The missing link: religion and British politics

This is the most dramatic and important democratic decision ever taken by the British people.

Andrew Man; 26 June 2016

If not for the date, readers could be forgiven for dismissing Andrew Man 's introduction to his Sunday programme as a regular, hyperbolic feature of any election campaign. Three days after the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), however, it would have been difficult to find another way of describing the country’s decision, as was evident in the political fallout: the Prime Minister had resigned, the Leader of the Opposition was facing a vote of no confidence, Scottish separatists were demanding another Independence Referendum, EU leaders were demanding to start Brexit negotiations and there were the first signs of a sustained increase in hate crimes targeted at migrants and minorities. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU - or ‘Brexit’ - would dominate British politics for the next four years and herald one of the most tumultuous periods of the country's modem history, a period best described by Geoff Evans and Anand Menon as ‘one of those rare moments when an advanced liberal democracy might be witnessing a profound and far-reaching political recalibration . . . [whose] impact will be felt in all parts of our country, our economy and our society’ (2017: xviii).

So sudden and intense were the conflicts surrounding Brexit that one could be forgiven for thinking the 2016 referendum was their sole cause. As great a shock as Brexit was, however, it was not a bolt out of the blue but the culmination of long-running changes in voters’ political values and priorities, as well as then relationships with social and political institutions (particularly political parties), that have been apparent throughout Europe for decades. Among them is the growing importance of voters’ attitudes towards Europe and the EU as determinants of then- priorities and voting behaviour as European integration has become more extensive and the consequences of EU membership - particularly migration - increasingly apparent in domestic politics (Leruth et al. 2018; Hobolt 2018; de Vreese et al. 2019; Evans and Menon 2017; Fieldhouse et al. 2020). While in the 1970s the consequences of EU membership were primarily felt in tenus of international trade and some elements of economic policy, nowadays the EU’s influence is felt in a host of domestic policy domains - from agriculture and fishing to transport, migration and climate change - as well as the local economies and communities of European citizens. As Leruth et al. (2018: 3) point out, ‘[n]ever in the history of European integration has there been a more salient moment to study . . . Euroscepticism’, because how voters feel about European integration and institutions is now one of the most important traits to understanding and explaining European public opinion.

At the same time, the relationships that (particularly younger) Europeans develop with political and social institutions have been changing (Norris and Inglehart 2019; Fieldhouse et al. 2020; Dalton 2013). Voters are less likely to form attachments to many of the institutions that have shaped European political and social life throughout the post-war era. This includes not only political parties, but also social class, local communities and religion. British voters, for instance, are not only less likely to develop strong attachments to the Labour or Conservative Party than in previous decades, but less likely to identify as ‘working-class’, ‘middle-class’ or ‘Christian’ -social identities that for many underpinned their attachment to the political party with a historic role of representing that social group. There are numerous consequences of this breakdown in bonds between citizens and institutions. As well as contributing to women becoming more economically left-wing and socially liberal, and to young people being less likely to vote, it has made voters more discerning in deciding who to support in elections and more prepared to switch then- support between candidates in different elections (Fieldhouse et al. 2020; Shonocks 2018; Dalton 2013; Wattenberg 2012; Fox et al. forthcoming). Rather than voting for a party out of habit or because it represents then- social group, voters are more likely to pick the party that best represents their values and interests, and to switch to another party or candidate if they are more appealing. Parties, as a result, have to work much harder to attract and retain voters’ loyalty, and elections have become more unpredictable.

Brexit and the years of tumult that followed were the political consequences of how these changes manifested in the British electorate and the context of British politics. From the late 1990s, both Labour and the Conservatives focused their electoral strategies on middle class, socially liberal voters who were becoming more numerous in light of the massification

The missing link 3 of higher education, technological development and the decline of heavy industry (Ford and Goodwin 2014, 2017; Sobolewska and Ford 2020; Evans and Menon 2017). These were the voters who were least likely to identify with traditional social institutions such as class; they were also more likely to benefit from the opportunities afforded by EU membership and less opposed to the social consequences of mass migration, as well as less attached to institutions (such as churches) that could be changed or weakened by European integration. Older, working-class voters were less likely to benefit from EU membership and might even have suffered economically because of competition from EU migrants for a dwindling number of secure, well-paid low-skilled jobs. They were also more likely to be concerned about the impact of migration on the ethnic and cultural composition of then communities and then national identity, and the impact of integration on traditional markers of British culture (such as Parliament). These social conservatives were at best ignored and at worst derided by the major political parties who could nonetheless take then support for granted in elections, as long as there was no other alternative to vote for (Evans and Menon 2017; Ford and Goodwin 2017; Sobolewska and Ford 2020). Insurgent parties that put hostility to Europe, a staunch defence of traditional social values and British or English national identity, and hostility to immigration at the heart of then campaigns [such as the British National Party (BNP) and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)] increasingly appealed to these voters throughout the 2000s, however, heaping pressure on the major parties to adopt more Eurosceptic stances and ultimately pushing David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 election.

The gulf between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ in that referendum, therefore, reflected far more than differences of opinion about the benefits of EU membership: it reflected beliefs about the nature of British (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) national identity; tolerance for people, values and practices from other cultures; beliefs about the benefits of social change and globalisation; views of how the UK should interact with other countries and its obligations to citizens beyond its borders; attachment to traditional social and political institutions; and beliefs about whether freedom of expression tramps one’s obligations to law, order and authority. While the 2016 referendum and Brexit propelled the question of EU membership and values relating to national identity, social liberalism and conservatism, tolerance for those from other cultures and our views of globalisation to the top of the political agenda, they did not create the deep divides upon which the subsequent chaos in British politics was based. Rather, they provided the impetus for those divides to be expressed forcefully and for those on either side of them to unite around a political cause. For the same reason, anyresolution to Brexit will not heal those divides: questions about national identity, migration, social, economic and political change, and freedom of expression versus respect for tradition and authority will continue to arise in relation to a whole host of political issues Britain and Europe will face in the future, not least how to respond to the challenge of Covid-19 and whatever relationship the UK and EU eventually forge (Sobolewska and Ford 2020). In other words, the days of Euroscepticism, Brexit and all the values, identities and beliefs associated with them being pivotal to understanding British politics are far from over.

It is to this understanding, as well as that of how and why Brexit happened and had such a dramatic effect on British politics, that our book contributes, by examining the relationship between religion and Euroscepticism hi Britain. Religion is a rare feature of research on British voters, primarily because it is thought to be largely irrelevant hi an increasingly secular society with religion playing limited role in public and political debate (beyond discussions of extremism, terrorism or racism) and the influence of other characteristics (age, social class and education) behig more easily identifiable in social surveys. While a growing literature has questioned this omission hi recent years (Tilley 2015; McAndrew 2017a, 2017b, 2020; Kolpinskaya and Fox 2019; Clements 2015), religion remains all but absent in the wealth of research on the values, identities and attitudes that underpin British Euroscepticism in the context of not only Brexit but electoral behaviour as well. This book helps fill some of this gap and sheds much-needed light on the role religion has played and will continue to play in British politics because of its relationship with Euroscepticism. Ushig a wealth of survey data - including panel and cross-sectional data from the British Election Study (BES) and United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Surveys (UKHLS) spanning the 40 years between the two referendums that coincided (roughly) with the duration of the UK’s EU membership - we provide the most detailed study of how religion is related to British Euroscepticism ever attempted. We consider how not only religious identity but religious belief, behaviour and socialisation have been related to Eiuoscepticism since 1975, and how they affected voters’ decisions in the 2016 referendum. We also examine the complex question of why religion affects Eiuoscepticism, that is, what it is about identifying with a religious community, engaging hi religious behaviour or holding religious beliefs that make people more or less likely to be Eurosceptic? Finally, we look at how religion has affected voting behaviour in Britain since the 1970s, considering how the political loyalties of the largest religious conununities have changed over time and how those religiously based loyalties have been affected by, or interacted with, the rise of new political loyalties reflecting support for or opposition to Brexit. Our research contributes not only to explanations of how and why voters made the decisions they did in the 2016

EU referendum and subsequent general elections, and to understandings of the influence of religion in contemporary British politics, but also to the wider study of Euroscepticism as an attitude that increasingly shapes public opinion and electoral events in Europe. We draw heavily on the conclusions of how religion and Eiuoscepticism are related in existing academic literature, but our focus on a single national context and such an extensive time period provides us with insights that allow us to move beyond, contribute to and in some cases challenge those conclusions as well.

Our book is organised around three key questions that motivated this research:

What was the contribution of religion to the rise of Euroscepticism in Britain and the Brexit vote?

  • 2 How does religion affect Eiuoscepticism?
  • 3 How has the relationship between religion and voter behaviour changed in Britain and has this affected or been affected by Brexit?

We summarise our findings and the answers to these questions later, with the more detailed research and discussion provided over the following five chapters. The broader implications of our research for the study of British politics on the one hand, and the future study of religion and Eiuoscepticism on the other, are discussed in the final chapter. Collectively, our book shows that while religion was certainly not the only or most influential characteristic to explain Brexit or the tumultuous years that followed, it did play an important and under-appreciated role in explaining why a sizeable chunk of British voters were more likely to vote ‘Leave’ in 2016 than we may otheiwise expect. It also contributed to the rising salience of Euroscepticism as a political issue that helped put pressure on David Cameron to hold a referendum on EU membership in the first place, and the stunning victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the 2019 general election that all but confirmed that the UK would in fact leave the EU. The importance of religion to explaming and understanding Eiuoscepticism, therefore, means that it is vital to efforts to explain and understanding public opinion and voter behaviour in Europe and Britain for the foreseeable future.

 
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