Since last year’s EU referendum, the 52% of Britons who voted Leave have faced a concerted attempt by many commentators to belittle their intelligence. Time and time again, it is asserted that they, alone amongst British voters, were misled during the referendum campaign, by “promises” made by the Vote Leave campaign – such as the infamous £350 million a week that could be spent on the NHS.

Perhaps none have so consistently pushed this line as Chuka Umunna, who has described Vote Leave as “the most cynical, opportunistic and dishonest political operation of my lifetime… [A] sickly concoction of invented statistics, warped facts and impossible promises.

The MP for Streatham has even gone so far as to set up his own watchdog, ‘Vote Leave Watch’, designed to monitor the ‘pledges’ made by proponents of Brexit during the referendum. What this overlooks, of course, is the fact that Vote Leave were not in a position to make promises, only recommendations. They are a campaign, not a government. And by positioning Brexit as little more than a con trick played on voters, Umunna’s narrative serves to doubt the intelligence of those who voted Leave – and, by extension, the validity of the referendum result.

It also neglects some of the more outlandish claims made by the Remain campaign, ranging from the extremely dubious Treasury prediction that Brexit would leave each household “£4,300 worse off” by 2030 (brilliantly debunked by the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson here), to predictions of an emergency ‘Brexit budget’ and an immediate recession. Yet there is no ‘Treasury Watch’ or a ‘Britain Stronger in Europe Watch’ to monitor such claims.

Last week, MP Barry Sheerman added to this narrative during a discussion about MP Chris Heaton-Harris’s controversial letter to universities asking for details of Brexit courses.

“The truth is that when you look at who voted Remain, most of them are the better educated people in our country”, he told the BBC on Sunday.

Of Heaton-Harris himself, he said, “This man, who went to Wolverhampton Polytechnic, who does he think he is trying to frighten my university in Huddersfield?” (Huddersfield University was itself a polytechnic until 1992.)

Sheerman took the connection between Brexit and ignorance even further when he tweeted: “Crystal clear Tory party no longer the nasty party Brexit has transformed it into the stupid party.”

You could argue that it doesn’t really matter. A vote is a vote; votes are not weighed by IQ or degree or academic title. But even on its own terms, this statement is a bit dubious. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner pointed out yesterday, the facts do, technically, support Sheerman’s initial statement. It is true that Brexit voters are less likely to have attended university, with graduates voting two to one to remain in the EU. Nearly all of Britain’s university towns voted remain, while, overall, those who left school at 15 or 16 voted around two to one for Brexit.

But these figures fail to account for the all-important fact that Leavers are, on average, much older than Remainers. According to YouGov, 75% of 18 to 24 year-olds voted to remain in the European Union, while 64% of over-65s voted to Leave. The elderly (and, indeed, the middle-aged) were young at a time when a far lower percentage of people attended university.

For decades, the proportion of university graduates as a percentage of the population has been rising – with the biggest escalation happening during the New Labour years. Today, 16 years after Tony Blair first set out Labour’s goal for half of all school leavers to reach university, this aim is within a whisker of becoming reality.

So, yes, the young are more likely to hold educational qualifications than the old, but taking these figures at face value – or using them as a marker of intelligence – is a flawed approach, which fails to control for rates of university attendance and the impact of grade inflation on educational outcomes.

Since the phasing out of O-Levels and the introduction of GCSEs in the 1980s, the proportion of entries being awarded A* to C grades has dramatically increased – from 42.5% in 1988 to almost 70% by 2011. Recent research from Ofqual, the body that regulates qualifications, exams and tests, found that exams had become progressively easier over the last ten years, with exam boards competing for business by making it easier for pupils to obtain higher grades.

Less academic pupils who would, prior to these decisive shifts in government policy and cultural outlook, have been leaving school at sixteen, are now more likely to continue to Sixth Form and university. But this fact is glossed over by some Remainers, who uncritically align intelligence with university attendance/educational attainment (and, by extension, with voting Remain).

Given the sad reality behind their figures – that more than half of UK graduates are currently working in jobs that do not require a degree, while an astonishing three-quarters of UK university leavers will never repay their student loans in full – one could equally argue that Brexiteers were not under-educated, but rather that Remainers were over-educated and miseducated, clustered heavily amongst ‘beneficiaries’ of grade inflation, and the holders of degrees that they now cannot use (or at least not fully).

But this, too, would be a gross simplification. As is becoming increasingly clear, both the Remain and Leave sides consisted of broad, often unexpected, coalitions of people who voted for a range of different motives – not least, for their own self-interest. There is no one type of Remainer or Brexiteer.

In other words, it is a far more complex picture than the smart/stupid divide proposed by Barry Sheerman and his fellow intellectual snobs.


Further reading:

Madeline is the IEA’s Digital Officer, focusing on social media, blog and video output. Prior to joining the Institute, she worked as a Parliamentary researcher and speechwriter, and as a journalist for Newsweek, The Daily Telegraph and other news outlets. Madeline graduated from St Hilda’s College, Oxford in 2014, with a degree in English. As an undergraduate, Madeline was actively involved in university politics, and was elected to Standing Committee of the Oxford Union during her studies.

13 thoughts on “Are Brexit voters really less intelligent than Remainers?”

  1. Posted 01/11/2017 at 15:43 | Permalink

    Nice job, Madeline.

    Indeed, Huddersfield University converted from being a polytechnic in the same year as Wolverhampton Polytechnic became Wolverhampton University.

    I have often worked with people who I had assumed had gone to university, on account of them being obviously intelligent, only to find out later that they hadn’t. It is easy to forget that when I went, less than 10% of the population did. There were plenty of bright people in those days who didn’t go, just because there wasn’t the same expectation. Similarly, many of the polytechnics in those days were of equivalent (or higher than) university standards now.

  2. Posted 02/11/2017 at 13:10 | Permalink

    Even if you were to take being at a university as a proxy for intelligence, the assumption that this intelligence was applied to the problem of understanding the arguments on Brexit is wishful thinking. I annoyed many of my academic colleagues by asking them if they had read the Five Presidents’ Report and suggesting to them that if they hadn’t then they didn’t really know what they were voting for.

  3. Posted 02/11/2017 at 17:07 | Permalink

    I was expecting to get to some numbers in this piece, but there weren’t any, so I went out and found this:

    It suggests that the association of Voting Remain with level of education really isn’t just an artifact of the correlation with age in the way here proposed (subject to the caveats on the ecological fallacy included there by the Stats Guy).

  4. Posted 03/11/2017 at 16:06 | Permalink

    leavers have neen accused by our super duper high IQ brilliant intelligentsia as racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, stupid, populist, uneducated, influenced by the Russians, Flat earthers inward looking, small minded xenophobes. Finally a research carried out by the LSE concluded Leavers didn’t change their knickers every day like Remainers did.
    Uni students have been bullied, and fear rejection because they voted to leave. People like AC Graylng, Brian Cox, Actors, Writers, Citizens of nowhere, Clarke, Clegg, Hestletine, Branson, Blair, Miller, Obams, now the Clintons, and many more including the BBC are all guilty of this abuse of the people who voted to leave the EU. Their intervention is intended to undermine democracy in this country. If these are the so called intelligentsia then we are seriously in a sorry state and so are our Universities. Our children have been brainwashed to believe that being in the EU means being European. They haven’t had it explained to them that the EU is a political construct and therefore not Europe.
    These people lack judgement, wisdom, clarity of mind, and basic intelligence. On the one hand we are accused of being extremely right wing and on the other influenced by Russia.
    They are angry because they were so complacent and didn’t have a clue what was happening outside their tiny little self congratulatory bubble. Is that a sign of perception and intelligence. I put it to them that they must have been blind not to have realised that these stupid people could not be bought by remain lies and intimidation and were intelligent enough to realise just what the EU actually means. The fact that our intelligentsia want to be part of a supranational state with all that that entails just shows how out of touch they are.
    Another thing, if they are so intelligent why do they not correlate vast immigration with pressure on schools, housing and the NHS. Wasn’t that a problem which would have been put in a mathematics lesson in Junior school?
    Their ignorance only means one thing and that is that one way or another leaving the EU will affect them personally. Losing vast pensions, freedom to swan around Europe, or worried about their EU investments.
    It’s about time they shut up and put up and used their so called intellect.
    Being an intellectual doesn’t necessarily mean you are intelligent.
    In addition isn’t this treasonable behaviour.

  5. Posted 03/11/2017 at 17:00 | Permalink

    I would assume many people voted the way they did for personal and perhaps selfish reasons. I imagine one reason for voting to remain might be because you felt you might benefit or have benefitted from free movement of labour. Such people are more likely to have better academic qualifications. Those people who have not benefitted and might indeed have suffered from free movement would be more likely to have fewer qualifications and might vote to leave. In both cases people are voting according to their own circumstances. Nothing to do with intelligence, merely self interest.

  6. Posted 03/11/2017 at 18:34 | Permalink

    Another point that has been missed – stats often appear to prove one thing while in fact are proving another: if university educated people, by and large, earn more and are therefore richer than others, as is often stated, they are more likely to travel, have holiday homes in Europe, go skiing, etc. They therefore would vote in their own self interest and not in the interest of the “common people”. Richer=self interest = Remain. Whereas the “average” Leave voter is aware of what is happening at the front line because it is happening to them, and suffering from it in a way that the richer are protected from by their money.

  7. Posted 03/11/2017 at 19:55 | Permalink

    Fantastic article.
    Well written and exactly right.

  8. Posted 03/11/2017 at 20:48 | Permalink

    You realise your first sentence starts with an inaccuracy right? 52% of those who voted, voted to leave, that doesn’t equate to 52% of the population or indeed 52% of the electorate.
    It’s fine to argue one way or another on the issue at hand; I would find it difficult to believe that 17.4m people were lacking in intelligence or conversely that 16.1m were all above average in intelligence, so for me the intelligence argument holds little weight.
    However starting off with an error does little to aid your article’s credibility.

  9. Posted 03/11/2017 at 21:02 | Permalink

    I see you failed to post my comment but instead simply the corrected the statistic at the beginning which initially read “52% of Britons” without acknowledgement of the mistake or crediting the correction.
    I assume you won’t post this either, that’s fine though I’m always willing to help out the less gifted.

  10. Posted 04/11/2017 at 10:53 | Permalink

    Nmnt we all knew the article was talking about those who voted, they are the ones who count not those who couldn’t be bothered. Surely a litll intelligence should be used when reading articles.

  11. Posted 18/11/2017 at 19:17 | Permalink

    As others have pointed out, the hypothesis that age explains the strong correlation between education and the way people voted in the referendum has been convincingly debunked. However, we could have drawn on other data to come to the same conclusion that, on average, those who voted Remain were more intelligent than those who voted Leave.

    For example, the Online Privacy Foundation found that those who voted Remain outperformed those who voted Leave when it came to logical and abstract reasoning, and in tests of numeracy.

    Furthermore, a study by academics at the University of Edinburgh, led by Professor Ian Deary, found that those who support the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – the two parties whose supporters and whose platforms most strongly supported remaining in the EU – have the highest average IQs. Those who support parties such as UKIP and the BNP had the lowest IQs. Meanwhile, the Conservatives and Labour – whose supporters were split between remaining and leaving – were intermediate.

  12. Posted 11/12/2017 at 19:29 | Permalink

    The higher the education, the more likely to think altruistically ; not selfishly as alluded to by a previous poster.

  13. Posted 20/12/2017 at 23:43 | Permalink

    “Being an intellectual doesn’t necessarily mean you are intelligent”
    Hold on, I think all the dictionaries in my house are wrong!

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