers and there’s widespread dissatisfaction of European elites in many European countries, on both the left and the right.

Brexit is both economic and cultural, but I think Leavers see it as primarily cultural. Leavers are less concerned about the economic costs and more concerned to thumb their nose at European elites for cultural reasons. So politicians that focus on cultural nose-thumbing are probably closer to the median voter than politicians that focus on economic nose-thumbing.

Here’s something more speculative. One thing I’ve learned from studying political trust is that, as democratic countries grow richer and more educated, political trust depends relatively more on non-material considerations. Voters want government to do more than improve their economic welfare, and blame government when it fails to pursue the right values. These voters are sometimes called “post-materialist,” for that reason.

Often post-materialists are associated with more left-wing moral values, like autonomy, social justice, and democratic fairness. But perhaps there are also right-wing post-materialists concerned to preserve nationalist values, and maybe that is why some of the British working class has turned from economic issues to cultural issues. The working class simply has more post-materialists now than in the past.

So it looks like a lot of British working class voters want the culture war Johnson has promised more than the class war Corbyn has promised.

In my view, both wars have more costs than benefits. But we have to figure out how to discipline elites for failed leadership.

I’m happy to revise my view as the dust settles and we start getting the election data. But, hey, takes are fun!

1 Comment

  • Tom Perry Posted January 25, 2020 9:04 am

    Hi Kevin,

    I just went to the U.K. to study Brexit and your analysis is spot on. There is very much an urban-rural divide just like in the US. Almost all of the Londoners were pro-remain and those in rural areas were pro-leave.

    Only the Lib-Dems campaigned as being a remain party. And they wanted to revoke article 50 without another vote…this angered many voters. How can you have the word Democrat in your party name and go against the will of the people/against a Democratic referendum? Corbyn was in a tough spot because traditionally, labor unions (a key cog of the Labour Party) support economic protectionism. But culturally, many members of Labour are pro-EU because they are pro-immigration.

    Johnson did a better job consolidating the different factions of the Conservative Party. He talked a lot about independence and evoked many memories of the British Empire. There are definitely similarities between Johnson and Trump when it comes to nationalism, although I believe Johnson is much smarter. Johnson based his campaign on taking money away from Brussels and putting it into the beloved NHS. Almost everyone in the U.K. loves the NHS and wants more money to be put towards it. This was a major sticking point with the electorate.

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