What Are Brexit Voters Like? Many Are Xenophobic, Authoritarian And Think Britain Is Treated Unfairly

Brexit Debate
Anti-Brexit protesters wave EU and Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, November 14, 2017 Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Whether someone holds xenophobic views is strongly linked to whether they voted for Brexit even after controlling for their education level, age or gender, a study says.

Many Brexit voters also believe that the U.K.'s greatness goes under-recognized, and that it deserves special treatment in the international community.

According to the research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, three characteristics linked to prejudice against foreigners were found in many Brexit voters, and the Leave campaigns may have strengthened them.

These characteristics are "collective narcissism" (a belief in Britain's under-recognized national greatness), right-wing authoritarian values, and "social dominance orientation" (a desire to maintain group-based hierarchies in society.)

In two separate studies, one conducted shortly after the referendum and another in September 2016, researchers found and then confirmed that fear of groups from outside society was linked to a vote for Brexit.

They found this even after they cut out the effects caused by issues like economic deprivation or low levels of education, which have also been discussed as factors explaining the shock decision to leave the EU.

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, the study's lead author, told Researchgate that such qualities probably "did exist previously," before the campaign, but that "we cannot exclude the possibility that the Leave campaign strengthened them."

"In fact," she continued, "findings in social psychology suggest it is very likely it did. I believe this campaign, in particular, allowed people to spell out, and reinforced, a collective narcissistic definition of their national identity."

"[The] Leave campaign made some believe that it is OK and patriotic to fight for "purity" of British identity. It provided a language to voice prejudice without feeling that you abuse the norm of political correctness."

Collective Narcissim, de Zavala said, was a distinctive feature of this study, and a new tool to use in predicting political behavior.

"National collective narcissism stood behind the Brexit vote but also behind the Trump vote in the U.S.," she added, "It is linked to support for the nationalist, ultraconservative, Eurosceptic government in Poland and in Hungary. It is linked to support for dictatorial rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia. The concept of collective narcissism was first introduced to describe the sentiments stirred by the Nazis in Germany."

De Zavala called for politicians to do more to express a positive, inclusive vision of British identity, to prevent prejudice from taking root in the population.

"Politicians can discourage such views instead of encouraging them. Political leaders function like managers of national identity," she said, "If we want to reduce xenophobia, we should dissociate acceptance of xenophobia and intolerance from our understanding of what it means to be British."