Are Brexit voters really less intelligent than Remainers?
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.
- ‘The Great Tuition Fees Escape’, by Peter Ainsworth for the IEA blog
- Universities are failing to help students into work. Let’s tie their fortunes to their graduates’ success, by Len Shackleton for the Telegraph